The texts this week all focus on some sort of drastic effort which is done to save life. Saving lives is the holy and righteous act in the Christian worldview. One of the passages demonstrates a woman’s willingness to die in order to save her people. The others speak of the non-fatal lengths that we should be willing to take in order to save life in this world and the next. In every case, the efforts that the Bible tells us we should be willing to take to save lives point to the extreme value God has not just for life, but for working actively to save and prolong it.
The first story is of Hadassah/Esther’s beseeching the ridiculous king Ahasuerus to save her and her people. All through the book of Esther, Ahasuerus is presented as a king full of folly and prone to anger who relies on his advisors to tell him what to do when he becomes upset. But the one rule of the kingdom is that anyone who approaches the king without permission can be killed for the offense (Esther 4:11). [The introvert in me would really appreciate this kind of power!] Esther, knowing that she had to intervene in Haman’s plans for genocide and leverage Ahasuerus’ lust for her in order to save her people, put on her royal finery to approach the king (Esther 5:1-2). When the king saw her, he started to promise even up to half his kingdom. After a couple days of picnics, Esther asked that her people be freed from the death sentence that Haman had bribed the easily-fooled king to enforce (Esther 7:4). Esther’s daring in approaching the unstable king at the potential cost of her own life saved her people!
The book of James recommends less dangerous, but potentially more extreme action. We don’t normally think of prayer and confession as extreme, but they are interacting with the stuff of life and death! James says that if you are in trouble or sick, you should pray and have elders pray over you. James is certain that prayers offered in faith will make the sick person well! I believe that if we pray, we will see miracles.
I also know that no amount of Jesus’ praying in the garden changed God’s mind about the upcoming crucifixion. James himself was stoned to death in the vicinity of the temple. We must not turn James’ counsel into a tool of abuse to those who suffer and are not healed, despite praying in faith. Paul himself prayed for relief but was not granted it (2 Cor 12:8-9). James is giving encouragement that prayer can and does save lives. And we need to be faithful to pray. Not all earthly lives will be saved through prayer, obviously. But we still pray to the God who is faithful.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus points to an even more drastic length to which people must go if it will save lives. Jesus says that if our eyes, hands or feet cause us to sin, we should cut them out/off in order to enter [eternal] life maimed, rather than to be thrown intact into Gehenna. Whether Jesus meant this literally or not is a scholarly conversation that is beyond the scope of this blog post. I suspect not. But Jesus loves to say scandalizing things [son of God, drink my blood, before Abraham was…] that he also really means. I will only say that it seems out of character for God and Jesus to provide eternal salvation to humans, but then have them self-mutilate to save themselves as well.
Much more important that actually doing the deed, I think, is the direction of the dramatic cure. Note the reflexive nature of the sin remediation plan. If my own eye causes me to sin, I do not stone whatever I lust after, I gouge out my own eye. If my own hand causes me to sin, I do not make bad-touch more difficult, I remove the offending member. Hopefully, Jesus is speaking in metaphorical language just as Paul would do decades later when he said that he beat his own body in order to not be disqualified from the race he was running (1 Cor 9:27). No one who wants to run a race gives themselves a beating beforehand. In the same way God wants to redeem the whole person for physical resurrections does not counsel people to actually deface the body that God has given them and redeemed for them. The intent is that we should be self-discipling, not blaming others for the way that we hurt or mistreated them. We need to undertake radical self-discipline, in cooperation with the work of God’s holy spirit, to exorcise our sinful behavior, even/especially after Jesus has saved us from the powers of sin and death.
Esther, James and Jesus all demonstrate different lengths one should go to in order to save a life. Like Esther, we need to use our power and privilege to intercede with those in power, no matter how foolish or volatile they may be, in order to save our brothers and sisters. Like James, we need to always be faithful to pray, to confess and plead with God to save us and our brothers and sisters. And finally, as Jesus commanded, we need to take drastic action to reign in our own sinful behavior before it hurts us or other people. These actions do not prevent us from relying on Jesus to save us. But because Jesus has bought us for a price, we are to live out the truth that Jesus is our lord.