The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, 30 September 2018

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124


Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
St. Mark 9:38-50

Background: Foods in Egypt and Israel

The complaint of the Israelites during the wanderings in the Sinai (see Track Two First Reading) gives us a glimpse of what the cuisine of the Egyptians, or at least their slaves and servants was like: cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. It sounds like the makings of a wonderful gazpacho (see a recipe here). Bread and beer were probably available due to their high nutritional value and the ease of preparation. For the wealthy or better off there were roast oxen, ducks, geese (both force fed), pigeons, and fish. These were accompanied by vegetables (lettuce, lily, celery, gourds, and tubers, including papyrus! Peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas were important providers of proteins. Of course,there were olives and dates as well. Most of what was present in the Egyptian cuisine, with the exception of the river plants was available to the Israelites as well. Like the Egyptians, Israelites made use of emmer wheat, carob, barley, and legumes. Wine and olive oil were important products for consumption at home and for trade. Given their location in the highlands, animal products primarily for sheep and goats was an important provision as well. 

Track One:

First Reading: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

The king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So,they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.

We must wonder why this book was included in the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is quite simply a fantasy, a tale that borrows a bit from the Joseph story, and that is not in any sense religious. There is no mention of God, the Covenant, nor of Israel itself. It pictures a diaspora quite comfortably situated in the Persian Empire. Probably written in the fifth century BCE, it does not know of Cyrus’ decree and the liberation from Persia and the return of some to Israel. It is, perhaps a story that lifts up a people in the face of their enemies (the Amalekites), and provides for a Jewish hero – a woman, who saves her people. The story may have become popular and had staying period during the horrific period of the Seleucid kings. 

Breaking open the Esther:
1.    What courageous women have you known in your life?
2.    What was their courage?
3.    What courageous women have you known in history?

Psalm 124 Nisi quia Dominus

1      If the Lord had not been on our side, *
let Israel now say;
2      If the Lord had not been on our side, *
when enemies rose up against us;
3      Then would they have swallowed us up alive *
in their fierce anger toward us;
4      Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *
and the torrent gone over us;
5      Then would the raging waters *
have gone right over us.
6      Blessed be the Lord! *
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
7      We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; *
the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
8      Our help is in the Name of the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

The psalm is an appropriate commentary or reflection on the situation in the Esther story. The second half of verse 1 seems to indicate that this was a liturgical text sung between two different parties in the assembly. It is a psalm of thanksgiving andhas applications at various points in Israel’s history. In the Hebrew we hear a great deal of repetition and rhythm = which made the psalm available for chanting and singing. The enemies referred to in the second verse could have been anyone, but most likely referred to the Babylonians in their assault on Judea. In verses four and five we find agreat deal of word play (waters/torrent, raging/gone right over) and repetition. The use of water as a symbol for both death and threat is common is Israelite literature and in the psalms. Another metaphor for death (wild beasts) is hinted at in verse three (swallowed us up alive) and then given further definition in verse 6b (to be a prey for their teeth). The notion is completed in verse seven which uses the snare of the fowler as an example of death. The final verse may be a borrowing for Psalm 121:2.

Breaking open Psalm 124:
1.       What in life seems to threaten you like raging water?
2.       What kind of courage do you need to summon to face this?
3.       How might God save you?


Track Two:

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So,Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”

So,the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting andhave them take their place there with you.

So,Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people andplaced them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him andtook some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

If we perceive of Israel’s movement from the slavery of Egypt to the milk and honey of Palestine, then this pericope sets us straight. The text calls them “rabble” or “riffraff” (‘asafsuf). There is discontent with the present situation of hardships on the journey and a distinct nostalgia for what was available to them in Egypt. There is a forgetfulness of the real situation. They remember the melons, etc. as “free”, and yet the real cost was their own slavery and toil. 

The editing of the pericope leaves out a rather impatient God in verses one and two, “and YHWH’s fire burned against them and consumed along the edge of the camp.” Even God’s gift of manna is disdained and discounted. Moses is caught in the middle between their complaints and God’s wrath. It is time for an augmented leadership that can aid Moses in his providing for the people. The number seventy is rich with meaning, both perfect and complete, and multiplied by some degree. To these several elders God shares out the spirit that he had put upon Moses. They prophesy – that is they become ecstatic with dance, language, movement, and descriptions of what will be. This, however, is not an on-going ability but rather a one-time event. 

