Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In Defense of Hallowe'en

          As I recall, I was always a black cat—not so much because black cats were thought to be evil and witch’s familiars or anything.  I just loved cats, and so thought black cats were cool.  My neighbour usually dressed up as a hobo, but me—I was always a black cat.  I would plan my costume weeks in advance, and help Mom make up the goody-bags of candy we distributed (including those horrible caramel “kisses” that could pull the fillings out of your teeth), and waited impatiently for the time when I could put on my costume and meet up with my friends.  In our neighbourhood we never chanted, “Trick or treat!”  Our chant was always, “Shell out, shell out, the witches are out!”  Not that many of us dressed up as witches, but chanting, “Shell out, shell out, the blacks cats and the hobos are out” sounded lame.  When it came to Hallowe’en, we were traditionalists.
            The Hallowe’en of my childhood was a long time ago, and much has changed since then.  In my day everyone knew that witches did not exist, and now we have covens of them, as Wiccans look to take their place in the spiritual markets of North America.  Like I said, much has changed.  But much continuity with the past exists also.  My own children experienced Hallowe’en more or less like I did, as a time to dress up in costumes, go out after dark with the friends, and knock on neighbours’ doors to collect candy.  Then came the time back at home of watching re-runs of The Simpsons Hallowe’en episodes and dividing up all the sugar-coated loot.  One time I tried to light a candle and read them scary stories in the dark, but that bombed.  They much preferred The Simpsons.
            We are in a time of cultural shift in many different ways, as our society increasingly loses its traditional foundation in the Christian Faith and slides into a confusing and confused secularism, and the different ways of celebrating Hallowe’en form a part of this shift.  For some, Hallowe’en remains a time for dress-up and after-dark cameraderie and collecting candy.  Older persons of darker disposition, and Wiccans, will co-opt the day for their own purposes, making it respectively a celebration of counter-cultural violence, or of their pagan religion.  In a way Hallowe’en in this time of cultural shift has suffered the same fate as Christmas, for it has become many different things to many different people.  All of this makes it difficult to answer the question, “What should Orthodox Christians think of Hallowe’en?”  For the question to be answered first is, “Which Hallowe’en?”—the dress-up Hallowe’en of the young candy-collectors, or the Hallowe’en of the Wiccans, or the Hallowe’en of those using the day to glorify gore in the service of counter-cultural protest?   Hallowe’en is not one thing, but many things, and one size of answer does not fit all.
            In a time of confusion, it is natural to cast about urgently for simple answers, and to feel threatened by the confusion.  One wants to take refuge in certainties, labelling things as either black or white, and finding different shades of grey seems only to increase the confusion.   Perhaps that is why some take such deadly aim at Hallowe’en, labelling it as simply the celebration of evil, violence, gore, and death, and renouncing it with passionate vituperation.  Of course if Hallowe’en were simply the celebration of evil, violence, gore, and death, then renunciation would be the only right response.  But it seems to me that Hallowe’en is a complex and multivalent phenomenon in our culture, and we run the risk of oversimplifying it if we fail to recognize this.   Fundamentalists are among those who make such oversimplifications, for fundamentalists tend to reduce all things to either black or white, and do not do well when confronted with moral complexity, ambiguity, or shades of grey. 
            But, one might ask, what’s wrong with fundamentalism?   Shouldn’t one err on the side of safety?  I agree that if one has to err, one should err on the side of safety, but I am less sure that fundamentalism is all that safe.  Every parent knows that raising children means finding the right balance of strictness and laxity, of prohibition and permission.  One needs to hold the parental reins tightly enough to keep children safe, but not so tightly that they rebel, and finding the right balance is not always easy.  If one equates Hallowe’en with a celebration of death and violence and forbids all involvement with it, one might one day have to pay the price if the children conclude that it was only really about dressing up and getting candy.  There are many real dangers out there—dangers involving gangs, drugs, social diseases, bullying, and pornography.  We can’t be always forbidding everything.  Do we really want to expend that much ammo on Hallowe’en?  Shouldn’t we save our fire for areas where we really need it?
