Friday, February 26, 2021

Queen Esther

Purim is the Jewish holiday (celebrated today) that commemorates the events in the Book of Esther. In the Christian calendar we only get to read from Esther once every three years in the lectionary cycle; in Year B, in the fall. (This year we will in fact be doing that on September 28, 2021.) But in the meantime, since I love this story so much and because I feel a kind of "holy envy" about Purim, a sermon on Esther...

Esther is a melodrama. That is, to refresh your memories, a drama that is told with exaggerated characters. There is a hero (or in this case a heroine, Esther) and a villain (the evil Haman.) As with all melodramas, the plot appeals to our emotions and the audience gets involved by booing and hissing and shaking noisemakers whenever the villain’s name is even mentioned.  

Very often melodramas also have some PG-13 parts and this one is no exception. If you were seeing it performed on Broadway you’d find it pretty tame, especially if you’ve seen A Chorus Line or Avenue Q and the like. But hearing it read in Church, from the Bible, surprises some people and may even make a few blush. Nevertheless, it's part of the canon... 

In scene one, the narrator tells us that “all this happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. It’s the third year of his reign.”  What is important to note here is that we aren’t in Israel anymore, Toto, but at the heart of the Persian Empire (what we call modern-day Iran.) The story is about how hard it is for God’s faithful people to live in the midst of a foreign imperial power. 

As it begins, the king is seated on his royal throne surrounded by political advisors, including the evil Haman. (Boo, hiss!) What follows is a wild, unrestrained, party. On the seventh day of this bash, the narrator tells us that the king was “merry with wine.” (This is Biblical code language for “totally hammered.”) He commands his beautiful wife, Vashti, to come in and do a little dance for his guests wearing her royal crown. (It’s seems clear that what he is asking is that she dance wearing nothing but her crown.) She refuses, and the king is furious. His advisors suggest that this cannot be tolerated because empires rely on compliance: not only is the authority of the emperor supposed to be absolute, but if people learn that the queen doesn’t obey the king, then ordinary women will stop obeying their husbands. And so they convince the king to issue an edict to all the royal provinces that “every man is master of his own house.” They also convince him to get rid of Queen Vashti and hold a beauty pageant to find a new queen.

Meanwhile in a nearby village, there is this Jew named Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjamite.” (2:5) He has a beautiful cousin whose name is Esther. Mordecai suggests that Esther enter the beauty contest, which she agrees to do. Now part of the plot here is that while a guy named Mordecai is not likely to be mistaken for an Irish Catholic guy, Esther can “pass” as Persian. And so neither she nor Mordecai see any reason to let anybody know of her religious preference. (So she doesn’t check that box on the pageant application.) Only she, Mordecai, and the audience know that she is a Jew.

We have now met all of the key players in those first two scenes, and the story is underway. Esther wins the contest and becomes queen. She becomes an “insider,” but only by keeping her identity a secret. That's important to remember. In the meantime the evil Haman (boo, hiss) is promoted and becomes the chief advisor to the king. Haman loves power and hates the Jews. Whenever he walks out in public, he expects people to bow to him. Mordecai refuses to do that, however, and Haman decides to show Mordecai who is boss by introducing a bill that will basically enact a holocaust and kill all the Jews in the empire.

Esther, however, is now in a position to expose the evil Haman and his plot to kill her people, and she does just that. Her actions save her people, and change the course of history. As in every good melodrama, good triumphs over evil and Haman gets what is coming to him. 

The king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me— that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. 

And that’s what Purim is all about, Charlie Brown! That is the whole megillah. That’s why it’s a time for feasting and for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.  

But what do we do with this story that is over 2500 years old and set in a culture very different from our own? Is there a word of the Lord here for us or not? And if so, what might it be? Because this is the Bible, we claim that this scroll tells us something about God. Interestingly enough, however, the name of God doesn’t appear. Not even once. Except for Mordecai, none of the characters are particularly religious, including Esther. Yet in another sense, God permeates the story. “Perhaps you are in this position for a reason,” Mordecai tells his cousin, Esther, at a key point in the play. Esther speaks up not because of some big mystical experience, but simply because she’s in a place where she can make a difference. In a very dangerous world she does the right thing by acting bravely and compassionately, at great risk to herself.

There’s another vignette in this plot that has always interested me. Early on in the story, the king has one of those sleepless nights where he is tossing and turning until he can’t take it anymore. He finally gets up to read a book, which turns out to be some old police reports: “The Book of Memorable Deeds.” (Sounds like something out of The Princess Bride, doesn’t it?) In it he discovers that Mordecai had reported two eunuchs who were plotting to assassinate the king. No proclamations were made and no royal medals were awarded, but Mordecai can’t easily be “disappeared” because he’s now on the king’s radar. The rabbis suggest that God is the one behind that sleepless night; that this is precisely the kind of subtle way that God influences this world.

The narrator may be suggesting that God is at work in our lives—behind the scenes—even when we don’t know it. And that we are put into certain situations for a reason; that there are no coincidences. As Christians we might ascribe all of these things to the work of the Holy Spirit, who has a knack of getting us where we need to be and sometimes even causes us sleepless nights that stir us to action. I wonder if some of us might even say that the God we encounter in Esther is closer to our own experience: discerned through hints and guesses more often than speaking in a clear voice at a burning bush or blinding us on the road to Damascus.

Because this is the Bible, this story also suggests something about the human condition. The Book of Esther knows that it’s a dangerous world out there, especially for those without power: women, religious minorities, the poor. So this Purim play is about the challenges of trying to be faithful in the midst of imperial power; about obedience to God rather than the rulers of this age. It’s about the cosmic struggle against the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. It’s easy to put all of the evil on a villain like Haman (or Satan or Hitler or some other leader) –but only very rarely does real life unfold like a melodrama. The most insidious evil usually involves some shades of gray.

If you have read Three Cups of Tea or The Kite Runner, then you know that, melodrama or not, the world of King Ahasuerus is very real. The whole idea that Vashti is put away because she had the audacity to disobey her husband’s obscene request is pretty repulsive, but unfortunately not so farfetched. It may be true that in the west we have come a long way, baby, but even so, we still deal with sexism that treats women unfairly and in the process dehumanizes both women and men.

Walter Brueggemann has noted that we Christians like to give closure to our readings and interpretations, but that “it is recurringly Jewish to recognize that our readings are always provisional, because there is always another text, always another commentary, always another rabbinic midrash…” So, it is, I think with Esther. We are invited to live more fully into these questions. Perhaps when we finish reading Esther, one of the big questions worth asking is, “is this really the kind of world we want our daughters and granddaughters to grow up in?” There is a fair amount of feminist criticism out there on this text, both Jewish and Christian. And there is some debate about whether Vashti should be considered the true heroine here rather than Esther. Maybe it is better to stand up against “the man” even if it gets you killed. 

Maybe. At the very least the Vashtis of this world must not be forgotten. For her own part, Esther compromises, maybe even in some way she has to compromise some of her own integrity in a world that is far from ideal—in order to act for the greater good.

So let me end with a question: aren’t these often the kind of ambiguous moral choices you and I face as well, both as women and men, in our daily lives? Often when I leave the theater (oh, how much I miss live theater!) I spend some time with my wife and those I’ve been with reviewing it and asking questions about the issues raised, sometimes provocative ones. Too often we come to the Bible wanting it to offer us easy answers or moralisms. But Esther shows us another way to come at all of this, with inquiring and discerning hearts. To ask ourselves from time to time, why am I here and what can I do?  Perhaps I have been put here for a reason and for just this very moment in time...