Saturday Night Theologian
27 September 2009

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 (first published 28 September 2003)

A man walked into a bar (a coffee bar, if you're a teetotaler) late one Saturday afternoon and sat down on one end. The crowd hadn't arrived yet, so it was just the man, the bartender, and another gentleman who was sitting on the opposite end of the bar. On the big-screen TV was a college football game, where Ohio State was soundly thrashing Notre Dame. "Good!" the man said. "I hate Notre Dame! Always have, always will!" "I'd keep my voice down, if I were you," said the bartender. "Father Mike down there went to Notre Dame, and he's about the biggest Notre Dame fan I've ever seen." The first man glanced at Father Mike, who had a hang-dog expression on his face. He just couldn't resist getting in a barb or two. "Hey, Father Mike!" he said, smiling. "Notre Dame really took a beating today. I've seen lots of pathetic Notre Dame teams, but I don't think I've ever seen one that was this bad!" "I thought I told you to keep it down!" said the bartender in a frantic voice. "Didn't I tell you that Father Mike is Notre Dame's biggest fan?!" "What's the big deal?" the man asked. "What's a priest going to do, not pray for my soul?" About that time Father Mike stood up and began walking slowing down to the other end of the bar. He was enormous, six foot eight inches tall, weighing at least 350 pounds. "When I said Father Mike was their biggest fan, I didn't mean the most enthusiastic," said the bartender. "Allow me to introduce Father Mike. He's a professional wrestler." The moral of this story is, it's always a good idea to know your audience. Haman was a Persian royal official who suffered from a bad case of egotism. He wanted praise from the king, and he was jealous of anyone else who superseded him in the king's esteem. When Mordecai got honor that he thought he should have had, he was determined to get even. He convinced the king to issue a decree condemning the Jews throughout the Persian empire, and he planned to hang Mordecai from a gallows he had constructed especially for that purpose. However, as Robert Burns said centuries later, "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley." It turned out that Queen Esther was a Jew as well, and in the king's presence, she accused Haman of plotting against her and her people. As punishment, the king condemned Haman to be hanged on the very gallows that he had built for Mordecai, and he delivered the Jews from their enemies. It's easy for us to condemn Haman, because his egotism is so blatant in the story. Moreover, he's an enemy of God's people (from the perspective of the author), the Jews. Of course he deserves everything he gets! Readers tend to identify with Esther, or perhaps Mordecai, whom God blesses for their faithfulness. All too often, though, a little bit of Haman creeps into us, or rather, creeps out of us. When a coworker badmouths us to the boss, we think of ways to get even. When our son or daughter isn't chosen for the team, or doesn't win the award, we deride the whole process as unfair, and we disparage the coaches or judges. When we're up for a promotion at work, we try to help our case by implying that our chief rival for the position isn't really qualified. In all these ways we put ourselves first, stepping on the bodies we've figuratively piled in front of us on our way to the top. Haman in the story is a caricature, an exaggeration of selfishness, almost a clown, but the egotism within us is very real. We have to be constantly on guard against it, because when we promote ourselves and our own interests at the expense of others, we are incapable of bearing witness to a loving, just, and merciful God.

Psalm 124 (first published 28 September 2003)

I am Mesha, son of Chemosh-[. . .], king of Moab, the Dibonite. My father was king over Moab thirty years and I became king after my father. And I made this sanctuary for Chemosh at Qirchah, a sanctuary of salvation; for he saved me from all the kings and let me see my desire upon my adversaries. (Mesha Inscription, 9th century B.C.E.)
It has been common practice since the dawn of civilization to attribute military victories to divine intervention. The Moabites had suffered under Israelite occupation for many years, until King Mesha revolted against his overlords, an event reflected from a different perspective in 2 Kings 3. The psalmist in Psalm 124 attributes Israel's victory over its enemies as a sign of more than just God's help: their victory signifies that they are God's special people. What nation hasn't felt this way after victory over their enemies? The allies after World Wars I and II and the western democracies after the Cold War ended in 1989 felt justified in attributing their success to the justness of their cause in the eyes of God. Thanking God after a military victory--or any other kind of success--is the right thing to do, but does victory necessarily imply that the victors are God's chosen people, while the losers are not? Would Americans make that claim after their defeat in Vietnam? More often, of course, the victors are those with more money and military might. Does the British victory in the dispute over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands suggest that God sided with the British? Does the American victory over its opponents in Granada imply that God was on the American side in the conflict? It is dangerous and theologically invalid to draw such conclusions. In the recent war on Iraq, was God on the side of the Americans and British, who won the war? Yes! But God was also on the side of the Iraqis, who lost. It is a mistake to think that God takes sides in such conflicts. It is tempting to point to a leader who oppresses his people, like Saddam Hussein, and think that God must be against him. But one could with as much justification evaluate George W. Bush and point out his support for a war which killed thousands of innocent civilians as evidence that God must be against him (as, indeed, many Muslims believe). The fact of the matter is that God is opposed to all forms of oppression, whether of one's own people or of the citizens of another country, and God sides with the oppressed of all nations. Look again at Psalm 124. It is important to note that Israel is portrayed as the victim of the enemy's assault, and God came to the rescue of a people that was oppressed. The lesson of this psalm is not that God must have supported the victor in battle (what about the Romans at Masada, or the Chinese in Tibet?), nor that God favors one group of people in every circumstance (for example, Jews or Christians), but that God sides with the oppressed, whether they win or lose, and no matter which side they are on--sometimes both. Whether we are on the winning or the losing side of battle, "our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth."