            But, one might ask, what about the fear?  Is it right to scare children?  Aren’t all those monsters and grave-yards, and Freddy Kruegers sick and ungodly?  Here one needs to step away from our own culture for a bit and examine the larger question of scary stuff generally.  All cultures have had their ghost stories.  Everyone delights to sit by the fire and listen to a hair-raising tale, which is why such things have long been staples at Boy Scout camp-outs.  Odd as it sounds, we love to be a bit scared—not traumatically terrified necessarily, but a bit scared.  That is why roller-coasters exist—we ride them and scream in fright and get off them and feel great—and go on them again for another ride.  That is why monster movies were so popular, along with amusement rides through the spook-house—after we are scared, we feel a release and all laugh together.  (In my youth, the ride through the spook-house in the amusement park was called, significantly, “Laff in the Dark”.)  We can delight and scream at Freddy Krueger brandishing something menacingly, because we know we are in no real danger—just as we are in no real danger on a roller-coaster.  We get all the adrenaline rush that comes from Freddy Krueger or from careening down a roller-coaster hill with none of the danger.   Most children can tell the difference between the thrills and chills of Hallowe’en, and things that are really dangerous.   Growing up healthy does not mean avoiding everything scary, and never riding the roller-coaster or listening to a ghost-story.  Once again, balanced parenting involves discerning the difference between the faux-dangers of October 31 and the real ones we meet beginning the morning of November 1.






Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Jesus Seminar, John Meier, and the Reliability of the Gospels

     
Many people will have heard of “the Jesus Seminar”, a group of about 150 self-appointed experts gathered by their leader Robert Funk in 1985 to pronounce on the authenticity of the various sayings of Jesus.  They were famous for using coloured beads to cast their votes regarding the likelihood of various sayings of Jesus being authentic, with a red bead meaning that Jesus probably did utter the saying in question, a pink bead indicating that authenticity was less likely, and the dreaded black bead indicating that Jesus certainly did not utter such a saying, but that it came from the later church.  The Jesus Seminar never formally disbanded, even though its founder, Mr. Funk, died in 2005, and is now therefore in a better position to learn the true value of those beads.
The tradition and suppositions of the Jesus Seminar continue in our culture.  Recently I have been reading the fascinating two-volume work A Marginal Jew by the Catholic scholar John P. Meier, which runs currently to 484 pages in volume 1 and 1118 pages in volume 2.  Fr. Meier represents an old and established tradition of scholarship which gave birth to the Jesus Seminar, and which for over a hundred of years has delighted to deny most of the things taken for granted by traditional Christians.  Building upon this liberal tradition, Meier asserts that genuine stories about Jesus can be differentiated from spurious stories about Him by applying several criteria.  To his credit, Fr. Meier does not use beads.
The first criterion is what he calls “the criterion of embarrassment”—stories of Jesus which might cause the Church embarrassment are more likely, he says, to be genuine.  Next comes “the criterion of discontinuity”—the notion that if a saying of Jesus finds no echo in earlier Judaism or in the later traditions of the Church it is more likely to be genuine.  Next comes “the criterion of multiple attestation”—the notion that if a saying is mentioned in more than one source (the sources being determined entirely by liberal scholars) it is more like to be genuine.   
Applying these criteria, Meier concludes that:  Jesus may or may not have been virginally conceived; that He was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem; that Mary had other children than Jesus.  He also concludes that many of the Lord’s miracles are not historically accurate, but are simply creations of the first century church—miracles such as Christ’s healing of the ear of the centurion’s servant cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ’s walking upon the water, His stilling of the storm, and His changing of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana.   More might be said, but you get the idea.  Meier’s formidable foot-notes (which compromise about half the book) consist of citations of and debates with other scholars, so that reading his work gives one a deep insight into the state of contemporary liberal scholarship.  (In fairness, it should be stressed that Meier is at pains to state that his book does not represent his own personal beliefs, but only what can be learned from the assured results of scholarly investigation.)
