September 27, 2009
Commentary by Russell Pregeant
See also: [Year B Archive]
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
The passage in Mark follows immediately after last week’s gospel reading and continues the theme of arrogance versus humility, although in a distinctive way. In 9:33-37, the twelve were quarreling over who is the greatest, thus illustrating their inability to appropriate Jesus’ message that those who follow a suffering Messiah must be willing to take up their own crosses and live lives characterized by humility rather than self-seeking. Now, in vv. 38-41, John asks what they should do about an exorcist who uses Jesus’ name but is not among their number. They had tried to stop him, but could not; but Jesus lays down the principle that “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This response is interesting, particularly in light of a related saying, found in Matthew and Luke, that at first glance seems to say the opposite: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matt 12:30; Luke 23) The crucial difference, however, is that in these latter sayings, the issue is allegiance to Jesus himself, while in Mark the disciples complain that the exorcist “was not following us.” But at this point the issue becomes very complicated. The disciples’ use of the term “us” undoubtedly reflects a time later than that of Jesus himself, in which the community is wrestling with a problem. What is unclear, however, is whether the issue has to do with persons who are in no way identified with the community of Jesus’ followers or simply with a circle of followers that is in some way different from the community for which Mark wrote.
Pagan exorcists in this period sometimes used both Jewish and Christian names in their work, and in Acts 19:17-20 we have the story of Jewish exorcists who try, unsuccessfully to cast out a demon in Jesus’ name. And since the story ends with a note about persons converted to the Christian way burning their books of magic, we can see that here the use of Jesus’ name by non-followers is associated with magic and roundly rejected. The story in Mark, however, seems unconcerned about this issue, even though the saying in v. 39 seems to suggest that the “strange exorcist” is not in fact a follower but simply someone using Jesus’ name: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will soon be able to speak ill of me.” On the other hand, it may be that the person in question claims to be a disciple but is not formally connected with a Christian community. If this is so, the passage may mean that “the proof of the validity of a ‘claimed’ discipleship was successful exorcism.” In any case, the theme of arrogance emerges in the disciples’ attempt to exercise control over who can and cannot use Jesus’ name. And, as Pheme Perkins notes, this is quite ironic, since the disciples are trying to prevent someone else from doing what they themselves failed to do in an earlier story (9:18). And we may also speak of the disciples’ action as an attempted abuse of power in the service of some type of exclusivism. Whether the issue is persons outside the Christian fold itself or simply outside a specific group of Christians, Jesus draws the circle of inclusion wider than do the disciples.
Verse 41 may seem to introduce another topic entirely, but attached to vv. 38-40 it is to be understood as an elaboration of the point regarding exclusivism. We must envision a missionary context, in which the disciples (or emissaries of the Markan community in later times) are on the road preaching the gospel. The force of the saying is that whoever welcomes them in Christ’s name is entitled to divine reward, whether or not the missionary group deems them legitimate.
Verse 42 does involve a shift of focus, but it picks up on the image of children in 9:37, the conclusion of last week’s reading, and the notion of bearing the name of Christ from v. 41. In the present context, however, the term “children”—now qualified by the term “who believe in me”—seems to function as a metaphorical reference to followers of Jesus generally. The force of the series of warnings in vv. 42-48 is to emphasize the value of all community members and to make clear that one’s eschatological fate is at stake in one’s dealings with them. And vv. 48-50, admittedly quite obscure, help to emphasize the theme of self-purgation that is intended by the metaphors of lopping off feet and eyes for the sake of the kingdom. As Morna Hooker comments,
It seems that the paradox of being ‘saved through fire’ (1 Cor. 5.15) is the key to Mark’s use of the saying here. Like fire, salt is an agent of purification (Ezek. 16.4; 45.24); it can also bring desolation and destruction (Judg. 9.45; Zeph. 2.9). But unlike fire, salt is a source of life (2 Kgs. 2.19-22); it can also be used to preserve food from putrefaction. However mixed the metaphor may be, therefore, the idea that [human beings] can be salted with fire sums up exactly the message of vv. 43, 45 and 47; the purificatory process may destroy, but it can also preserve. The paradox of these sayings is thus in line with what we found in 8.54-8, offering the same promise of life to those who are prepared to suffer loss.
