Sunday, 13 March 2011

Hidden Providence, Revealed Duty.

"The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." Deuteronomy 29:29

The Jewish festival of Purim (Lots) will soon be making its annual appearance. This joyous celebration commemorates the deliverance of Israel from the genocidal intentions of the Persian second-in-command, Haman. It is a day that centres on giving food parcels to friends and neighbours, giving much charity to the needy, and feasting and drinking, in fact it is the one day a year that Jews are permitted to get a tad pickled!

One of the principle observances, both during the evening and daytime of the festival, is the reading of the scroll containing the Book of Esther, the biblical book that contains the Purim story.

The Book of Esther contains a history of the most serendipitous coincidences that thwarted a tyrants plans. The story opens with the refusal of the Persian King Ahasuerus' wife to attend the royal banquet, and her subsequent execution. Feeling melancholy at this turn of events the King's advisers suggest a nation-wide search for a new, beautiful young wife for him. The king settles on a sheltered young woman called Esther, who is advised by her uncle Mordecai to hide her Jewishness from her husband-to-be and his court. Shortly after this, Mordecai "coincidently" happens to hear a plot to kill the king being forged by two royal servants. Communicating this to his niece she reveals the plot and as a result the king's life is saved. Then the whole event, and Mordecai's role in it, is written into the Persian book of chronicles. Time passes and the King selects a new prime minister, the infamous Haman. This individual filled with unlimited arrogance is enraged by Mordecai's refusal to bow down to him, and decides to ask permission from the king to have all the Jews in the Persian Empire (most of the world's Jewish population at that time) killed. The king grants his minister this wish. When the decree becomes known by the Jews they are filled with fear and Mordecai asks Esther to intervene on behalf of her people. She agrees and asks Mordecai to tell all the Jews to fast and pray as her mission is one fraught with danger. One night the king is unable to sleep and asks one of his servants to read to him from their book of chronicles. "Coincidently" the servant reads the account of Mordecai's role in having saved the king's life several years before and realising that he had never rewarded Mordecai, he asks Haman (who coincidently at that moment happens to arrive at the palace to ask the king's permission to hang Mordecai) how he should go about honouring Mordecai. Haman, believing that the king is talking about him, cooks up a very extravagant pageant, only to suffer the humiliation of having to be the one who implements it to the honour of Mordecai. Finally Esther reveals during a meal with the King and Haman, both the plot to kill the Jews, and her own identity. The king retires to the garden in anger and Haman falls on Esther pleading for his life as things are clearly not looking good for him. The king returns at that moment and misconstruing what he sees has Haman hanged on the very gallows that had been intended to be used against Mordecai. With the death of Haman the Jews are saved.

The sages of old brought to their disciples attention the interesting fact, that the book of Esther is the only biblical book that does not contain a mention of God. But this should not come as a surprise as the primary theme of Purim is the hidden nature of God's providence, so again perhaps unsurprisingly, the very name Esther has at its root the Hebrew word for "hidden".

Is there a significant difference between nature and miracle? I believe that nature is as miraculous as any miracle, the only difference being that God's face is hidden behind the mask of nature's regularity and its seeming independent existence. But the Almighty's providence works quietly in nature as much as in any splitting of seas or raising of the dead.

The well known expression "can't see the wood for the trees" conveys real truth. Many of us have experienced that reality. When in the midst of some crisis or situation, we are often unable to see the full picture, usually having to rely on a neutral advisor to help us view things as they truly are, with a broader perspective. How exponentially greater is humanity's narrow vision apparent when considering the work of the Almighty? How can we possibly presume to fathom His plans, or the purposes behind the events He brings into being? From our vantage point as limited beings dwelling within our infinitesimally small part of creation, bound as we are by the arrow of time, it is simply beyond our ability to comprehend the ways of the Only True, whose glance takes in all existence simultaneously.

We can only imagine what Esther thought as she was taken against her will into the harem of King Ahasuerus, what purpose could she have seen in her sufferings? What could the Jews have understood about the Divine intentions behind the wicked machinations of Haman? Very little. How could Mordecai have known the nation-saving significance of his having overheard the plot against the king's life? I think it is clear from the Book of Esther, and from the events of our own lives, that it is pointless to delve too much into the reasons why bad (or good for that matter) things happen to us, instead we should focus on our obligation to respond to all of life's events in a way that honours ourselves and assists our fellow man, while ever remaining obedient to the commands of our Father in heaven.

"Eternal God, who committest to us the swift and solemn trust of life; since we know not what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving thee is always present, may we wake to the instant claims of Thy holy will; not waiting for tomorrow, but yielding today."
Home Prayers: James Martineau.

This past week we have all seen or heard about the horrific and incomprehensible tragedy suffered by the people of Japan as the result of a powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami. Time spent on pointless speculation about the role of providence in this disaster is time taken away from the actions, small or large we can all engage in to provide help to those suffering. For as King Solomon instructed us:

"Withhold not good from them to whom it is due,
When it is in the power of thine hand to do it". Proverbs 3:27

But while we must offer our help and our prayers at this time, let us also give thanks for the many significant stories of survival such as this, and marvel at the strength of human beings to cling onto life in the midst of destruction. We can all also afford to learn from the Japanese strength in working together in calm, supportive and determined unity.

When I read that some people in California, thought it appropriate to use the arrival of the then thankfully diminished tsunami, as an opportunity to surf I was simply shocked. To derive pleasure, fun even, from the effects of the event that brought death and grief to thousands, is a demonstration of a lack in empathy and understanding that must be fought against. One of the lessons of Purim teaches that it is better to spend money on charity for the poor than on the festive meal, for how can one enjoy such pleasures when others go without? Minds suffused with this mindset would never have thought to make sport with the effects of this devastating earthquake.

Eventually we may come to see, in retrospect, the reasons behind the events of this world as Jesus taught:

"For there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; and hid that shall not be known." Matthew 10:26

But until that time comes we can only but trust that all events in this world are guided by our merciful God, and that while such events may bring pain, grief and fear, it is our divine work in God's name to struggle to alleviate, if not remove, all these effects, peacefully secure in the quiet confidence that our Father will bestow upon us that which we need to do our work.

"Be not therefore anxious, saying. What shall we eat? Or, what shall we drink? Or, wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first His kingdom, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you". Matthew 6:31-33

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