That scholarship seems to be the fruit of a hermeneutic of suspicion, one which begins from a place of scepticism.  It seems to assume a priori that no statement in the canonical four Gospels should be accepted unless it can prove itself by passing the above-mentioned rigorous criteria.  Such radical and deeply-rooted suspicion strikes me as odd.  No one, to the best of my knowledge, treats any other historical figure in this way.  Certainly historians dismiss some stories told about historical figures as unreliable while they accept other stories, but a predisposition to dump pretty much everything told about Christ in the Gospels unless it can pass a severe liberal grilling by hostile readers seems unusual.  One begins to suspect a bias against Christ on the part of those doing the grilling.  It is as if Christ is presumed guilty of inauthenticity at the outset, and needs to clear Himself of the charges one by one or stand condemned.  This hermeneutic is now thoroughly ingrained (one might say, “enthroned”) in the world of liberal academia, and no one aspiring to stature or university tenure in that world will be accepted unless they conform to this hermeneutical bias.
There is, of course, another kind of scholarship, one which does not share such a jaundiced view of the reliability of the Gospels, one represented by such men as Donald Guthrie, I. Howard Marshall, and N. T. Wright.  Meier and his liberal colleagues seem to be fairly dismissive of such “conservative scholarship”, and to assume that such a view of the New Testament must be rooted solely in a kind of ideological fundamentalism, which has little to commend it.  In his massive work Meier does little to engage such scholars in their fundamental presuppositions, and never seems to ask if they have any real reason for their confidence in the historical reliability of the New Testament apart from their pathetic ideology.  All the more reason for us to do so here.  Therefore let us examine the question of why we Orthodox imagine that the four Gospels are historically reliable.
First let us look at the approximate date of those Gospels.  Scholars of course debate those dates, like they debate everything else.  But the tendency is, I think, to date increasingly early.  Not many may agree with John A.T. Robinson in his 1976 book Redating the New Testament that everything must be dated before 70 A.D., but no one can now make a serious case any more that the Gospels were written in the second century as liberal scholars gleefully once did.  Even the hyper-sceptical Meier dates Mark to around 70, Matthew and Luke to around 85.  I would date them a bit earlier:  Eusebius mentions an early tradition that Mark took notes from Peter’s stories about Jesus when in Rome and wrote his Gospel shortly after Peter’s martyrdom.  Luke says he consulted eye-witness accounts (Luke 1:1-4), and John claimed to be such an eye-witness (John 19:34-35, 21:20-24), and he fills his Gospel with eye-witness touches, including the hour of the day when certain things occurred.
But even taking the sceptical Fr. Meir’s conclusions as a base means that the Gospel of St. Mark was written about forty years after the events described.  That is nothing, historically speaking.  I met my wife over forty years ago and was married shortly thereafter and I can remember everything from that time perfectly.  Memoirs are usually written after such a lapse of time, and are none the worse for it.  This is all the more so since these Gospel memoirs concerned controversial things and were written from within a small embattled community whose enemies would have been delighted to pounce on any major inaccuracy.  The hostility of the watching Jewish community (see Acts 28:22) therefore was an incentive for the Gospel writers to keep their accounts accurate and get their facts straight.  It kept them honest.
Also, fundamental to Meier’s work and to the work of liberal scholars in general is the presupposition that the early first century church 1) cared little for the question of whether or not a saying or deed of Jesus was historically reliable; and 2) created sayings and deeds which they ascribed to Jesus despite the fact that they more or less knew He never said or did anything of the kind.  In other words, the first century church cared little for historical reliability when it came to their Founder, and was intensely creative, grinding out sayings and producing stories out of whole cloth in abundant profusion. 
