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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 26 - Year B
Esther 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary Twenty-Six (Proper 21) B


ESTHER 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22     The Book of Esther tells the heroic story of
a Jewish woman married to the king of Persia,  Xerxes (in the Bible,
Ahasuerus), who saved her people in the 5th century BC.  It is a well-told
tale still read in its entirety in synagogues on the Jewish Feast of Purim,
said to have originated in this event.  It still has relevance for the 20th
century history of the Holocaust. 
     

PSALM 124                Yet another of the so-called "Songs of Ascent"
believed to have been sung by pilgrims approaching Jerusalem.  It thanks
God for deliverance from the assaults of some unknown enemy, possibly
during a period of political instability and civil strife or perhaps during
the journey to Jerusalem.


JAMES 5:13-20            In an age when scientific medicine was still very
primitive, healing the sick had spiritual as well as physical significance.
Anointing the sick with oil and prayer were seen as valid treatment.  Note
that the treatment James prescribed was perceived as God's action, not that
of the church elders.  Similar forms of healing touch are still practiced
today.

Confession and forgiveness of sin also played a part in dealing with
illness.  Furthermore, prayer and helping the wandering disciple return to
God's ways had effective moral and spiritual results.  Although practiced
in limited ways, such disciplines as healing services and private
confessions have never completely disappeared from the church.


MARK 9:38-50             The issue in this passage still troubles many: Who
really is a follower of Jesus?  In response to this dilemma posed by John,
the son of Zebedee, Jesus appears to broaden the scope of discipleship:
"Whoever is not against us is for us."
     
At the same time, there is a severity in Jesus' words spoken in crisp
metaphors.  Preventing others from following Jesus in even the simplest of
ways can be virtually an unpardonable sin.  This approach could well guide
our evangelism today.

-----------

ESTHER 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22   The Book of Esther tells the heroic story of a
Jewish woman married the king of Persia, Xerxes (in the Bible, Ahasuerus),
who saved her people in the 5th century BC.  It is a well-told tale still
read in its entirety in synagogues on the Jewish Feast of Purim, which is
said to have originated in this event.  Purim is celebrated on Adar 14-15,
12th month of the Hebrew calendar, corresponding with March-April in the
common calendar.  This passage not only gives us the climax to the story of
a courageous woman, but of a people's freedom from fear and from
annihilation its enemies.

Scholars believe that the Book of Esther is one of the latest in the OT to
have been written.  Dates as far apart as the 5th century BCE soon after
the reign of Xerxes (486-465 BCE)and the Maccabean period (c.165 BCE) have
been proposed.  No certain historical clues are evident in the text.  Its
provenance, however, is thought to have been the eastern Diaspora among the
Jews who spread out from Babylon after their fellow countrymen returned to
Judea in 539 BCE.  More than likely it came into the oral tradition through
repeated telling from generation to generation.  A Greek manuscript in the
possession of the Vatican Library (Codex Vaticanus) contains no less than
six additions not in the best Hebrew manuscripts.  These are all thought to
have been created by authors not happy with the original.  The name of
Yahweh appears nowhere in the Hebrew text, whereas the deity and sacred
rites of Judaism appear everywhere in the additions.

The triumph of good over evil, the courage of the heroine and fortuitous
circumstances still have relevance for the 20th century history of the
Holocaust.  Generally speaking, an optimistic view of history permeates the
narrative.  It is a secular and humanist story rather than a religious one.
As Gene M. Tucker, of Emory University, Atlanta, GA, described it in his
article in *The Oxford Companion to the Bible*, the Jews took care of
themselves, but they were also very fortunate in making use of their
opportunities.  In so doing, they controlled their own destiny.  This gave
them a sense of identity which enabled them to survive in the face of
impending catastrophe.  Perhaps this could also be a model for other
oppressed people to follow in the 21st century.  One cannot help but think
of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. 


