Engaging the Word: Readings for 9/27/15 (18th Sunday after Pentecost)

By Barbara Klugh 

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50. Go to www.lectionarypage.net to read or print the weekly lectionary text. In this week’s readings, Queen Esther saves her people, James tells us the importance of Christian community, and Jesus tells us to refrain from placing obstacles in the way or other Christians or in ourselves.

Ester before Ahasuerus by Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610-1670). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Ester before Ahasuerus by Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610-1670). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10: This is the only lesson from the Book of Esther in our Sunday lectionary, and we read it once every three years. There is, of course, no reason one can’t sit down and read the entire book in one sitting. It’s a marvelously improbable story with ironic plot twists, turns, and reversals, and is only 168 verses long.

The story takes place in Persia. Esther was a young Hebrew woman raised by her cousin Mordecai, a court dignitary. After King Ahasuerus ( Xerxes I) deposed his wife Vashti for being uppity, he sought the  most beautiful virgin to take her place. He fell in love with Esther and crowned her queen of the Persian Empire without knowing anything about her. The wicked prime minister, Haman, hated Mordecai and convinced the king to authorize  an edict to exterminate “a certain people.”

When Mordecai  heard about the edict, he urged Queen Esther to intercede her people, even though it was a great risk to enter the king’s presence uninvited.  He said, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to a royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Esther responded, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” When she met with the king, she asked the king and Haman to come to a banquet. Our reading picks up the story.

The king and Haman went to the feast, and Esther made her request that the king spare her life and the life of her people because they were to be annihilated. When the king asked who was responsible, Esther said, “ A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Haman was hung on the very gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai. Because the edict couldn’t be revoked, the king authorized a second edict permitting the Jews to take up arms and fight back. When the day of fighting arrived, the Jews destroyed their enemies—over 75,000 casualties (maybe a tad exaggerated).

To commemorate the Jews’ deliverance, a new edict established that the 14th and 15th days of the month of Adar would be an annual holiday. This has become the festival of Purim, which the Jews continue to celebrate by exchanging gifts, giving to the poor, and reading the book of Esther aloud.

Psalm 124: This week’s psalm fits well with our reading from Esther. In a Song of Ascents, the community thanks God for deliverance from enemies. “If the Lord had not been on our side,” Israel’s enemies would have swallowed them up alive, overwhelmed them by the raging waters. They know “Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Here is Psalm 124 in Anglican chant by the choir of Norwich Cathedral.

Praying for the sick by James Taylor c. 1700s. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Praying for the sick by James Taylor c. 1700s. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

James 5:13-20: This week’s reading concludes the book of James. We’ve had some stern teachings from James in the last few weeks, but here James focuses on congregational life and the importance of ministering to one another. He asks, Are you suffering? Pray. Are you cheerful? Sing songs of praise. The elders of the church should pray over sick people and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.

James understood that physical health alone is not enough; the forgiveness of sins is necessary for the total well-being and wholeness of the person. Members of the community should confess their sins and pray for the healing of one another. If anyone doubts the power of prayer, James reminds us of Elijah, who prayed for a drought and it didn’t rain for over three years. Then he prayed for rain and the drought ended, and Elijah was a human being just like us.

James also understands that it’s not easy to remain steadfast in faith in the midst of hardships and temptations. Some may stray from God’s ways, but those who bring them back into the community will cover a “multitude of sins” and will save the sinner’s soul. In the Christian community there is always hope of salvation.

Christ with Children by Carl Bloch (1834-1890). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Christ with Children by Carl Bloch (1834-1890). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mark 9:38-50: In last week’s reading the disciples argued over who was the greatest, and Jesus told them “the first must be last of all and servant of all.” This week Jesus rebukes the disciples for trying to stop an exorcist who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he wasn’t one of their circle, saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This is kind of funny because just recently (but skipped in the lectionary) the disciples failed when they tried to cast out an unclean spirit in a boy in Jesus’ name. They didn’t get it that Jesus didn’t consider anyone who works in his name to be a rival.

Putting a stumbling block in the way of young believers, causing them to sin will bring destruction on oneself. And if something in our lives causes us to stumble—maybe an addiction—Jesus urges us to get rid of it, even if it takes a lot of work. We need to rid ourselves of anything that prevents us from devotion to God and God’s kingdom.

Jesus says, “for everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Chris Haslam’s online commentary has a good explanation of the three meanings of salt in this passage:

  • In verse 49,  it means purified, as ore is purified to metal in a furnace; before Christ comes again, we will be purified through persecution and suffering;
  • In v. 50a, “salt” is a seasoning agent; the disciples are the salt of the earth, the agents of spirituality; if we lose our effectiveness in proclaiming God’s word, what use are we?
  • In v. 50b, “salt” is distinctive character: this matters, but so does harmony in the community.

So let us be followers of the Prince of Peace. Today (September 21) is the UN’s International Day of Peace, so we can pray for–and embody–peace with special intensity.

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