This makes the Christian converts of those first few decades an extraordinarily creative bunch.   The world ever after has applauded the things Jesus supposedly said.  If these things were in fact not said by Jesus but invented by His followers, those followers must have been spiritual giants and geniuses.  One wonders about that.  A quick look at St. Paul’s letters (such as his first letter to the Corinthians) shows that in his own words “not many of you were wise, not many powerful, not many of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26).  Paul said that one of them was living with his step-mother (1 Cor. 5:1f), others were suing their neighbours (1 Cor. 6:1f), some were drunk at the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:21), and some had no knowledge of God (1 Cor. 15:34).  If the early decades of church history were indeed populated by spiritual giants capable of producing Gospel sayings and successfully imitating Jesus, they left remarkably little trace.  Odds are those early Christians were no more spiritual than anyone else.
 We look next at the liberal presupposition that those Christians of the first few decades cared so little for the actual historicity of Jesus that they would make stuff up and ascribe it all to Him.  I suggest that actually the first century church had a high regard for Gospel historicity, and was quite reluctant to ascribe things to Jesus in this way.  Consider the following. 

  1. St. Paul makes a clear distinction between the actual words of Christ and his own apostolic opinion.  In 1 Thessalonians (an epistle even liberal scholars agree that St. Paul wrote) Paul refers to the words of Christ with the introduction, “This we say to you by the word of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15)—that is, Paul is not simply giving his own opinion or an opinion common in the early church, but saying that the teaching which follows comes from Christ Himself.  Note the distinction:  Christ is known in the first century to have said certain things, and Paul emphasizes when a teaching that he gives can be traced back to this dominical saying or not.
  2. We see the same early concern to distinguish between the opinions and words of the apostles and those of the Lord in 1 Corinthians 7:10 and 12 (another epistle that even liberal scholars concede was written by Paul).  In 1 Corinthians 7:10, Paul introduces the teaching that two married Christians must not divorce one another by saying, “I give instructions, not I, but the Lord”—that is, Paul is appealing not to his own personal opinion but to an extant teaching of Christ to the effect that His disciples must not divorce one another.  Two verses later Paul deals with the question of a mixed marriage between a Christian believer and a pagan unbeliever—a situation for which Christ offered no word—and he prefaces his instructions by saying, “To the rest I say, not the Lord…”  That is, Paul cannot transmit or refer to an authoritative saying of Christ on this topic, and so gives his own opinion.  In these verses Paul makes a clear distinction between the words of Christ and those of his views/ those of the early church.  If the early church was as creative as liberal scholars suppose it to have been, Paul would simply have invented saying of Christ to deal with this topic and put it into His mouth, as the liberal scholars assert that the New Testament writers did countless times.  In these verses we see that the first century church as represented by Paul by no means felt themselves free to invent such sayings and ascribe them to Christ—even if such sayings would have been convenient and helpful to their situations.  Rather they felt themselves bound by history to only report Christ as saying something if He actually said it.
  3. We note that the title “the Son of Man” which Christ habitually used to describe Himself in the Gospels cannot be found in any of the New Testament epistles.  This discontinuity witnesses to the fundamental distinction between the historical Christ and the later first century church.  In the view of the liberal scholars, there was no real dividing wall between historical Jesus and the first century church; people in the early decades made up stories about Jesus more or less at will.  But if this were so we would expect to find the titles Jesus used to describe Himself current in the early church too.  This is not the case.  Rather, the sitz im leben or life setting of Jesus and that of the later church are quite different, and extends even to the titles used for Jesus.
  4. We also note the controversy which all but tore the first century church apart, but which left no traces in the Gospels—that of the question of whether or not the Gentiles should be circumcised when joining the Church.  St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians and St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles both testify to how this question divided the early church and required urgent resolution.  If that first century church was in the habit of inventing sayings and putting them in the mouth of the Lord, we wonder why no such pronouncement on this question can be found in the Gospels.  If there was ever an occasion for which the creative early church should have invented a dominical Gospel saying, it is this one!  The absence of such a controversy in the Gospels shows that the church did not feel itself competent to make things up and project them back onto Christ, as the liberals allege that they constantly did.  Rather that church felt itself bound by fidelity to the historical facts transmitted by the apostles.
