After hearing last week of the woman of valor, from the last chapter of Proverbs, I spoke of the clear evocation of Ruth, who is called by the same term by Boaz in the book which follows Proverbs in Hebrew lists. Valiant she is. And Track One will turn to her in weeks to come.
For this Sunday we have another of the strong women of valor from the OT, Esther. The story of Esther, Mordecai, Haman and the great Persian King Ahaseurus (Xerxes in some versions) is drawing to its dramatic conclusion in the single reading the lectionary is providing from that book for this Sunday in Track One. It is a tale of intrigue, danger, cunning and evil intention, kingly power and great faithfulness. Esther valiantly risks her life to protect her own people, though she could have remained hidden in her Queen’s rank and privilege. A woman of valor, who can find one? Esther is found faithful. And Haman who sought to have all the Jews of the realm executed for reasons of personal slight, ends up on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, a faithful Jew unwilling to bow down before him. The fool of Proverbs meeting his own just end and falling into the pit he had prepared for others. This is the only biblical book explicitly linked to a religious festival for which its story serves as the warrant. The festival of Purim, or lots, is commemorated annually on the 14th and 15th day of Adar (early March in our calendar) “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 holiday.” To read Proverbs 31 and then Esther allows the symphony of scripture to sound forth.
And so too the Psalm appointed for Track One, from Ps 124. Let us hear its 8 verses:
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 Gospel reading from Mark 9 follows on from the healing of the epileptic and the second passion prediction. In the former scene, the epileptic’s father had explained quite frankly to Jesus that the disciples had been unable to drive the demon out. So Jesus went to work and healed the boy.
As if picking up from that thread, ironically, in our reading for today we have John complaining about an unnamed exorcist who is doing successfully what the twelve had been unable to do and reporting to Jesus they had tried to stop him. As if the right thing to do. “Because he was not following us.” Us.
Our OT lesson has been chosen to reinforce the Gospel, where the same language appears from Joshua “My Lord stop them” echoing Jesus’ “do not stop him.” Moses has tired, understandably, from an endless series of complaints and murmuring from the people. He has just – for a second time – seen to the provision of miraculous feeding in the wilderness, manna here followed by quails, now in super abundance. At wits’ end he calls to a sympathetic burden-bearing Lord to help him. Our lesson consists of a selection of relevant verses so as to provide the story of Eldad and Medad at its conclusion. God responds to Moses by having him assemble 6 elders from the 12 tribes, convening at the tent of meeting. There the cloud descends and the Lord God takes the spirit from Moses and apportions it upon the assembled elders, whose prophesying demonstrates their enrollment as his spirit-filled aid.
For reasons not given, two elders were missing, Eldad and Medad, and yet at exactly the same time as the others they received the exact same spirit endowment and prophesied in the camp. When the word comes to Moses from a surprised messenger, Joshua complains that the two had not been there with the others.
Moses responds in anticipation of Pentecost. Would that all would prophesy as have the seventy plus two. The nameless someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name prefigures the spirit at work in the church, as do Eldad and Medad prophesying boldly back in the camp. It will be enough to call upon the name of Jesus and by God’s power watch demons routed in and by his name. “Not following us” presumes a restriction not in God’s plans and in any event, nowhere shown to be decisive given the twelve’s own failure where this unnamed man has prevailed. Marvelous works in Jesus name march forward in blessing and the one working in this wake “will not soon be able to speak evil of me.” Bearing the name of Christ is the vocation, for disciples without distinction, as well as those who do not stand in the way but indeed offer a cold drink of refreshment to any and all doing the work of healing in Christ’s name.
We now get a series of what could appear to be independent sayings, concerning stumbling blocks placed before little ones, the little ones of Jesus, followers; stumbling blocks set up by followers themselves; and a final saying about salt and fire.
The first appears to continue the train of thought concerning hindering those who work in Jesus name. It sharpens the foregoing “do not stop him” into, if one does, a severe fate of judgment awaits, millstone in finality. Then the direction shifts to followers themselves, and the severe judgment theme applied to them: the hand that acts in sin, the feet that transport into sin, the eye that opens the sinner onto wrong paths and wrong actions. From the earliest interpreters on, these warning have not been taken so literally as to commend self-maiming – something strictly forbidden in the law of God. They do serve to warn sternly about hindering the actions done in Jesus name and those that are blocked by believers whose hands, feet and eyes are the cause of their downfall.
Fire and salt as a pair evoke the language of Leviticus 2. Every sacrifice by fire is to be salted. The sacrifice of Christian service, in Jesus name, requires purging fire and salt – wisdom. Otherwise it is without effect. You cannot make salt without saltiness salty. It is good for nothing.
The psalm lines out the true path of service. The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever. More to be desired than gold. Cleanse me from secret faults, lift all stumbling blocks, salt and fire my life. Then shall I be whole and sound and innocent of great offense.
And our final reading from James as the Epistle lesson describes as well such a life of service. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Salty. It has the power to lift stumbling blocks, and it has the power to bring back the sinner’s soul from death and will cover indeed a multitude of sins. The salt and fire of Christian work in the strong name of Christ.