The Book of Esther
September 30, 2018
The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Good morning! I am so relieved to be here with you.
It has been a tough week in our national arena. A week that demands an assessment and accounting of our values as a nation. Much is at stake. And although it is hard to believe, I think we have even more at stake than the tie-breaking seat on our Supreme Court which is accorded the ultimate jurisdiction over the constitutional and statutory laws of our land, and all of the people therein. That,in and of itself, is quite a lot to have on the line. But after a rash of accusations of sexual assault against the current candidate and the gripping testimony on Thursday of the first, and thus-far most compelling accuser, the stakes have risen.
They have risen past politics. They have risen past ideology. They have even risen past the constitutional rights arbitrated by that highest court in the land. Now we are down to the nitty gritty of what we value as a culture. Now we are debating the character of justice – which always begins with an assessment of power and privilege. Who has it? Who does not? And how will it be used? The character of our justice depends on the answers to these questions.
I think it is not a stretch to say that in our culture the root of most, if not all, evil has to do with privilege. From the Latin: privus legit literally means “private law.” Like private property, privilege is not available to the public, but belongs only to those who can afford it. In our culture, unearned privilege is an undeserved entitlement that offers a special advantage to some at the expense of others. Unchecked privilege is the very antithesis of our Christian teaching that every child of God is intrinsically and equally worthy. And unearned privilege is the currency that fuels and funds the destructive structures of oppression and fragmentation that plague our culture, like racism and misogyny.
Privilege has been in high relief this week. Both the candidate for the Supreme Court and his accuser are very privileged people. But they have chosen to use their privilege in very different ways. And the impact of privilege comes down to the way it is used; how it is hoarded or how it is spent. And sometimes how it is completely ignored as it wields its almost invisible sway.
For those of us who care about the building of the Kin-dom of God the question always comes down to this: how much of our privilege are we willing to spend; how much are we willing risk? How much of our privilege are we willing to spend to protect our own “good names” and our reputations and our ambition? How much are we willing to risk to protect and value the human rights of others; in this case, of the millions of women who have been subjected to physical mental and emotional abuse that has scarred their lives? Because as our nation’s most famous Sunday School teacher has been quoted as saying: “The abuse of women and girls is the most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation on earth.” Those, of course, are the words of Jimmy Carter.
When it comes down to one or the other: personal reputation or basic human rights – which do we choose? Which do we who have the privilege to choose, value more?
With this question in mind, we are more than blessed to be hearing from the Book of Esther this morning. It is our only lectionary reading from this unique and wonderful Book. Like this week’s circus of hearings, it is a wild story of Shakespearian proportion with the life of an entire class of people on the line. And although we do not have the time in this short sermon to delve into the full depth and breadth of this story, but there are a couple of notable things about this short, but powerful Book in our canon, that might help us to think about our contemporary predicament more ….theologically.
The first notable thing about the Book of Esther is that it is the biblical source for the Jewish holiday of Purim – which is an annual celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from the threat of annihilation by their Persian overlords. One cannot help but think of the Holocaust. In the Jewish tradition, this Book is read aloud in its entirety twice during Purim. And we have celebrated thusly at our Family Compline services in past years.
The second notable thing is that the hero of this canonical book is a woman. Actually, the second notable thing is that the hero of this book is human. But that human is a woman. And not just a woman, not just a female, but a female who is an orphaned refugee. She is the very definition of marginalized in her social and political context; akin to Mary the mother of Jesus in terms of her P rating (you know, the power, prerogative, privilege, property, etc.). Esther’s P rating, like Mary’s, is less than zero.
Esther’s ancestors were captured in Jerusalem when Nebuchadnezzar sacked and burned that city a century earlier. And when her exiled parents died, Esther was entrusted to her cousin Mordecai, an advisor in court of the Persian emperor Xerxes (known in today’s reading by his Hebrew name Ahasuerus). And so the Book of Esther is essentially about an orphaned Jewish exile who becomes the queen of Persia, and eventually the veritable savior of the Jewish population in that realm. Until she is chosen by the king to be his queen, Esther is a nobody, less than a nobody in terms of social, political or economic power. Especially in the highly stratified social structure of the 4thcentury before the common era, when this text was thought to have been written.
And so this is a story of the ways in which the power and identity of even the most marginalized people can beconstituted within a society that values privilege above almost all else, a society not unlike our own. This is a story of justice and the risks that we are willing to take for the things about which we care most. And it is a story of supreme hope; of how anything can happen in this world, no matter how many cards we might think are stacked against us. And Esther had a few stacked against her, starting and ending with her gender and her ethnicity. Her Jewish name was Hadassah. But no one knew she was Jew. And she would not reveal that identity until everything was on the line. We might ask why she not reveal that truth earlier? But we know the answer without even asking the question.
The third notable thing about the Book of Esther is that God is never, ever mentioned in this book. The Bible is generally described as the story of God’s presence in and through history. There is hardly another story so devoid of the explicit mention of the central character.
But God’s presence is not absent here. Some call the Spirit of God in this story coincidence, others call it divine providence, but as I tell you, briefly, the story of the orphaned Jewish refugee who became the Queen of Persia and saved the whole of her people, note the places where God appears; usually, as in our own lives, when things are inexplicably turned on their heads, when fortunes are reversed and lives rise from the ashes. When we are faced with an unexpected opportunity to make a whopping big difference for the good in this world, God is always there. Esther shows us that when we are brave enough to speak truth to power, to risk one’s own self for the life of God’s people, the structure of that power changes and anything becomes possible.