  5. When we leave the borders of the first century church and look at the “apostolic Fathers” of the early second century and beyond we see the same conservative spirit.  That is, all that literature breathes a spirit of historical conservatism, a desire to refer back to the Gospels as historically reliable.  If the first century was characterized by a liberal and creative freedom and by a constant production of material about Jesus’ words and deeds which He never actually said or did, one needs to explain the sudden and universal alteration in the church’s attitude as it emerges into greater historical purview in the second century.  Bluntly put, we may ask what could have possessed the church to go from feeling itself creatively free of all historical constraint to being obsessed with historical reliability all in the space of a few (undocumented) years?  The easiest explanation is that of course the church underwent no such internal radical revolution, but continued its historical conservatism from its earliest years.  That is, the church never felt itself free to invent tales about its Founder, but was always concerned to preserve the historical traditions that it first received.

After all, this is the most likely scenario, psychologically- speaking.  For think about it:  say you are a convert to Christian preaching in the first century.  Stories are told you about what Jesus did and said.  Why would you not simply believe and treasure them and pass them along to your children?  Is it at all likely that such a convert would hear those stories and say, “That seems odd to me.  Let me change it.  In fact let’s make something up and ascribe it to Jesus because I think it’s a good story”?  Is it credible that converts in the first century would think like this?
            Take the example of Gandhi, or Mother Teresa, or any other modern religious figure.  Their followers pass along certain stories and sayings, and these are justly treasured and preserved by other followers.  But do we see these followers simply inventing a multitude of stories and sayings out of whole cloth and ascribing them to Gandhi or Mother Teresa so that their essential historicity is swamped?  No; rather such people as Gandhi and Mother Teresa attract a following precisely because of what they have been known to say and do.  No one feels a need to invent more stories.  History alone suffices.  That is why Gandhi and Mother Teresa have followers to begin with.

            We may therefore feel confident that the Gospel stories about Jesus are historically reliable.  They were written down by Jesus’ followers within a few decades of the time they occurred, and within a community which treasured historical accuracy.  By any common-sense figuring, these are trust-worthy accounts.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Houston, We Have Problem

From my happy home safely north of the forty-ninth parallel, I regularly receive news from my American brothers and sisters down south, and most of it convinces me that I have no real understanding of Americans.  I do know, however, that love of liberty and the freedom to believe, speak, and live according to one’s conscience apart from the tyranny of government is a very precious part of the American vision and approach to life.  This love of liberty is enshrined in the concept of constitutional rights, and this makes for endless debate when people feel their rights are being infringed and threatened by other people seeking what they believe are their rights.  One such debate seems to be going on presently in Houston, Texas.
            The city of Houston has issued subpoenas demanding a group of pastors submit any sermons or pastoral messages to their flocks concerning homosexuality, gender identity, or their mayor, Ms. Annise Parker, who is that city’s first openly-lesbian mayor (pictured above).  One such pastor is Steve Riggle, the senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston, who was ordered to hand over all speeches and sermons relating to the mayor and the ongoing gender debate, as well as “all communications” with the members of his congregation.  Failure to obey these subpoenas is no light matter, and could result in the pastors being held in contempt of court.  The move is the latest development in the city’s ongoing struggle to enforce its non-discrimination law passed in June—a law which would allow, for example, men to use women’s washrooms and women to use the men’s.  One imagines that this law was drawn up to protect those of the LGBT community who feared that their rights were being threatened by discrimination.  Battle lines are being drawn.  Petitions are being filed (and thrown out), and a very public debate continues.