PSALM 124   This psalm purports to be yet another of the so-called
"Songs of Ascent" believed to have been sung by pilgrims approaching
Jerusalem.  It thanks God for deliverance from the assaults of some unknown
enemy, possibly during a period of political instability and civil strife.
Extended periods of Persian and Greek domination in post-exilic times
provided many opportunities for conspiracies against overlords.  Threats of
retaliatory reactions might well have been the occasion for this strife. 
Or the ever present perils of travel in ancient times may have been the
real threats behind this song of deliverance.  The psalmist makes the point
that without Yahweh's help, there would have been no escape from
destruction. 

Several powerful images intensify the message of the psalm.  Every line
manifests fear.  These could well be vignettes from the pilgrims' journey
to Jerusalem.  They also render a vividness to the poem suggesting that the
pilgrims had experienced some very traumatic threats in the recent past. 
In vs.3, we catch sight of a fierce attack by angry wild beasts bent on
devouring weaker members of the group.  In vss.4-5, a raging flood plunges
down a dry wadi through which their path lay to the holy city.  The road up
from Jericho to Jerusalem has many such dangerous places.  The wild beasts
again threaten in vs.6.  A bird escaping from a fowlers' snare in vs.7
reiterates the peril from which the pilgrims have been delivered.

Nonetheless, there is a larger vision in the mind of the psalmist.  The
theological concept of God as Lord of History, prevalent throughout the
Hebrew and Christian scriptures, has all but vanished from our modern,
secular frame of mind.  Yet the fear associated with civil strife or
international conflicts is ever present.  Legal authorities warn us of the
dangers of criminal elements to even the most stable societies.  Despite
the steadily decreasing incidence of violent crime, political opportunists
never cease to cry out hysterically for more severe penalties and longer
incarceration for the convicted.  More and more armaments flood into every
possible war zone to kill and maim the most vulnerable.  Diplomats struggle
with the difficulties inherent in any intervention in the apparently
incessant, vest-pocket wars which have followed the end of colonial
exploitation and the ideological confrontations of the Cold War.  And now,
in recent months, ideological conflict in geopolitical affairs gives the
appearance of pitting sacred traditions against one another in aggressive
terrorist attacks and pre-emptive invasions.

In 1945, the noted historian of Christian missions, Kenneth Scott
Latourette, published a penchant seventh volume to his *History of the
Expansion of Christianity.*  He reviewed the global tragedies of World Wars
I and II and the Great Depression when the tide of 19th century liberalism
and missionary enthusiasm with came to an abrupt end on the battlefields of
Europe and Asia.  He came to the conclusion that although the Christian
church had failed miserably and had been forced to retrench in many parts
of the world, it may well have been more potent at mid-century than at the
beginning of the period with which he was dealing. 

In1992, British mystery writer, P.D. James, set her futurist novel
*Children of Men* in Oxford, England, in 2021.  Her parable described how a
declining birthrate, tribal, racial and civil conflicts, socially
sanctioned violence by security forces, extended imprisonment and capital
punishment for criminals brought England to the point of total social,
economic and political collapse.  Hope lay in the love of God for this
confused, conflicted, terrified world, manifested in a baby born to
powerless parents in a rude shelter amid the degradation and despair of all
but a small, humble, faithful minority committed to reconciliation, freedom
and peace.  The analogy is clear to any Christian.

This is the same Spirit that motivated the psalmist to proclaim trust in
Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth.  However imperfect our witness to
faith and obedience to Jesus Christ, we still stumble forward into the 21st
century, for God is with us.


JAMES 5:13-20   In an age when scientific medicine was still very
primitive, healing the sick had spiritual as well as physical significance.
Prayer and anointing the sick with oil were seen as valid treatment.  Note
that the treatment James prescribed was perceived as God's action, not that
of the church elders (vss. 14-15).  Confession and forgiveness of sin also
played a part in dealing with illness.  Furthermore, prayer and helping the
wandering disciple return to God's ways had effective moral and spiritual
results.

