Who defines you? That might seem like a strange question but consider we do not leap from the womb with a fully formed personality and sense of identity. Our self-definition comes from the people around us and how we interact with them. Our lives are spent working out this definition – accepting some definitions and rejecting others. Who defines you? Both the Hebrew text from Esther and the Gospel reading from Mark address this question.
I’ve said I have a “love/hate” relationship with the lectionary and today is more the latter than former. This is the one and only time the book of Esther shows up in our lectionary! It’s as if the writers of the lectionary realized they had missed the wisdom literature so they have to put a smattering of it in … and we get the very end of the Book of Esther. Some of you know the story, but a good number don’t and quoting the end of the book is kind of like turning to the last chapter in an Agatha Christie novel to find out “who done it” rather than read the whole thing. So permit me to give you the Sparknotes version of Esther.
Many scholars question whether or not Esther was a real live human being. There is some belief this is a fictional work and there is evidence to suggest this. First, there is no corroborating evidence from other ancient Near East sources documenting a King Ahasuerus. Usually there are other sources that can cross reference nobility from other places. Second, the story line begins in a preposterous way. King Ahasuerus throws a big party and so does his wife Queen Vashti. He demands she come over to his party so he can show her off and she refuses to come. There may be some good reason for this but the king overreacts and his advisors tell him if word gets out all the women in the kingdom will disobey their husbands … the whole thing gets out of hand and Vashti is banished – a pretty extreme response and not very kingly. Then the advisors decide to hold a beauty contest to choose a new wife for the king. There is nothing in ancient Near East literature to suggest this was the way any queen was chosen! So, you see there’s a comic element going on here.
Mordecai, a Jew in exile, puts forth his niece Esther as a contestant in the beauty contest and she wins. She hides her true identity from the king and his advisors, which include the notorious Haman. Now Haman is a “Snidely Whiplash” kind of villain – the kind who tries to undo his nemesis Mordecai and every time he does, it backfires on him. Today we hear about the final backfire – Haman has determined to annihilate the Jews and Queen Esther reveals her true identity to save her people. The very gallows Haman built to hand Mordecai becomes his own death sentence. In the end, we hear of the decree to observe the 14th & 15th of Adar as a feast to remember Queen Esther revealing her true self to save her people – and the Jewish people celebrate this as Purim by eating cookies known as Hamantaschen or “Haman’s pockets.”
The Gospel reading also is about identity and who defines it. John begins by telling Jesus the saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples told him to stop because he wasn’t part of their group! Jesus essentially tells them to quit protecting his brand identity and recognize that anyone who does a work of power in Jesus’ name cannot remain an enemy of theirs. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
But there is a subtext in how Mark is telling this story. This vignette comes on the heels of the conversation about who is the greatest. In the days when the Gospels were written, there were a lot of little communities springing up around the Jesus movement and there were a great variety of understandings of who Jesus was and what his life, death and resurrection meant. This is long before the Nicene Creed was written or any of the church councils convened. So there’s rivalry between the Jesus groups about which ones are the “real Christians” and who are the posers. Mark is addressing this controversy by weaving the story the way he does. John and the disciples are presuming to define the other person and essentially say his ministry in the name of Jesus is not legit. Jesus responds by saying it isn’t important whether they are part of “our group” or not – what counts is doing the things Jesus told us to do.
We still do this as Christians today, don’t we? Various groups define themselves by defining others with rules of exclusion. The most obvious issue that comes to mind is Eucharistic practice – who gets to receive the Eucharist at any given church? Some Christians practice closed Communion where only their members can receive. I’m not just speaking of the Roman Catholic Church – the Orthodox Churches, Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and some Baptists also practice closed Communion. Who defines who can receive is an example of defining one’s self over against another.
Episcopalians do this too … but in a more subtle way. Sometimes we can get to thinking we are “all that and a bag of chips” and believe that we have the best music and most beautiful liturgical practices. Again, that’s defining ourselves at the expense of other Christians – and Jesus says when we do that we are wrong. Anytime we define ourselves by putting our foot on someone else’s neck, we are not embodying the Gospel.
So who defines you and where do we make the error of defining another at their expense? The truth is there is only one identity which matters to us. It’s our identity as “child of God” … and even more than that: “beloved child of God.” Our human tendency towards striving to be special and set apart is nothing more than vanity and ego. The truth is our best and greatest identity is found in God and being claimed in Baptism as Christ’s own forever. Beloved children of God is who we really are – and that is enough.