            As the good crew of Apollo XIII once said, “Houston, we have a problem”, and here the problem is not confined to Houston.  Knowing how much Americans value freedom, this latest move to limit liberty even to the point of censoring the sermons and pastoral communication between clergy and their flocks is very revealing.  And what is reveals is that the war against traditional Christian faith is heating up.  Telling clergy what they can and cannot preach is unprecedented—at least in the United States.  Some decades back it was the usual practice of the government of the U.S.S.R., who were at least up front about their hostility to religious faith and their determination to stamp it out.  That Soviet government also demanded that clergy toe the government line in their public utterances.  Sermons were okay as long as they were acceptable to the state and did not rock the secular boat.  That is, the clergy were effectively gagged, and were only permitted to operate if they doubled not just as religious functionaries, but also as organs of the state.  The cultural war against traditional Christian values in the west has now reached the stage where our adversaries feel confident enough to attempt a similar imposition on the freedom of the clergy—at least in Houston. 

            I wish my Texan brothers and sisters well in their attempts to resist such an imposition.  But regardless of whether they win or lose this fight, the handwriting is on the wall.  And the handwriting, though not necessarily unwelcome, is one that we North American Christians sometimes forget.  And its message is this:  we belong not to this age (which lies in the power of the Evil One), but to the Kingdom of God.  Our true citizenship is heavenly, not earthly (Phil. 3:20), for the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31), whether it is the world of Houston, or the rest of America, or anywhere else.   In this age, at the end of the day the World is still the World (just as Flesh and the Devil is still the Flesh and the Devil), and whether or not that World wraps itself in the Stars and Stripes or the Canadian Maple Leaf or any other flag cannot change this fundamental fact.  Our earthly patriotisms are thus not wrong, but they can never claim our final loyalty.  We must struggle to preserve freedom and resist unrighteousness, but this should not make us imagine that such earthly battles are ultimate.  And we must also not think that we will always win these battles, for we have been warned that Antichrist is coming, with all the deception of wickedness for those who do not receive the love of the truth (2 Thess. 2:10), and that is at least one cultural battle that we will lose.  Until then, Houston may have a problem.  But like all problems, it will eventually be solved by the coming of the Kingdom of God.  As we speak the truth in this age, let us keep our eyes fixed on that Kingdom

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Book of Esther and the Glorious Ones of the Earth

          In scholarly circles, battles rage on over (of all things) the Book of Esther.  In this boxing match, we see Liberals and Conservatives slugging it out.  The Liberals deny the historicity of the Book of Esther, while the Conservatives defend it.  The Liberals point out, for example, that the Queen whom Esther replaces was not Vashti (as the Biblical text says), but was Amestris (as secular history like that of Herodotus says).  Similarly the name Mordecai does not appear in any secular history at all, which is a little odd if he replaced such a high official as Haman.  And the empire wide attempted genocide of the Jews and their empire wide slaughter of their would-be assailants also find no mention in the secular histories.  Moreover, such xenophobic genocide sounds a little odd coming from the Persians, who were known from the days of Cyrus to be exceptionally tolerant of their conquered peoples.  After all, they let the Jews return to Jerusalem and even funded the Temple building for them (see Ezra 6:8), as they did with temples in Uruk, Ur, and Babylon.  So it is that Liberals deny the historicity of the text and Conservatives rush to defend it, each one brandishing historical parallels, real or imagined, like broad-swords. 
            Both sides, it seems to me, are in danger of missing the point of the Book of Esther.  Especially if the text is read in a holy stained-glass voice like the kind you find in church, one misses its fundamental characteristic, which is satire.  That is, the author of the Book of Esther is making fun of the big and powerful Gentile rulers of the world, and laughing them to scorn—and inviting us to do the same.  The Book’s two main theological points are:  1)  the high and mighty movers and shakers of this godless world are all idiots; and 2) God’s people know this and should not be overly-impressed by the world’s pomp and power.  Let’s look a little closer at the actual story of the Book of Esther.
            It opens with a tremendous banquet, at which the high and mighty King of Persia, being heartily drunk, decides to bring out his Queen to show off how hot she is.  Not surprisingly in this story, the Queen responds by telling him in effect to get bent, and she refuses to come.  The King is royally ticked.  He quickly gathers a royal study commission of experts to determine what to do next.  The learned gentlemen he calls solemnly decide that the authority of every husband in the empire is in jeopardy and so they solemnly pass a royal edict that each husband must be the king of his own castle.  Letters are sent out across the Empire to tell everyone of this edict.