It is the last of the story that is the most poignant, however. The story of Medad and Eldad, who receive the spirit, but did not go out to the tent, use their gift indiscriminately. Moses is not alarmed at this challenge to his own leadership, but opines that all should have a measure of this spirit. This, I think, is the preach ablemoment in this pericope.

Breaking open Numbers:
1.       What is disappointing in your faith life?
2.       Who seems to be practicing Christianity better than you?
3.       What might you copy or emulate?

Psalm 19:7-14 Caeli enarrant

7      The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
8      The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
9      The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10    More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
11    By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12    Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13    Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
14    Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

The selection of these verses from Psalm 19 may in fact be a separate psalm that was joined to the other verses. The first verses celebrate God’s work in creation, and with these verses we meditate on God’s wisdom and teaching. The poet makes clear that God’s teaching is the very essence of life itself, “it revives the soul.” Nor are they the purview of those who are rich with other wisdom for“(they) give wisdom to the innocent.” The beauty of this psalm, which endeavors to impart to us the beauty of God’s law is in its images of gold and of honey. The phrases are repeated to give emphasis in their doubling, “gold…much fine gold,” “sweeter…honey/honey…comb.” Yet even those schooled in the wisdom of God, and knowing God’s will, might yet transgress and sin. So,there is a plea for understanding on God’s part. “Let the words of my mouth” quoted in so many student sermons, is a much more private act. Alter[1]uses “utterances” but notes that what is really intended in the Hebrew is the word “murmurs,” such as one would hear as a reader mouthed the text orhears at the Western Wall as the psalms are being read. It is a much more devotional sense.

Breaking open Psalm 19:
1.       What is your golden rule?
2.       What is the sweetest thing in the Bible?
3.       How do you live up to those two things?

Second Reading: James 5:13-20

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore,confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

My commentator suggests “The Future of the Wise Community”[2]as a conclusion to the book. We, in the past weeks, have had readings on each of the treatments on wisdom, “Wisdom and Quick Listening”, “Wisdom and Slow Speaking,” and “Wisdom and Slowing Anger”. Now the author wants us to move on from them into life itself. He begins by noting various conditions of life, suffering, cheer, and illness. It is the last of these that offers the injunction to anoint the sick – a practice that has been restored in our churches, and that has great meaning to people. It is a “wisdom” to be aware of those who are ill and to anoint them with prayer and the laying on of hands. What follow is his assertion that prayer is, especially that of the righteous, is powerful and efficacious. 

The ancient practice of the Reception of Sinners on Maundy Thursday is anticipated in James’ final request that we bring back those who have wandered astray. If you are interested in the Sarum practice on Maundy Thursday, please click hereAlso you may be interested in seeing a video of the rite.

Breaking open James:
1.       In what ways are you suffering?
2.       What gives you joy?
3.       What illness besieges you?

The Gospel: St. Mark 9:38-50

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“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 andbe at peace with one another.”

“When he entered the house, his disciples asked him in private, “Why could we not drive it out?[3]

The disciples question earlier in the chapter wonders about authority and the ability to heal, and their confusion is continued later on in the pericope that we have this morning. Their bewilderment mirrors that of the people in the First Reading who question Moses about the people continuing to prophecy in the camp. Moses says, “do not be jealous for my sake.” Jesus moves beyond that to see the completeness of those who follow him, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”The disciples are called to be enablers of those who wish to follow and those who believe. Jesus gives a negative example of those who strive to follow but who make belief impossible. The question is, where do we find the saltiness in people? And if we find it can we taste it and appreciate their appointment. It’s really quite simple, and a lesson that should be learned by Christians of all kinds. “Be at peace with one another.”

Breaking open the Gospel: 
1.       How do you attempt to be last?
2.       In what ways are you like a child?
3.       How do you lift up others?

Starting Point:                      Who is it that speaks in God’s name?

Possibility 1:                         The woman who in courage speaks out (Esther)

Possibility 2:                         Those who are called by God and not recognized by others (Eldad and Medad)

Possibility 3:                         Those who out of need or joy speak in prayer (James)

Possibility 4:                         The salty (Mark)

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]        Alter, R. (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 2039.
[2]        Wall, R. (2010), “James” – The New Interpretor’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, Kindle Edition, location 34597.
[3]        St. Mark 9:28


Popular posts from this blog

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 6 June 2021

The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 23 May 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2020