Monday, September 28, 2009

Esther, The Inglorious Basterds and the Hoard of Golden Treasure

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22
Psalm 124
James 5.13-20
Mark 9.49-50

In the film 'Inglorious Basterds' Quentin Tarantino plays with history. He imagines a situation where a group of Jewish American soldiers are parachuted into occupied France to get even with the Nazis and kick ass as a punishment for the way the occupiers are hunting down and exterminating French Jews. I mention this simply because the Book of Esther is the same kind of story. 'Inglorious Basterds' begins with some white words projected against a black background, 'Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France' and Esther is also make believe. It could easily begin with the words, 'Once upon a time in ancient Persia.' Not only that, but both narratives are equally bloodthirsty. The theme of both stories is that Jewish people - even when they are a beleaguered minority far from their Promised Land - cannot be knocked down and counted out. If the need arises, and they are threatened by great evil, they are capable of standing up for themselves and putting their enemies to the sword. And, strangely for a book of the Bible, the story of Esther never mentions God. This is a fairy tale about Jewish people doing it for themselves and not relying on God to rescue them or help them to get even.

If only life were really like that, and every oppressed minority could rise up and be revenged upon their ruthless persecutors. Instead, of course, millions perished in the Holocaust, unable to save themselves and without any miraculous intervention from God or from avenging bands of Jewish GIs. No doubt that experience of helplessness shaped the mindset of the modern state of Israel, with its mean military machine where Jewish people really do get to play with tanks and guns.

But sometimes even weakness can inspire a peculiar kind of strength. I remember an Austrian Jew recounting on the radio his experience of being rounded up with other Jewish young men and taken to a police station soon after the reunification, or Anschluss, with Nazi Germany. After being questioned they were allowed to leave, but only if they were prepared to make their way along a corridor lined with Storm Troopers armed with clubs. As they ran down the corridor towards the street, the hapless Jewish men were beaten. The man telling the story said that he ran as fast as he could and the storm troopers only caught him a couple of glancing blows. But, he said, the thing which made the deepest impression on him was a group of observant Jewish men who insisted on walking slowly down the corridor just to show that even Storm Troopers with cudgels could not intimidate them. They took a fearful beating yet obstinately refused to increase their pace. It was an example of faith and fortitude that he never forgot.

Psalm 124 exudes the same apparently easy confidence as the story of Esther. The theme of both passages seems to be that God will always come to the rescue of Israel, like the Seventh Cavalry riding to save the beleaguered settlers just in the nick of time. But, of course, Auschwitz reminded modern believers that this simply isn't true. The industrial scale of the Holocaust demonstrated that it is technically possible to swallow whole peoples up alive. And modern technology isn't essential to thwarting the will of God on this scale. In the Ukraine, in the 1930s, Stalin used famine to kill even more people, possibly as many as ten million, and in Rwanda government backed mobs used machetes to kill hundreds of thousands of their enemies.

On the face of it, the film Inglorious Basterds seems to be a "Boys' Own" adventure, glorifying war. However, some reviewers claim to detect a subtle tone of irony in the film that subverts the genre and pokes fun at it or critiques it even. And maybe that's what is going on in Psalm 124 and the Book of Esther, for even in Biblical times it was already clear that history isn't a simple tale of good triumphing over evil. Both the people who edited the Book of Psalms, and the writer of the Book of Esther, knew perfectly well that Jerusalem had fallen to her enemies and many of Israel's people had either been cut down or forced into exile. The flood had not swept the nation away, but there had still been a catastrophic deluge of enemy soldiers descending like locusts on the Promised Land and causing devastation. A faithful remnant of Israel might have escaped the teeth of the wolves that were trying to devour them, but the rest of the flock had been hunted and scattered. The remnant might have escaped the hunter's snare, like a bird escaping from a broken trap, but nonetheless the nation of Israel had been caught. And yet the writers still believed that our help is in the name of the Lord. That is the kind of faith which was displayed by those dogged young men in Austria when they were beaten in the police station.

The story of Esther ends with a celebratory feast, but it's not just a round of mutual back-slapping. The Jewish community celebrates its good fortune by giving presents to the poor and downtrodden. In escaping from oppression themselves, the people in the story do not forget to care for others who are oppressed.

Years ago, when I worked in Salford, someone in the church objected to giving money to help people in developing countries. 'My grandparents and great-grandparents were hard-up,' she said, 'Now it's the turn of someone else to put up with hard times.' Despite its main theme of vengeance against powerful wrongdoers like Harman, the Book of Esther does not share her ungracious attitude towards the needs of those at the bottom of the pile. It ends on a note of gratitude and generosity.

The writer of the Letter of James takes up where the writers of Psalm 124 and the Book of Esther leave off. He too recognises that believers are not immune from trouble or suffering. These things are an inevitable part of life. Sometimes we will be able to keep cheerful, and thank God for our good fortune, but sometimes we will be sick. Whatever happens to us, though, God is alongside us. In Jesus he shares our good times and our bad times.

