(9/26) Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 and Psalm 124 • Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 and Psalm 19:7-14 • James 5:13-20 • Mark 9:38-50
One of the greatest stories in a book of great stories, the book of Esther is about an orphan Jewish girl. The set-up offers a humorous sidenote: beginning with a king at the end of a six-month party binge, who gets his feelings hurt when he calls for his more sober wife, who refuses to come. The wife – told never to enter the king's presence again, which I'm guessing was fine with her – is eventually replaced through a prospective 'bride and queen contest' won by Esther. I am not making this up! Esther had been entered into the event by her uncle Mordecai, who had been her caretaker for many years.
Now Mordecai had advised Esther to keep her Jewish background to herself. Later, when Haman, an advisor to the king, convinces the king to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed, Mordecai manages to get word to Esther of the plot. Esther lets him know that she has not been invited into the king's presence in a month and has limited capacity to influence the situation. Mordecai messages back that all their people will die if she doesn't do something. Esther next takes a I-position, asking that all the Jewish people make a three-day period of fasting and prayer, after which, "I will go to the king, even though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish" (4:16).
Esther keeps her wits about her, though. She is perspicacious, seeing what has to be done and finding a way forward. She manages to approach the king with his approval, inviting him and the Jews' archenemy, Haman, to a banquet. Haman goes back to his family, bragging about the invitation, and complaining that the only thing between him and total happiness was a small feud he'd had with Mordecai. It's a great study in triangles: Esther's capacity to relate to both the king and Haman, versus Mordecai's incapacity to endure anyone taking a position different from his own. It's at this point in the story – actually, the second of two banquets held by Esther – that today's reading begins. Haman is hung; a new policy is made so that the Jews are free to defend themselves.
In a sense, Esther herself is set free in this story. By its conclusion, she has already become her own person. Earlier, when she was able to declare what she was going to do about the problem presented to her, Esther has liberated-in-place, becoming herself in the middle of a challenging environment. If I perish, I perish. When a person comes to this point, determined to take a stand, her self is more solid for it.
Whether it's a big decision or a small moment of everyday life, attending to one's responsibility for oneself includes attention to process, to how one is going to manage oneself in it. Consider the late banjo player Bill Emerson, may he rest in peace, who once said, "For me, it's all about satisfying me. If I feel good about what I did, it's better than a thousand people on their feet applauding." He described that sometimes, when he knew he'd played his best, no one said anything to him about it. Other times, when he knew he'd done poorly, lots of folks would come up to him and say great job. Eventually, he decided that he would give up on pleasing the crowd and be his own judge of how he was playing: the banjo player's version of Esther, and each of us. If I perish, at least I perish for doing the best I knew how to do.
In today's gospel, Jesus was talking about the same idea. If some part of how you are living is getting in the way of being fully alive, then lose it. It's better to let go of what's not working than to continually let it gnaw away at you, taking your solid self from you every day of your life.
Morning: Where might I have to give up some aspect of my life today, to gain myself?
Evening: When have I taken a stand? What difference has it made to my life?
Psalm 19:8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes.