Hoisting Hamaan - Seasoning for sin
There's letters seal’d, and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d—
They bear the mandate, they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard, an’t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon.
So says Hamlet to his mother Queen Gertrude, in Shakespeare’s play, Act 3, scene 4.
I daresay you know the story:
The Danish prince of procrastination —having revealed that he is onto the fact that his mother colluded with her new husband King Claudius to kill her wife, his father, is about to be packed off on a little trip to England. The new king orders Hamlet's old schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to keep him company – or rather to act as foolhardy secret agents. They are to take with them a letter – a mandate - instructing the English authorities to have Hamlet executed on arrival – ‘knavery’ indeed! – so he intercepts and alters the letter such that it is they, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern – Red Cross and Morning Star, literally – they end up receiving the treatment that is intended for him. Thus the plan will backfire, and the King – the engineer of the plot - will be hoisted on his own petard, as the well-known phrase has it. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern cop it accordingly. If you want to know how, you have to catch up with Tom Stoppard’s amusing fantasy-sequel which takes its title from the simple line later in the play: ‘Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead’.
A petard was a kind of mine, flung at enemies, which being a little unstable to say the least, could blow up in one’s own face, or one could get caught up in the mechanism. Either way, one was hoisted – done in by one’s own murderous intentions.
It’s a risky business, and it take us both further back in time and forwards to our present time – our own lives even. In it lies a lot of sin, and an apparent judgment for sin.
Going backward in time to ancient Persia, ‘being hoisted on one’s own petard’ is what happens to Hamaan, that treacherous enemy of Esther and her community. While Esther is the golden girl, the star of the book, Mordecai is her guardian cousin, who also has a semi-secret role as leader of the Jewish community in exile in the city of Susa, in Persia. The ruler of Persia is Ahasuerus, who is also known to history as Xerxes. In that much we know him to have been pretty weak-willed in domestic affairs, but a ferocious soldier who asserted his authority over the Egyptians, and was finally defeated by the Greeks at the famous naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Esther is Xerxes’ second wife – he dumped her predecessor, who was called Vashti, when she refused to obey him and attend a party. Esther soon ingratiates herself by tipping off Xerxes about an assassination plot, and then, a little later, in the passage we heard, she informs him of a plot by Hamaan to massacre Mordecai and the Jewish exiles. Xerxes pays attention and turns the tables on Hamaan, who, with his sons is executed on his own gallows – which, it would appear is over 80 feet high. He is, as they say, ‘hoisted on his own petard’, almost literally.
Consequently, grateful Mordecai declares a festival – a period of feasting and generosity, to be celebrated yearly around the 14th-15th day of Adar, which for us is in early March. That festival still exists today and is known as Purim.
As well as having a purpose in teaching Jews about the origin of their celebratory festival of Purim, the story has things to say about the reward for treachery, and how a gentile king, if correctly influenced can make the right decisions and still be on the Jewish side. Such an approach reminds us of the holocaust during the second world war, after which some helpers of the Jews were declared by Israel to be ‘righteous among the nations’ for having saved Jews from the gas chambers. Oskar Schindler is perhaps the most famous – the only member of the Nazi party to be honoured in this way. He is buried in Jerusalem and people pay tribute to his grave to this day. He is credited with saving 1200 Jews with his famous list.
So we might want to think of Hamaan has having got what he deserved, having got his comeuppance. Murderous intentions lead to deserved consequences. It is a long-standing, symmetrically satisfying and oft-held view: an eye for an eye, and so on. Hamaan doesn’t actually kill anyone, but he is planning to, and so, being stopped, gets the treatment that few would doubt he deserved.
But we are not Jewish, and the story of faith, moral behavior and salvation does not stop there. In his letter to churches in Jerusalem, James, who was probably the brother of Jesus who only believed once Christ had risen, in his letter he writes:
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
As we move forward in faith, learning from, but also leaving behind the soul-destroying ancient predilections for vengeance, justification and power, we enter a Christian realm where mercy and forgiveness are not only available from God, but are incumbent on us to mediate. Forgiveness comes from God, yes for sure. But we know in our hearts that it must come from ourselves primarily. We know this morally, socially, psychologically and theologically.
