September 30, 2012
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
The Book of Esther is a fiction that probably was passed off as history. It seems likely it was written to give an Israelite meaning to an ancient pagan feast of Purim that the people had been celebrating. The story tells how Esther, the young queen of King Ahasurerus (Xerxes I) and her uncle-guardian Mordecai saved their people from a plan to wipe out all the Jews in the vast Persian empire. Behind the story is the ancient enmity between the Amelekites and the Jews (I Kings Ch. 15). Mordecai will not do honors to Haman, an Amelekite. Haman, out of hatred, buys from the king the right to carry out the massacre of Jews. But the king recalls that he is in great debt to Mordecai who had once saved his from an assassination. Then Esther, at great risk, cleverly turns the king against Haman on two counts: Haman’s planned massacre would have “damaged” the king, presumably in lost taxes and soldiers and serving subjects; and Haman had planned the death of Mordecai, now the king’s favorite. The ending is more bloody than our reading suggests, for the Jews, permitted to destroy Haman’s people who had planned to murder them, put hundreds to death.
James is encouraging his people to stay close to God, to praise him when all goes well, to ask his help in times of trouble. The passage provides the basis for the practice by Catholics and others of anointing the dying and forgiving their sins.
In the middle section of our reading, James seems to be cheering his people on: look, you can pray so that God responds. Look what Elijah did? Prayed for rain and got it, and he was “a human being like us.” This is, to say the least, ingenuous. The story of Elijah’s ending a drought by praying for rain is a terrifying story. Elijah engages in an enormous contest in rain-making, one man, Elijah himself, against 450 prophets of the god Baal. None of them can bring rain, but Elijah succeeds by means of an elaborate and miraculous ritual sacrifice. Then he has all 450 Baal prophets killed! He tells Ahab to hurry home before the rain, and then runs in front of the chariot all the way (First Kings 18:17-46). See how easy it is for us ordinary humans to win God’s favor?