Salted with fire

27 September 2009
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21B (RCL)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

What an interesting set of readings to handle together. With the RCL, this is the first time we have ever read anything from Esther in Church. It’s a great story. Esther is essentially an incarnation of Wisdom. What a fun, subversive story: a woman giving adivce to the king (and a Gentile king, no less). She saves here people. This is the story read on Purim and in Synagogue, everyone hisses and boos and makes rude noises every time Haman is mentioned, and cheers for the king. It’s the wisdom story all over: the righteous triumph in the end. For a people who have had to live by their wits, it’s perfect.

James: It would be easy to read this as “If you just pray right, you’ll get better.” I think James is scolding his congregation for keeping their suffering and ills (and joys) to themselves. He is saying all these things have their place in the liturgy of the assembly. If you are suffering, pray. Fill out a prayer request card. If you have good news, sing. If you can’t get to church, have the elders come and lay on hands. James then says, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” It’s interesting to link illness and sin. We tend to think of this as if sin caused the illness. But there are several components to illness. The physiological process, the personal and emotional reaction (tiredness, depression) and the social component (isolation; gossip). If sin is whatever causes dislocation in the Body of Christ, then all kinds of things need restored when we are ill.

Mark: The disciples scold a person for casting out demons, which just a few verses ago, they themselves were not able to do. Jesus says whoever is not against us is for us, working for the kingdom. Then he talks about little ones, just like the child he set in their midst. What is power for? For making us special, or for accomplishing God’s purposes. If anything gets in the way of those purpose, be done with it. And he ends it with the weird saying about being salted with fire. The quote about worms never dying is taken from the last chapter of Isaiah, about the restoration of Jerusalem and the punishment of the unjust. So, the Temple is imagined as restored (a powerful prophecy for Mark’s time), and the altar set up. Every sacrifice on the altar had to include salt — an indication that it was a meal, not just an animal, or flour, but food. Have salt among yourselves and be at peace. Share sacrificial meal. To be salted in the fire is to be the offering to God on behalf of the world. WE are the offering on the altar. How cool is that?

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