Lectionary Commentary

Journeying through the Revised Common Lectionary

Readings, Commentary, and Discussion Questions for September 30, 2018

Proper 21

THE READINGS

First Reading: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 Alternate: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
1 So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2 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.”
3 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. 4 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.”
5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?”
6 Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”
Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.  . . .
9 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.”
10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
9:1 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 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, 22 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.

Worth Noting: Jews celebrate their deliverance from Haman’s plot through the good offices of Queen Esther each year at Purim. What women are the saviors of your community, literally or metaphorically?

Psalm 124 Alternate: Psalm 19:7-14
1 If it had not been the LORD who was on our side –
let Israel now say –
2 if it had not been the LORD who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
3 then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
4 then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
5 then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

6 Blessed be the LORD,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

Worth Noting: The Psalm may have been written to celebrate the deliverance from the Assyrian siege under Sennacherib (c. 700 b.c.e.) who had boasted that he had Israel shut up in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage” (see verse 7). Whether prompted by that, another crisis, or memory of the Exodus, the psalmist commemorates the Israelite belief in the power of its covenantal relationship with God. What songs does your community sing to remember God’s action in their lives? As happened in the American Civil War, do all sides in a war always claim “God is on our side”?

Second Reading: James 5:13-20
13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 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. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
16 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. 17 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. 19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 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.

Worth Noting: James 5:14-15 documents the early Church practice of praying for God’s healing while anointing with oil. The practice looks back to the actions of the disciples at Mark 6:13, “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” Does your community continue the tradition of communal praying with and anointing of the sick? How have the sick responded?

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
39 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. 40
40 “Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 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.
42 “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. 43 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. 44        45 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., 46   47 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 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.”

Worth Noting: The traditional numbering of verses followed fifth and sixth century manuscripts that duplicated Mark 9:48 at Mark 9:44 and 46. Discovery of older manuscripts omitting this text in verses 44 and 46 led to the conclusion that they were added to the original text to parallel verse 48. Editors of modern editions have omitted these verses but maintained the traditional verse numbering, resulting in the blank verses. Now wasn’t that interesting?

CONNECTING WITH THE SCRIPTURES

Entering into the Scriptures

Our readings have direct bearing on today’s headlines. To begin, note that careful readers traditionally understand Mark 9:42 (“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.”) as a warning to Church leaders against leading astray any faithful. The warnings against sins in the succeeding verses 43-48 were often taken as a warning against sexual sins. Why? Partly from the way that Matthew later interpreted Mark 9:47-48 as dealing with sexual sins in his recapitulation at Matthew 5:27-32, particularly verses 27-29 (“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”). Further, the particular body parts used in Mark (hand, feet) were often used to refer metaphorically to human genitalia.
In light of the sexual connotations of verses 43-48, and the references to children in the immediately preceding Mark 9:33-37 (last week’s Gospel) readers have begun to interpret verse 42 more literally, as an injunction against sexual abuse of children. The NRSV translates the Greek verb skandalizein, as “cause to stumble.” Fair enough. But the verb further denotes “to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he [sic.] ought to trust and obey; to cause to fall away; to cause ruin.” Those meanings certainly fit the current understanding of the impact of sexually executed relationship abuse on the victim. Abuse destroys trust in a particular authority figure, leading to an inability to trust anyone, resulting in the inability to maintain relationships with others including God. A life without relationships, without God, is destroyed. Better for the abuser to have a millstone around his neck and cast into the sea.
If this reading is accepted, then we can assume that child abuse was an issue for the early Church. Whether it was, as now, a problem of Christian leaders abusing children or a warning against following the known practices of non-Christians we do not know. We can point out that the Greek word for “child,” paidion, is neuter, neither feminine nor masculine. Perhaps such language encouraged seeing children as things, not yet human, objects for the pleasure of adults.

Master! Those Guys Over There are Stealing Your Thunder!

In the opening of the Gospel reading, Jesus asks the apostles to confront a distressing aspect of the human personality: We get mad when those we view as our opponents do something worthwhile, as happened in the Gospel narrative. We are distressed to think that “they” may have their image burnished, make more money, or win the girl.
In those moments, we see the world as a zero-sum game: If you have more money, I must have less. If you have more glory, I must have less. Our attitudes are shaped by millennia of experience with fixed technology applied to limited resources, when it was true that the way for you to increase your wealth was to take it from me.
That’s not the world we live in. For better and for worse, technological developments over the last few centuries support a worldview that we can expand wealth indefinitely: Another’s good fortune does not come at our expense.
Enough economic history. Is God a God of limited resources? Well, is the reign of God limited to a fixed number of humans? The apostles were distressed by someone not in the camp of Jesus followers casting out demons. Has God created a world in which just so much mental health is allowed? Did God call only a fixed number of humans to cure? Bottom line: Does God’s grace and love extend to only so many people or is it truly infinite, extending beyond any particular group of humans to all humanity (indeed to all creation)?

Questions for Discussion

The Psalms include ancient Israel’s nationalistic hymns. What is the place of patriotic songs in your communal celebrations (e.g., Sunday worship services)? What does it mean to sing such songs in worship?

Is there anything left to discuss about the abuse of children? Every religious tradition has a history of abuse. How has yours reacted to its scandals?

Does your community limit salvation to a particular group, perhaps to those who subscribe to a particular set of beliefs? What image of God supports that belief system?

We all have someone we dislike, perhaps intensely. Who is the last person you want to spend eternity with? Will God bring your nemesis into eternal Love? What would it take for you two to be reconciled?

For a PDF version of this week’s Journeying, click here.

 

 Dennis Haugh has enjoyed working with adult seekers for over 20 years. He aims to promote engagement with and reflection on the Scriptures. To hone his skills and burnish his credentials, he earned his PhD in Biblical Studies in the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology joint program.  He appreciates any correspondence: dennishaugh2011@gmail.com.

 

Unless expressly stated otherwise, all quotations from Scripture are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
Lucas Cranach the Elder’s (1472-1553) “Christ Blessing the Children” from 1537.
Journeying through the Revised Common Lectionary © 2018 Dennis Haugh. Recent postings may be accessed at https://www.sttims.net/journeying-through-the-lectionary/.
 

 

 

 

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