In the favored Western nations, sky-rocketing costs of modern medical
technology, pharmacology and private medical insurance plus the reduction
in tax-funded medical services has increased public anxiety about health
care to unprecedented levels.  Infectious diseases once thought to have
been conquered by antibiotics drugs have returned with renewed vigour.
Greatly increased international travel has exposed every corner of the
globe to diseases once confined to isolated regions.  Scientific research
has just begun to unravel the mysteries of the human genome or immune
systems. Every political party has proclaimed its favoured solutions to the
growing global problems of ill health due to overpopulation, environmental
degradation and hopeless poverty.  Television has brought scenes of
unbelievable human suffering into every living room.  In such
circumstances, what good ever will come from prayer, praise, confession and
anointing?

Although now practised only in limited ways, such disciplines as personal
prayer, public healing services, anointing with oil and private confessions
have never completely disappeared from the church.  Nor should they, if we
take this passage seriously.  James advocated spiritual approach to ill
health in a world that knew little else. Of course this cannot be the only
means we take today to respond to a global health crisis.  Nor can medical
science and technology be isolated from the spiritual foundations on which
they were built.  Many pioneers of modern medicine were devoted church
members first and foremost.  Motivated by faith, they began their research
careers within the fellowship of the Christian church.  They recognized
that they were discovering the handiwork of God as they solved some of the
riddles of healing, health and wellness. 

A nurse with nearly 40 years of experience was stricken with breast cancer
and forced into early retirement.  More than twenty-five years later, she
has lived through three traumatic courses of chemotherapy.  Despite poverty
and the physical limitations of advancing years, she still maintains 
active participation with other seniors in her local congregation. 
Although reluctant to share her deepest feelings or personal faith even
with her closest relatives, her attitude has received praise from her
doctors and inquiries from a scholar researching the relationship between
attitude, emotions and wellness in cancer patients. 

Our language expresses the spiritual basis of all healing, health and
wholeness.  These ordinary English words - healing, health, wholeness and
holy - have their derivation in their ancient Germanic root word *hale*.


MARK 9:38-50   The issue in this passage still troubles many: Who really is
a follower of Jesus?  In response to this dilemma posed by John, the son of
Zebedee, Jesus appears to broaden the scope of discipleship: "Whoever is
not against us is for us."

How wide should we open this door?  Some Christians would prefer that is be
kept firmly guarded against all who do not confess Jesus Christ as their
personal Saviour and Lord, or express a firm conviction by repetition of
the creedal formula that includes a definition of the Holy Trinity.  Others
would regard all people of good will open to the inspiration of the Spirit
and able to participate actively in the mission and ministry of Jesus of
Nazareth to the contemporary world.  Ambiguity remains.

Dialogue among different religious traditions, said a recent authoritative
declaration of the Roman Catholic Church, begins with defining where we
stand in relation to others who do not share the same doctrinal position.
Yes, replied representatives of other Christian, Jewish and Islamic
traditions, but let us charitably work together for the common good of the
whole community.  A radical and rigid orthodoxy may speak the truth from
the perspective of one tradition and may well be necessary for theological
debate.  However, such a declaration may actually impede ecumenical and
interfaith dialogue, fellowship and action in the short term.  The
spiritual reality to be hoped for is that we have not yet heard the last
word.

A Buddhist writer quoted a frequently recited approach to living in the
modern, pluralistic world: think globally and act locally.  We need to
contemplate the interdependence of all people and all things.  Nothing
exists except in relationship with all other things.  Even our smallest
actions have vastly greater consequences.  Is this not what Mark quotes
Jesus as saying in this passage?

At the same time, there was a severity in Jesus' crisp metaphors in this
passage.  None of these exaggerated metaphors can be taken literally.
Acting on any one of them would be disastrous to ourselves and to those
with whom we are connected.  The warning remains clear nonetheless. 
Preventing others from following Jesus in even the simplest of ways can be
virtually an unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit.  The roll of
Christian saints is filled with rascals who almost by accident found their 
way to what our ancestors called "the throne of grace."  Among them one
would find John Newton (1725-1807), the slave trader who after his
conversion became one of the great hymn writers of his era. 
Unpretentiously published in 1779 with many by his friend William Cowper in
a little volume called as *Olney Hymns*, Newton's poems still grace many
hymn books used in our churches today.
     
                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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