We know it morally, because forgiveness is right. Very few cultures, faiths or worldviews deny it. But even if you can think of a current, valid, respectable culture that believes in, say capital punishment, the Christian says there is a better way. We have seen a terrible crime committed against two policewomen in Manchester 10 days ago, and there were a few calls for bringing back the death penalty for police-killers. Such a call says far more about our society than it does about the crime committed. It is an understandable reaction, but no civilized nation is driven by vengeance in domestic or international affairs. If we are, we are done for, and undoubtedly, will be hoisted on our own petard. No, there is a better way, hard as it is.
For we also know that mercy is right socially. Where two people have fallen out, or where two large organizations are in dispute, it is for the greater good if pride, anger and competition can be laid to one side and harmony restored, even if, to follow the metaphor, the two parties have to sing in different keys, which might, perhaps jar or create small discords. But small discords can still operate within the larger harmony. We’ve all seen it: one company feels threatened by another, or feels they’ve had their thunder stolen, or whatever, and they pursue a legal battle in the courts. Who wins? – no-one usually. Except perhaps the lawyers! But even then, in acknowledgement of the lawyers, I should add that if you ask any self-respecting lawyer they will tell you that litigation is always the last resort, and they would also counsel trying to achieve out-of-court settlements. Settlement – reconciliation – agreement to differ – polite non-interfering distance. It is not only morally right, it is socially right. It reduces the wider damage.
It’s also psychologically right. Being in dispute, at odds with someone, infighting, domestic strife, intercinine warfare, they damage everyone. No-one wins – no-one can win. In a world with high divorce rates, it is good to remember that those who take it lightly do not understand marriage, and those who ultimately resort to it are probably doing it for the greater good, and even then a degree of amicability is often achieved. It is simply better that way. We do live in fallen world, but that is not an excuse – we are called to a better way. A better way where anger, bitterness, resentment and pride take a back seat.
And that better way, which underpins the ethics, the sociology and the psychology, is the way of Christ. For two thousand years we have tried to get it right, to live by ideas such as that of St James, who says ‘Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.’ The better way seeks healing and reconciliation, hard as that may be. And indeed it is hard. We have all tried, and we have failed. Not one of us here has not failed at some time or another. But that is why we are here – all of us.
We are here because we recognise that failure. We, perhaps unlike scores of others – do recognise that that the way we are, how we behave, what we think and what we say to one another, is flawed: of course we haven’t got it sussed, but we know a man who has. We turn to scripture, and we turn to one another for love and support and forgiveness, and all being well, we find it. But I never said it was easy. Nor did Jesus.
Jesus Christ, the inventor of reconciliation, he said:
‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’
Strong words from a man of peace. And the paragraph written above it is worth reflecting on and being not a little afraid of. Forgiveness and mercy are not lovvy dovvy ideas, involving kissing and making up – they are hard ideas, which have to be thrashed out in the face of human damage and divine judgement, damnation and salvation. Thus says the Lord. They are not trivial concepts, or nice ideas for other people to indulge in, unrealistic for today. They matter. For life is too short and eternity is too long.
As the Church of England met this week to appoint a successor to Rowan Williams, who will prove to have been one of the spiritual giants of the post-war era – so he hangs up his hat having striven for reconciliation, mercy and forgiveness throughout his ten year tenure. For ours is fundamentally an inclusive church, all are welcome, all can dwell together in ways that were radical 2000 years ago, and still are. And saltiness is part of the recipe for such unity.
We might remember that salt has various functions – it gives flavour, it brings out the other flavours. It also raises the boiling point – helping the cooking. But if you pour salt into a wound, it hurts like hell, and prolongs the agony. But without salt or with too much of it, we die. Salt gives perspective and balance. So it is that while Jesus might have called his disciples the ‘salt of the earth’, and we use the phrase affectionately of good people, salt is in fact two-edged. It can, to use another analogy, blow up in our face and cause pain. We can be hoisted on a salty petard – hanged on our own saline gallows.
So it is that we are all capable of goodness, and of sin. Good saltiness flavours pity, compassion, reconciliation and healing – which most of us need at some time or another. And we can help each other in this. Or we can use salt to rub wounds, or to kill the true flavour of our Christ-centred lives. Salt can affect our perspective, indeed, salt can be poisonous.
But we know from Jesus, that our saltiness is for flavouring our lives and the life of society with the soul-enhancing taste of peace, reconciliation and hope. Without these we are simply floating on a dead sea, directionless and desperate. But flavoured with peace, reconciliation and hope, as Christ entreats us, we will have no need nor desire to hoist anyone on their or anyone else’s petard.
Let it be so: Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 30/09/12