Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 09/30/2018

An old Jewish man sits down in a fancy restaurant and orders a bowl of soup. Within 30 seconds of being brought his order, the man calls the waiter over and asks that he taste the soup. The waiter inquires as to the problem. The Jew doesn't answer, but again asks the waiter to taste the soup. The waiter advises that he's not in the habit of tasting patrons' food, but the man persists. The waiter asks if the soup's too cold, too hot or contains -- heaven forbid -- a fly. Each time the old man merely repeats his request for the waiter to taste the soup. Ultimately, the waiter relents, if only to bring some closure to what has become quite an episode. He looks all around the table, and then asks, "Where's the spoon?" To which the old Jewish man replies with a smile, "A-ha."

We missed Holy Humor Sunday this year. It wasn’t really intentional on my part although I have experienced a shortage of new material. Still, I thought we might do a “greatest hits” version of it in August but it just didn’t happen, so today might be as close as we come with a little dose of Jewish humor as found in the first reading from the book of Esther. It’s dark humor to be sure but still, there’s humor. What happened to me though was when I read the text and as I thought about the humor in the story my mind jumped to wondering why there are so many Jewish comedians and in seeking an answer to that, I came across the joke I started with, which really doesn’t have anything to do with anything except that it’s another example of Jewish humor and perhaps a way to get your attention.

I didn’t really find a definitive answer to why there are so many Jewish comedians but what is suspected by many is that for Jewish people, humor has been a way of surviving and coping with a history that has included more persecution than any one group of people deserves mostly because of Jews having been widely perceived as an odd and out of step minority and thus being seen as threatening to some. So for them, it’s the old thing that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry or…you’ll go crazy.

It may be that the book of Esther represents one of the first examples of this kind of humor, laugh so you don’t cry humor. Still, it’s another one of those books that can make you wonder why it’s in the Bible as it has no mention of God or worship or prayer. Despite the humor, it also includes troubling violence.

Because of all this, Esther’s inclusion in the Bible was disputed during the early years of the church and even though it wound up being included the questions have continued. Martin Luther had no use for it saying he wished the book of Esther “did not exist at all” primarily because he could find no way to connect Christ to it, instead seeing it as mostly being about Jewish nationalism. The lectionary almost gives Luther his wish that Esther didn’t exist as today is the only time it ever shows up and then only if you use the alternate readings we’ve been using.

Esther though, represents further evidence that those who decided which books would be included in the Bible felt it was important to include some of the voices on the fringe of things. Maybe these fringe voices are intended to challenge our settled answers about our faith and by doing so cause us to come to greater clarity about what is really at the center of things. That’s why, in addition to those who have provided us with the settled answers of the church, we still need those theologians and biblical scholars, poets, philosophers, maybe even comedians, who intentionally or unintentionally push the boundaries and make us think.

The story of Esther is set in Persia during the time of King Ahasuerus who was, at best, a pompous fool, easily manipulated by pretty much anyone who could get his attention. One person who got his attention was Haman who was made second in command and who then expected everyone to bow down to him when they saw him. Living in Persia at that time there were also many Jews who had been resettled there when Israel was conquered first by Babylon, then by Persia. Among the Jews was Mordecai and Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman.

Haman didn’t like Jews anyway, so he reported Mordecai’s insubordination to Ahasuerus telling him that Jews were a miserable lot who were disobedient and who had no regard for any laws but their own. Haman suggested to the king that all the Jews should be exterminated and he paid the king for the privilege of organizing the operation. Mordecai of course was a particular target for Haman so he had a gallows fifty cubits high built in order to hang Mordecai from it.

Meanwhile, back at the palace was Esther, a beautiful Jewish girl, the cousin of Mordecai, Esther having been made queen without Ahasuerus or anyone else knowing she was Jewish. As his queen, she knew the king well. She knew he could be manipulated so being aware that there was a plot to kill all the Jews, she reminded Ahasuerus that Mordecai had once saved him from being killed by reporting an assassination plot.

With a little more conniving and manipulation by Esther, the tables wind up being turned on Haman. Esther invites him to a banquet where he thinks the king is going to honor him, but instead he honors Mordecai and orders Haman to be hung from the same gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. Mordecai then winds up with Haman’s old job and the Jews are spared from being killed. In an ending that we perhaps wish wasn’t included, the tables are turned even more drastically with Esther and Mordecai orchestrating the slaughter of 75,000 of their enemies.

It is a piece of satire and in a short retelling of the story the humor might not really be evident, but trust me, it’s there. The story was written at a time when Jews were threatened and it was probably intended to provide encouragement for the people not just then, but at any time when they were threatened and there have been many such times. For them it was a story of hope at a time when there didn’t seem to be much reason for hope. It’s a story that uses humor to expose the empire and ways of oppression as a farce that in the end, will not prevail.

For Jewish people, the story of Esther is the focus of the festival of Purim, a holiday that celebrates the defeat of Haman. The people dress up in costumes and put on humorous plays and just generally have a good old, raucous time booing when the name of Haman comes up, cheering the names of Esther and Mordecai. For Christians though, it’s more difficult to know what to do with Esther. Luther was right; it is hard to find Christ in this story although the message of hope when there seems to be no hope could certainly be a gospel connection.

One thing that occurred to me though, was that the story of Esther could be seen as an example of how God works in the world. It’s true that God is never mentioned, the word of the Lord never comes to anyone, there’s no burning bush or other evidence of God’s presence, there’s no prayer that seems to be answered. I don’t know about you though, but I haven’t experienced any burning bushes either, except those bushes, whatever they are whose leaves turn bright red about this time of year.

However, I do believe that God works in the background, that God’s will is revealed to us in subtle ways, often through other people. If we pay attention though, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we find God at work in our lives and in the world. We’re able to see some things that happen as more than coincidence. As has been said, a coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.

Another thing that occurs to me is that just as this story uses humor to make a point, it could be argued that Jesus might also have used humor to make a point and today’s gospel might be an example. It’s Jesus telling the disciples if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off, if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It’s a challenging text for biblical literalists; apparently “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” doesn’t apply here or else there would be a lot more crippled and maimed people out there.

It’s quite clear that Jesus was using hyperbole here, overstatement in order to make a point. That hyperbole though has an element of humor to it, humor intended to help his disciples see things more clearly and perhaps laugh at themselves about how often they miss the point of what Jesus is saying.

Humor is important, not just as a means of coping but also because it’s life giving and I dare say that Jesus knew that. Because of that, it seems reasonable to think that he would have made use of humor as he interacted with people and as he preached and taught. I have to think that he was not grimly serious all the time because he was about life and life lived fully, and life lived fully includes laughter and humor.

So again, this may be as close as we get to Holy Humor Sunday this year, a little Jewish humor from the book of Esther and maybe even a little humor from Jesus. But remember that a sense of humor is one of God’s gifts to us, and as good stewards of God’s gifts we are called to use it well.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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