James 5:13-20 (first published 28 September 2003)

While on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean with a cargo of African slaves, John Newton had an encounter with God. The ship was accosted by a fierce storm, and Newton, one of the mates on the ship, a man who had had little use for God in his life, prayed for God's deliverance. The ship was saved, and although Newton continued in the slave trading business for several years, his experience that night at sea began to change his life. After abandoning his life at sea, Newton decided to study for the Anglican ministry, where he came under the influence of the Methodist reformers John Wesley and George Whitefield. Over time, he began to see the evils of slave trading, and he wrote an influential book entitled Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. He became a strident abolitionist, and he encouraged William Wilberforce to fight the slave trade in the British House of Commons. Wilberforce succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in 1807, and before the end of his life, he saw slavery ended and all slaves liberated throughout the British Empire. The conversion of John Newton, his growing opposition to the slave trade, and his influence on the great abolitionist William Wilberforce, all illustrate the truth of the concluding words of the book of James: "Whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." John Newton ruined the lives of many Africans during the earlier part of his life, but the touch of God, both through circumstance and through the influence of people like Wesley and Whitefield, not only converted John Newton but also saved countless others from lives of slavery. The "multitude of sins" that conversion covers are not limited to those of the individual sinner who repents. Who knows what positive effect that person may have on the lives of others? When we see a brother or sister living a life of sin, if we think that they're only hurting themselves, we're not seeing the big picture. Someone's personal sins all too often affect others as well. Furthermore, a person who has been through a conversion experience can exert a positive influence on others that can counteract the effects of his or her previous sins. Conversion is not only an individual exercise, it also has a corporate aspect. James also urges his hearers, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed." Gustavo Gutierrez calls for Christians to recognize the structural sins in which they are involved--such as repression of the poor--and repent as a group. Finally, conversion is not a one-time experience; it is something that followers of God must do over and over, both individually and corporately. Let us learn to recognize our own sins first, then those of people around us, and let us have the courage necessary to repent and to call for others to do the same. The world today is in desperate need of conversion.

Mark 9:38-50

On 28 June 2009, armed gunmen who were members of the military burst into the home of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, forcibly put him on a plane, and flew him to Costa Rica, where they left him on the runway in his pajamas. Roberto Micheletti, next in the line of succession, was sworn in as the new president, but his government was not recognized by the U.S., the Organization of American States, or any other foreign government. Zelaya's political enemies accused him of seeking dictatorial powers, though the immediate cause of his ouster was apparently his attempt to place a nonbinding referendum concerning constitutional change on the ballot. Zelaya's adversaries also condemn him because of his close ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and other left of center politicians in Latin America. And they're right: President Zelaya is left of center. But so, too, apparently, is the majority of the Honduran population, which voted him into office. If they're not, or if they're not happy with his tenure as president, they should have the opportunity to remove him from office through the ballot box, not by means of armed thugs. Opposition to other people and suspicions concerning their motives are commonplace in all areas of life, from the family, to schools, to the workplace, to the community, to national debates over healthcare and other others, to international relations. Disagreements aren't necessarily a bad thing. If people didn't have different perspectives, no advances in knowledge would be possible. The problem comes when those who hold one point of view seek to force it on those with whom they disagree, or when people from one political or religious camp persecute those from different camps. Jesus' disciples observed a man casting out demons, and they were incensed. "He's not one of us," they said, "so he has no business doing what we're doing." "Nonsense," Jesus replied. "He's doing the same work we are, so he's on our side." Politics makes strange bedfellows, the saying says, and the same applies to religion, or at least it should. People of faith need to learn to cooperate with others who share a common perspective, regardless of whether they go to the same church or even worship the same God. How many wars have been started over differences of opinion that, from the standpoint of today, seem inconsequential? There are people who never seem to be happy unless they're in the middle of some kind of brouhaha. They thrive on conflict and controversy. That shouldn't be us who consider Jesus our exemplar. Jesus teaches us to make friends, to work together, even with people who aren't part of our circle, when we share a common purpose. How much better would the world be if everyone adopted the example of Jesus?