So the story goes like this, King Ahasuerus was the ruler of all of Persia, from India to Egypt says the text. And one fine day, during one of the king’s many banquets he summons his queen, Vashti to show her off to his guests. But she refuses to come. The king is outraged. “What,” he asks his trusted counselors and sages, “shall be done according to the law, to Queen Vashti for failing to obey the command of the king?” And one of the wise men surrounding the king replies: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against your majesty but also against the officials and against all the people of your kingdom. [read “the men of your kingdom”] Because the Queen’s behavior might rub off on other women and they too might refuse to come when their husbands call them.” This is really what the text says. And I’m guessing along the lines of what many privileged men of our own kingdom have been thinking this week.
So the counselors tell the king to write an edict and sign it into law that Vashti shall never again enter the presence of His Majesty. And they set about to find another queen who is more worthy. Every available young woman in the land is summoned to the king’s palace. Among them is beautiful young Esther, the ward of one of the king’s advisors, Mordecai. But since the king is not likely to select a refugee as his new Queen, Esther’s guardian tells her to conceal her identity as a Jew. And she does.
All of the beautiful young virgins of the land are taken to the royal fortress and assembled in the harem under the guard of the chief eunuch. And of course, as you might have guessed, as soon as the king lays eyes on Esther, he is smitten. The scripture reads: “the king loved Esther more than all the other women…so he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen…” No one knows her true identity. No one knows she is an orphaned refugee; a survivor.
And from here the story gets a bit hairy and somewhat farcical, you will need to read it for yourself to get the full on effect, but here is the gist.
Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, overhears a plot to kill the king. Mordecai exposes the assassins. They turn out to be guilty. And Mordecai the Jew is thanked for his loyalty. But instead of promoting him for his good work, the king promotes a dastardly devil named Haman. Haman is a Persian whose ancestors opposed the first Israelite King Saul way back in the book of 1 Samuel.
The king passes an edict that all of his subjects shall now bow down before Haman the Persian, but Mordecai the Jew refuses. And like the king who was enraged by Vashti’s disobedience and disrespect, Haman is incensed by Mordecai’s. Privilege was not invented in the 20thcentury. And neither have we learned a lick since the dawn of time!
And because one Jew refuses to bow to him, Haman decides that he will punish every Jew in the land. And not just punish, the text says that Haman vows to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate the Jews.” The plan is to slaughter the Jews on the 15thof the month of Adar, which is, the date on which the festival of Purim is celebrated today.
Mordecai sends a messenger to alert his cousin Queen Esther to Haman’s intention to slaughter their people. Esther says that she cannot possibly intervene, she cannot possibly get involved. It would be too dangerous to her. She has too much at stake. She could lose her own status, her own position, her own newly acquired privilege as queen of the kingdom. She could even lose her very life, as an unbidden approach to the king is punishable by death.
And here is the meat of today’s passage in the context of today’s national distress:
Mordecai says to her: Esther, remember who you are. Remember you are a part of a wider community of people whose lives are also at stake; who will suffer if you are not willing to sacrifice your personal place for their collective peace. Their suffering is your suffering. You can no longer pretend to be a Persian, you must stand up as a Jew. And do not think that you will be spared just because you live in the palace. On the contrary, if you do not speak up, help and deliverance will come to your people from somewhere else, and youwill perish for your cowardess. Who knows, perhaps you have become queen for just this purpose. Maybe the privilege that is yours is the meant to be providence for your people. Maybe yourpower is meant not for you, but for your them.
I don’t know about you, but I cannot help but hear the consonance between Esther and Christine; between the woman who risked her own life for the life of the many who were her fellow refugees and the woman who risked her own peace for the peace of the many who are her fellow survivors. It is the difference between using our power for the wellbeing of the world and hoarding our power to serve our own ambition. Esther and Christine chose the former.
And so like Dr. Ford, Queen Esther gathers her courage and heads out on that shaky unprotected limb where every truth is told to power, for the sake of her people. Esther puts herself aside and does the right thing.
She invites Haman to a banquet. And at the banquet the king asks Queen Esther (whom he adores): “What is your wish? It shall be granted to you.” And Esther replies, “If your Majesty will do me the favor, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. [this is it – she is offering her life for the life of her people] For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated ….” The king is shocked and demands to know who has dared to threaten his queen. Esther replies, “it is the evil Haman!” And, as the scripture says, “Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen.” The king, in his fury, storms out of the banquet and Haman proceeds to beg Queen Esther for his life. But the king has Haman hanged on the gallows that Haman has prepared for Esther’s guardian, Mordecai.
The very ending of the story is a bit violent and vengeful, but the story of its heroine, the orphaned refugee who rose from rags to privilege and then risked it all for the life of her fellow refugees is worth our attention. Because it is the story of the way God works in this world. Very often through the most marginalized among us. But also through those who have deep privilege and are willing to spend it with wild abandon on those who have none, even at the risk of draining their own well.
My friends, we are such privileged people. You and I. Like Queen Esther and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, we have a level of power and privilege that I am sure our God hopes is burning a hole in our pockets….just dying to be spent on the life of the world. As Mordecai said, maybe we have been afforded this power for something other than our own enjoyment and gain; maybe we are meant to risk it all for the justice that honors every life in equal measure.
And so if we truly believe this morning’s psalm; if our help truly is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, then we will have no fear in spending our privilege for the life of the world…..and spending it like drunken sailors!
© September, 2018 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
I just heard the story of someone who named their dog Vashti because she never came when she was called!