Whether Mark 9:38-42 envisions acceptance of persons beyond the bound of the Christian faith or merely of those within other Christian groups, it is a strong testimony against religious exclusivism. And in this respect it parallels emphases of process theology, which has a strong emphasis upon universal revelation and “prethematized experience” that is more basic than specific doctrinal beliefs. That is, process theology envisions God as universally at work in the world, in all times and places, not just in the Judaeo-Christian sacred history. And although it by no means understands doctrine as unimportant, it emphasizes a point that is evident from a close reading of the Bible:
It is now widely agreed that “saving faith,” the kind of faith that alone can bring wholeness, is primarily a matter of the basic emotions, attitudes, and commitments from which one’s behavior follows. That is, faith is fundamentally a mode of existence. Beliefs are important only to the extent that they support this mode of existence.
A sermon from a process perspective could therefore use this passage as testimony to openness and cooperation among Christian denominations and between Christians and persons of other faiths. Such a sermon could emphasize that what is most important in our lives is our fundamental disposition toward one another, the natural world, and the universe itself—not the secondary level of explicit doctrines, intellectualizations that help us express that fundamental disposition. Since process thought also honors the role of reason and conceptual thought, this does not mean that we can get along on feelings alone or that any set of beliefs will do; but it “does relativize the importance of conscious beliefs.”
The book of Esther is often de-valued because of its nationalistic bent and violent element. It is a novella, or fictional short story, set in Persia during the reign of Xerxes I (485-465 B.C.E.), who appears in the text as Ahasuerus. The heroine of the story is Esther, a Jewish woman who has recently married the king and been crowned queen. Having been threatened with annihilation, the Jews of Persia—after being rescued by Esther’s courageous intervention—turn the tables and slaughter more than seventy-five thousand of those who hated them (9:1-17). And this event becomes the occasion for instituting the feast of Purim (9:18-23). From one perspective, the story is a celebration of a victory over oppression, and Psalm 124—a thanksgiving for Israel’s deliverance— provides a fitting complement to it. Certainly, the long history of the persecution of Jews—often by Christians—makes it understandable that Esther is often highly valued within the Jewish community as a testimony that “never again” will they allow something like a Holocaust to be visited upon them. For that reason, it is important that Christians not simply dismiss this work out of hand. But its problematic character is nonetheless evident. And any preacher who wants to make use of this story needs to consider very carefully the twin dangers of demeaning Jewish sensitivities on the one hand and endorsing violence and nationalism on the other.
The selection from Esther 7 relates the ironical climax of a story in which the antagonist Haman suffers the same fate that he had planned for Esther’s cousin Mordecai. Because of a perceived slight by Mordecai, Haman plotted to have him hanged and the entire population of Jews in Persia killed (3:1-11; 5:9-14). When the Jews learn of Haman’s intended genocide, they ask Esther to intervene, but she at first refuses on the grounds that no one (under penalty of death) could approach the king without being summoned. She is eventually convinced, however, by the memorable message Mordecai sends to her through emissaries: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews in another quarter, but you and you father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
(4:13b-14) In chapter 7, when Esther reveals the plot to Ahasuerus at a banquet (vv. 2-6), he is upset and leaves the room, whereupon Haman falls upon Esther’s couch to beg mercy and the king returns and thinks Haman is assaulting her (vv. 7-9, omitted from the lectionary reading). The chapter concludes with Haman’s ironical fate, and the rest of the story relates the rescue of the Jews, the slaughter of their enemies, and the institution of Purim
The reading from Esther is difficult to relate to the gospel lesson, but it might be possible to wrestle with the book’s problematic aspects in the context of a sermon focused on issues related to religious exclusivism and ethnic conflicts. The story is a dramatic reminder of the reality of religious/ethnic persecution and a celebration of heroic action. But the image of slaughtering one’s enemies and then celebrating stands in marked contrast to the images of discipleship that have been so important in the central section of Mark. And Mark 9:38-41 provides an important caution against defining anyone as an enemy. On the other hand, the book of Esther has been an important tool in the building of community solidarity among Jewish people, and Esther’s heroic action models one way of putting others before oneself—the very theme that Mark has stressed in the readings for the past three Sundays. The passage from James, however, stresses other means of fostering community solidarity: songs of praise, prayer and anointing, confession, and attempts to bring back those who wander from the faith. And such practices within the gathered household of faith—although sometimes associated with a quietistic attitude that encourages withdrawal from the world outside—can provide a solid foundation for the more Esther-like ways in which the community seeks to right the wrongs in a broken world.