            This is, of course, one’s first clue that one is reading satire.  Other clues come quickly enough.  The old Queen is out, so another Queen must be found.  The King decides to pick one on the basis of a beauty pageant.  He picks Esther, without apparently doing any other investigation, so that he does not even know that she is a foreigner and a Jew, or that her relative “uncle Mordecai” was the one who thwarted an assassination attempt on his life and whose name was written in the official royal records.  Anyway, Esther is in as the new Queen.
            Haman has it in for Mordecai because Mordecai has offended him.  Rather than just quietly getting rid of him, he engineers a plot to kill every Jew in the Persian empire.  He does this by suggesting to the King that this genocide would be a good idea, and the King (who before could not even pass a law that each husband should be head of his own house without help from a royal commission) now decides johnny-on-the-spot to authorize the genocide.  No problem. Haman seals the deal by bribing the King with ten thousand talents of silver, the ancient equivalent of about $15,000,000.  None of this sounds remotely plausible, but the point is not the plausibility.  The point is the King’s asinine stupidity.  Though the King is all-powerful, he is still pathetic.
            The plot continues.  When word is spread that a genocide of the Jews is in the works, Esther reveals to the King that, alas! she too is Jewish.  This is news to him.  He asks who is responsible for this terrible genocide.  “A foe and an enemy is this wicked Haman!” she cries, pointing to the terrified and stricken Haman.  The King was furious at Haman and abruptly leaves the room.
            What?  The King doesn’t know what he himself decreed?  Or that Haman was the one who suggested it to him?  And gave him ten thousand talents for it?  Like I said:  asinine stupidity.  Anyway, the King has Haman strung up on the gallows meant for Mordecai.  But he can’t simply annul the law.  (Again:  what?)  So, he passes another law, saying that Jews are legally allowed to defend themselves—as if they wouldn’t do the same anyway, with or without such a law.  The Jews do attack their would-be assailants, to the point where Persian blood is spilled throughout the empire, to the tune of 75,000 dead.  When the King is informed that 500 of his subjects have been slaughtered by the Jews in the capital of Susa alone, all he can say in effect is, “Wow.  Imagine then what it’s like outside the capital!  So, Queen Esther, is there anything else that I can do for you?”  She says, why yes, there is.  Please authorize an extra day of slaughter and also kill Haman’s ten sons.  The King’s response:  sure, no problemo. 
            Reading the text with an eye to the central plot reveals how idiotic the King is.  And that is the point.  The Jews of the exile were comparatively powerless, having then no land, no king, no army.  All they had was God.  It was easy enough for them to be awed by the seemingly invincible power of the Persians, and to imagine that the gods of the Persians were superior to their own God.  The Book of Esther, being a polemical satire on pagan power, holds up the Gentile world to ridicule.  No reason, it says, to be that impressed with pagans and their gods.  At the end of the day, they are rather pathetic.  Assimilation is not the answer, however tempting it may appear.  Stick with your ancestral ways.  Our God has not abandoned us.  Like the story says, He works behind the scenes, and He will bring us through. 
That lesson remains a valuable one for us Christians today, as we also face secular godlessness that appears to have all the power.  It is as our Matins liturgy for Lenten weekdays says:  “Bring more evils upon them, O Lord; bring more evils on the glorious ones of the earth!” (from Isaiah 26:15 LXX).  When Christians are persecuted (as they are today in many parts of the world), we may be tempted to despair, or throw away our faith and try to fit in.  The glorious ones of the earth seem all but invincible.  The Book of Esther reveals that behind their powerful fa├žade lies the weakness of folly.  God has not abandoned His people, and He will overthrow our foes, whether our foes be ancient Persia, or pagan Rome, or Islamic Iraq.  The Book of Esther calls us to perseverance and courage.