That's not to say, however, that we must resign ourselves to suffering and simply endure it. The writer urges us to pray for healing, and to get the congregation praying for us too. Actually, 'healing' is not quite the right word, although it's the one chosen by The Revised English Bible to translate this idea, but it's perhaps more accurate to say that the writer says prayer will 'save' us or make us 'whole'. To be saved or made whole when we are sick or suffering can - of course - include being healed, but it can mean a range of other things too. It can - for instance - mean being saved from despair or being helped to find something positive in our suffering. It can mean learning that we are not alone, that we are cared for and loved. And it can mean being made whole in a spiritual rather than a physical sense. This broader understanding of what the word means also explains why the writer's thought process leads naturally from being saved from illness and suffering to being saved from sin. Either way, the prayers of the righteous - or of good people, as the Revised English Bible puts it - are powerful and effective. They are never ineffectual. Some good will always come of them.

The example that the writer uses to illustrate this point is not, perhaps, one that would immediately occur to us, because he describes a prayer which actually had a negative effect. Elijah prayed for a drought to afflict Israel because of the faithlessness and wickedness of King Ahab, who had allowed his wife Jezebel to massacre some of the Lord's Prophets, and as a result of that prayer not a drop of rain or dew fell on the land for three years. Then Elijah ended the drought, just as dramatically as it had begun, by challenging Jezebel's pagan prophets to make the rains fall again. They prayed all day long to Baal, the god of the thunder storm, dancing around their altar in a frenzy and slashing themselves with knives, but nothing happened. Then Elijah rebuilt the altar of the Lord God, prayed very simply for a sign that God was working through him and, suddenly, lightning devoured the offering on his altar and it began to rain. Then he told the people of Israel to massacre Jezebel's prophets in revenge for the earlier massacre of the prophets of the Lord.

So we are back to where we began, with yet another story of oppressed people avenging themselves on their oppressors by striking back, except that the Book of Esther and Inglorious Basterds are make-believe, whereas the story of Elijah is more or less for real. In Elijah's day people did massacre one another in the name of religion, just as they have done many times since.

Today's Gospel passage is a collection of disparate sayings, so I just want to draw your attention to one of them, from Mark Chapter 9 and verses 49 to 50: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Personally I like a lot of salt. My children keep warning me that I will die young, from high blood pressure or something, but I simply can't eat most savoury foods without it. And am I the only person who finds the mono-sodium glutamate in Pringles totally addictive? When they're not in the house I'm fine, but when we have any in the cupboard I soon succumb to temptation. I could cheerfully eat a whole tube of them at a time. Salt, for me, is one of the things that makes food interesting and gives it appeal.

Well Jesus clearly shared my taste for salt, because he several times used saltiness as a metaphor for being the kind of person he wants his followers to be. And here he explains one of the things that will help to make us salty - being salted with fire. It's a striking and unusual image, isn't it? Normally, we wouldn't associate the two things together. Burning something, for instance, doesn't make it taste saltier - or at least not in my experience. But Jesus suggests that an encounter with fire, with suffering or trouble of some kind, can actually make us better people, more complete, more rounded, more worth meeting and getting to know, more believable - perhaps -as followers of the Way of the Cross.

It's a disturbing idea, because it goes further than the Letter of James. There, the writer only dared to suggest that we might be saved, or reconnected to God in Jesus, through suffering. But here Jesus goes a little further, I think, and suggests that a certain amount of suffering might actually make us stronger and better disciples.

Personally, I think people can be given too much suffering to endure, way beyond the point where it adds anything to their life or builds their character. Even Jesus only suffered torment on the cross for a few hours, but some people endure torment for days, weeks, months, years even. I don't see how that can be particularly beneficial. And Jesus submitted himself to suffering knowing full well what he was doing, and that is very different from something like the suffering of a vulnerable child, or suffering that is inflicted on us at random, or out of the blue.

Nonetheless, there is a sort of comfort to be found in the idea that a certain amount of suffering might be good for the soul, and might help us to be more effective disciples, better able to get alongside others and help them through their own troubles. Might being touched by suffering, being salted by fire, be a necessary part of effective discipleship?

Perhaps the last word should go, this week, to the enormous find of Anglo-Saxon treasure trove in a field at the heart of what was once the ancient kingdom of Mercia. The Mercians, who lived in the modern day Midlands and East Anglia, were Pagans, whereas their neighbours to the north, in Yorkshire, and to the south also, were Christians. At various points in their history, the pagan Mercians fought pitched battles against the Christians, and in one of these battles someone came away with this enormous and valuable horde of loot, including gold crosses and gold and gems prised from broken swords and helmets. One of the most interesting finds is a curious lucky charm or talisman, a verse from Psalm 68 that had been engraved in Latin on a strip of gold. It reads: 'Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him.'

Sadly, as the soldiers who carried those crosses and that Bible inscription must have discovered, religion cannot be used as a lucky charm to ward off suffering and evil. The pagan enemies of God were not scattered. Those who hated Christianity did not flee before him. Instead. they got to claim all of these treasured possessions as trophies of war, and perhaps even gloated - as they took them - that they had proved the Christians wrong. Some time later, however, the tables must have turned. They buried their looted treasure in haste, and never returned to claim it. All they had really proved was that, whether we are believers or not, we must all be prepared to be salted by fire. The question is, when the fire burns will we know that Jesus is alongside us, enduring it with us and helping us to overcome it and be saved?

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