09/30/18 – Esther: An Old Story for a New Day

ESTHER: AN OLD STORY FOR A NEW DAY

September 30, 2018
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10: 9: 20-22; Ps.124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

The Old Testament story of Esther is a deviation from the Wisdom literature we have been reading, yet it dovetails beautifully with our recent readings from James. James speaks to the importance of integrity for Christians. Noted for the verse, “faith without works is dead,” James impresses upon the reader the requirement that one’s actions reflect the Christian faith one professes. Our gospel reading from Mark today, and those from the past few weeks, have chronicled Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem and the cross that awaits him. Jesus is unyielding in his attempt to prepare his disciples for his departure and their commission to take over the task of spreading the news of the coming kingdom of God. The disciples will need to stand up against worldly powers and values. They will need to both talk the talk and walk the walk of Christ’s message. They will need to be disciples with integrity.

So, how does the story of the Jewish Queen of Persia during the Diaspora speak a similar message? The portion of the book we just read is the climax of the story. Let me provide a synopsis of the whole story.

The story takes place in Persia about 400 years before the birth of Christ. For the third time, the Jewish homeland is controlled by a foreign empire. This time the Persians had defeated the Babylonians and taken control of the region.  Jewish people were living in the land of their conquerors and were trying to build lives without abandoning their faith.  The challenge was Christians face in our society today.

Esther is an unusual book of the Old Testament because God is not mentioned once. The only other book that does not mention God, specifically, is the Song of Songs. The books of the Hebrew Bible are divided into 5 scrolls. Esther is one such scroll, known as the Megillah. The story of Esther is the basis of the Jewish feast known as Purim. Queen Esther’s Hebrew name is Hadassah, which you may recognize as the Jewish Women’s group – like our “Presbyterian Women.”

In seminary I wrote a paper on Esther and, for my research, I consulted the Reform rabbi in town. I learned that some rabbis are not particularly keen on the book of Esther. One reason is the fact that God is not mentioned; and, the other, the celebration has a bit more secular fun than some rabbis like to see in their synagogues. Children take on the biggest role of the celebration. Children dress up as the major characters in the drama. The characters are Esther and Mordecai, the two Jews; King Ahasuerus, Queen Vashti, and Haman, the villain. When the story, the Megillah scroll, is read, the children cheer whenever Mordecai or Esther is named and stomp their feet and boo when Haman’s name is mentioned. Adults have been known to make a drinking game out of the calling of names. Cookies in the shape of Haman’s trident hat, called Hamantaschen, are served. You will probably find them in a bakery around the time of Purim. Next year this will occur in late March.

The story goes that Mordecai was a Jew who served as a minor administrator in the king’s court. Ahasuerus was the sole authority of the land, but unfortunately, was a bit of a fool who was over his head as king. His ignorance and ineptitude made him dependent on his counselors. However, his insecurity made trusting his advisors difficult for him. To cover up his insecurity he threw lavish parties to show off his wealth. These parties were like Roman bacchanals of later history. The parties included several days of eating rich food and fine wine. After two days of such a party, King Ahasuerus called for his Queen to come to the banquet hall and dance for a huge crowd of his drinking buddies. Queen Vashti knew what she would be getting into, sexual harassment and possibly assault on a grand scale, so she refused. She was deposed as queen forthwith. Although the king had many wives, today we would refer to them as mistresses, there could be only one queen, so now he was in the market for queen number two. For this search, all the beautiful young, unmarried women were rounded up for an audition. The king, of course, loved the beauty pageant.

Esther was Mordecai’s young cousin, who he had taken as his charge when she became an orphan. Mordecai was a faithful Jew, taking care of the orphan as God had declared the duty of men and women of faith.  Esther was part of the round-up of potential queens. She won the contest and became the new Queen of Persia. The king was far more interested in Esther’s assets, which did not include learning of her faith. All went well until one of the king’s deviously ambitious advisors, Haman, wanted to be his main counsel and thus control the hapless king’s empire.

Haman was successful in gaining the chief counsel spot. One of the perks of the job was that all others in the royal court were required to bow down to him and obey his every request. Mordecai, ever faithful to God, refused. This enraged Haman who then used the age-old ploy of blaming the foreigner. King Ahasuerus, easily influenced, fell into Haman’s scheme and agreed to Haman’s suggestion to put forth a royal edict to kill all the Jews in Persia.

Mordecai figured Esther was their peoples’ only hope. Esther was, at first, fearful of Mordecai’s suggestion that she go to the king and plead for the lives of all the Jews. Mordecai warns her of the danger of keeping silent when such an injustice was planned. Jesus echoes this warning when he tells his disciples that when salt has lost its saltiness, it is useless. In Mordecai’s plea for Esther to speak to the king regarding the disastrous edict, we can hear James’ words that “faith without works is dead.” We hear James telling us that “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” Mordecai pleas with Esther: ‘Just speak up and you can save your people from genocide.

These verses ring out through 3000 years of God’s Word to humankind. Do not remain silent in the face of injustice. When silence is deadly, speak out. Speak out for those whose voice is ignored by those with the power to lift lives out of poverty and oppression. Too often, we only speak out for our own benefit, even though we have far more than the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

In response, Mordecai delivers one of the most famous lines of the story. He tells Esther: “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Mordecai was speaking of what we Protestants refer to as Providence. God puts people in the right place and the right time to do God’s will. “For just such a time as this” is a mantra I have heard many times at presbytery meetings.

Esther breaks the law to obey a higher law. The king had declared it unlawful for anyone to ask for an audience with him without being summoned. Esther bravely asked to see the king and, because he loved her, he allowed the meeting. Esther asked the king for one thing and he responded he would give her anything, even half of his kingdom as King Herod later promised Salome. Evidently, this hyperbolic promise was commonly used in the language of the time. Esther tells the king that someone in his court has ordered that all her people be killed. Horrified, the king asked who responsible and Esther names Haman was. Haman had already ordered gallows be constructed to hang Mordecai for treason. One of the king’s guards suggested that since the gallows were already built, they could be used to execute Haman instead.

The edict to kill the Jews had already been sent to all the provinces, but the king made a new edict that if anyone tried to harm the Jews they had the right to defend themselves. The Jews prevailed against all attackers. Mordecai, now a trusted advisor to the king, sent a letter to the Jews throughout Persia declaring a feast day every year in honor of their victory. An important part of the festivities was to be giving gifts of food to each other and to the poor. Thus, Purim became only one of two Jewish festivals that was prescribed by Mosaic law – the other being Hanukah. A Jewish friend of mine once explained to me that all Jewish holidays can be explained the same way: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”

Even though God is not explicitly mentioned in the book of Esther, the story extols the virtue of being faithful to God in the face of persecution, as the disciples and Mark’s community experienced also. Esther symbolizes the challenge to maintain one’s faith values even when it is far more convenient and profitable to go along with the prevailing secular culture.

The story of Esther speaks as much to us about faith and integrity today as it did over 2000 years ago. Its message rings through the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. The words of our mouths, when they are guided by our faith, are “acceptable to the Lord.” When the words spoken from our faith are reflected in our actions, we glorify God and honor all of God’s children

Amen. May it be so.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
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