I wonder if you’ve ever felt threatened. I suppose all of us face significant danger in our lives at some point. But I wonder if you’ve ever felt threatened. Can you remember what it was like? What were you afraid of? Were you anxious about losing something or someone? Were you afraid that you or someone important would be harmed? Or were you afraid of what others might think of you? Were you trying to protect something. Maybe it was something valuable, perhaps property, or an heirloom, or a person. Or maybe it was your honor, your reputation, your status.
The story of Esther, and Mordecai, and Haman is a story about feeling threatened, and the kinds of things that people do when they feel threatened.
We don’t get to hear this story often in our Sunday lectionary. Not even parts of it. At Fr. Josh Stephen’s suggestion, I discovered that we only get to hear this story—the end of it—once every 3 year cycle.
And because of that, I’d like to spend some time with this marvelous drama which is both hilarious and horrifying, this tall tale that trades equally in the macabre and the slapstick, in subtle irony and outrageous hyperbole.
On the face of it, it’s hard to understand why Esther is even in the Bible. It’s the only book of the Bible that doesn’t mention God. Our Jewish heroine, Esther, is first a concubine and then a wife of the King of Persia, Ahasuerus, a man given to drunkenness, neglect, and wild mood swings. And the salvation wrought by Esther at the end of the story is so bloody that it’s hard to know what exactly a Christian ought to take away from their reading. What waits for us in Esther’s story?
Briefly, the story goes like this. In the Persian city of Susa, as in other Persian cities, there are Jews living in exile. An earlier king had conquered Israel, and had taken many of the youth of Israel captive. Generations later, perhaps, these diaspora Jews are making the best of a bad situation, much as their ancestors had done in Egypt, and much as their descendants will have to do, spread throughout Europe and around the globe.
One of these Jews, Mordecai is a faithful, law abiding man. He is also a caregiver; he raised his cousin, Esther, who eventually enters and wins a pageant to become the next queen. The previous queen is deposed because, for some unknown reason, she refused the King’s request to appear before him and his friends at a party. The King won’t tolerate such embarrassment, so out with the old, in with the new. And so, Esther and a whole slew of young women in Susa compete for the king’s favor. It’s kind of like the Bachelor, but Ancient Persia edition. And Esther wins, although her status as a Jew is unknown to the King.
Esther wins because she is pliant, she learns how to please the king, and therefore also survives.
Now, Mordecai, her cousin, is not only a pious, law-abiding Jew. He also respects and obeys King Ahasuerus. In fact, he is downright diligent, and uncovers a plot to assassinate the king, a plot he reveals to the kings officials. The king lives. Long live the king. However, Mordecai’s good deed goes unnoticed. But between Esther and Mordecai, we start to see a trend; the Jews of Susa aren’t some withdrawn, sectarian group. They’re among the most faithful of Ahasuerus’ subjects.
Eventually, the king decides that a new wife isn’t enough; he will also appoint a new right-hand man. In contrast to Esther’s demure character, this new right hand guy, Haman, is driven by honor, success, and prestige. Rather than promote faithful and diligent Mordecai, Ahasuerus elevates an unstable, narcissistic, and power-hungry bureaucrat, who moreover, is a descendant of one of Israel’s sworn enemies, the Agagites.
Ok, I realize that this is a lot of detail, but it all comes to a head in this one final detail. The king passed a law that everyone had to bow to Haman, as the second in command. Mordecai, for some reason that we don’t learn, refuses to bow. And learning this, Haman decides to exterminate the Jews—not just Mordecai, or even those living in Susa, but all the Jews living throughout the kings 100+ provinces. And it’s when the king grants this plan approval without reservation, we see just how unstable and terrifying his reign must have been.
So now we’ve gone from Esther’s rags-to-riches story to one of genocide, the gravity of which is expressed by Mordecai and all of the other Jews throughout Ahasuerus’s empire who are now in a state of mourning and lament.
Esther seeks to comfort Mordecai, but there is no comfort in this situation. There is only the certain extinction of the Jews, or the reversal of this decree. There is no in between.
When Mordecai pleas with Esther to bring their case before Ahasuerus, Esther is momentarily recalcitrant: you know he’ll kill me if I approach the king without an invitation.
Mordecai prevails upon Esther that it comes down to her. “who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you were made queen?”
Well, you know the ending.
Esther’s plaint sets the stage for Mordecai’s response, which I’m convinced is the thematic core of the story. Perhaps it was for just such a moment as this that you are here.
Mordecai challenges Esther to reinterpret her life. You’re not the center of your life story, Esther. Something other than you.
And once Esther has accepted this challenge, it’s not so much about demanding what is rightfully hers. She doesn’t immediately complain to the King about Haman’s plot. Nor does diligent Mordecai whine when he isn’t rewarded for subverting the plot to assassinate the king.
Rather, both Mordecai and Esther humble themselves. Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes, and laments at the gates of the city. And Esther becomes a servant, throwing not one, but two dinner parties for the king, and invites Haman! And a further irony is that Haman’s ego is inflated by this invitation. And it is this inflated ego, the result of a subversive invitation from a playfully humble Esther that leads Haman to his downfall.
St. Augustine says that the Bible is full of Stories because God knows we’d get bored with another form of instruction. But I prefer my friend St. Bonaventure who says that it’s better to be taught by story rather than direct instruction because story-telling speaks to the fullness of our humanity. Stories teach the whole person.
So what is Esther teaching us?
Are we like the previous Queen, Vashti: recalcitrant, stubborn, and while perhaps principled, a bit at a loss for wisdom? Or are we like Esther: humble, wise, shrewd, and perhaps a bit calculating?
What do we do when the structures of authority are in disarray, negligent, and unstable?
Where are you in this story? How would this story be different if we were the people of Susa? If we were the Jews in the story? If we were the perpetrators of this great crime about to befall Esther’s and Mordecai’s kin? What if we were the King: bemused, moody, and easily swayed?
Maybe we are closer to this story than we are inclined to think.
We all enjoy privilege in certain spaces and in certain times. When and where is yours? How does your status sit with you?
Perhaps, like Mordecai, you’ve used your privilege to publicly protest injustice. And now you’ve lost status. Or maybe your status is an end in itself for you. You’ve carefully cultivated your status, and you’re desperate to protect it.
Or perhaps, like Esther, you’re surprised to find that you now have status, and you’re being called upon to use it. Will you? How will you?
What does Esther teach us?
Well, like any good story, it will be different for each of us as it is for each character.
The Anglican priest and theologian, Sam Wells urges us to see how this story holds together as one about status, and to see how Esther and the others use their status. Esther is not a book about rejecting status and hierarchy. Rather, it’s a story about how salvation can and will often come from surprising quarters. It’s about status being used in unexpected ways, unexpected by those who are in power. It’s a challenge to those in power to remember that it’s not about them, that status is not an end in itself.
And yes, it’s a challenge to its readers, to use one’s status to work justice. But we hear in the triumphal and surprise ending of Esther the anticipation of Mary’s song to God: it is God who brings justice, who brings down the proud and lift up the lowly, who throws the horse and rider into the sea and remembers his handmaid.
Esther helps us see status as a means to an end. Not to protecting our status, or getting more of it. Rather, to use that status in wise, clever, and good ways: to protect those that need protecting; to be courageous in the face of uncertain times; to be shrewd in moments of instability and change; to be thoughtful, careful, and persuasive as the norm, rather than irrational, headstrong, and shrill like the egomaniacal Haman.
Esther reminds us to be on the lookout for times just such as these.