September 26, 2021
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
For the sermon today, we’re really going to focus on the whole book of Esther because Esther is one of those books in the Bible that we don’t hear from too often… which is probably why I chose this passage a few months back. So this is going to be a bit more like a quick Bible study today because to get something out of our readings from chapters 7 and 9, we need to first understand what this book is about.
Esther as a book is a bit troubling in different ways. In our Bibles, the book sits in the historical section… but in Judaism this book is placed in the writings as a story… which is a better way to approach Esther. This is one of those stories with a point placed within a certain historical period rather than a historical story. A point I kept trying to make with the Bible study group that meets on Wednesday as we were studying Daniel… was to remember that the Bible is a library of books and letters… of different types of writings from different contexts… with different purposes and genres. The richness of this library gets lost we tend to think of it as one unified work. And Esther is a great example of that. Yes, this story is in scripture… but to come at it with a “God says it so I believe it” approach… or trying to make it into some factual account… really does this work a disservice. Let me explain a bit further. Elaine T. James, an associate professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, writing a commentary on this passage on the website workingpreacher.org, calls Esther “a comedic exposé of degenerate, self-serving leaders”. Now have you ever thought that the Bible could contain a comedic exposé? That Esther could be a work of satire? Think about how just that idea alone might change the way we read and understand this book… or the lessons we might pull from it. A satire reveals truth in a certain way, right? With a satire you don’t want to find yourself relating to… or seeing yourself in the group being satirized.
Thinking of Esther as a comedic exposé of degenerate, self-serving leaders… now that makes the book… to my ears… sound very timely… and indeed the portrait of leadership within this book is one of men serving their own base needs or acting on their own petty grievances… of constantly wrangling and using the governing system in place to serve their own purposes without much regard to the consequences for the people they govern.
Having said that… it is also interesting to note that God is nowhere to be found in this book. No one in the book is acting as God’s voice or from their faith. God is not present. And so maybe… maybe that’s part of the joke being told.
The story begins with a very comedic scene that sounds very Shakespearean. In fact, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew could be a variation of it. I always say that Shakespeare steals from the best. The king of Persia, Ahasuerus, gives a very fine and majestic banquet for the army and the nobles and the governors. An enormously opulent banquet that lasts for one hundred and eighty days. And when that banquet ends, the king gives another expensive and lavish banquet… this time lasting only seven days… for the people in his citadel in Susa. On the seventh day of that banquet, the king merry with wine… and drunk on his own display of wealth… calls for Queen Vashti to join him so he can in turn show her off to everyone gathered. He wants her to parade about so they can all “ooh” and “ahh” over her beauty. She is another fine treasure of his to be shown off and put on display.
But the Queen refuses to come at the king’s command. And the king becomes enraged. But it is a befuddled rage… because as he confers with the other men around him… with his group of advisors… about what to do about Queen Vashti’s refusal to obey the king’s command… they hit upon this… the men’s greatest fear… “For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, “King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.” Cue the laugh track. All the actors on the stage mug for the camera and wring their hands. What we need here and now… they determine… is a law… a law that will keep women in their proper place. So this group of men gather around and a “decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” Men shall be the master in the house and Queen Vashti is given the boot for not behaving like the trophy wife she always was.
It’s comedic… right… this picture from a story written 2,300 or 400 years ago… it’s comedic this scene of a group of men gathering around together with big smiles on their faces making laws about and over women. It’s a joke… a satirical comment about degenerate, self-serving leaders. A joke that is still being told today… only where do you think the source of laughter comes from with this joke today? What makes it funny? Or is it just sad? I’ll let you answer that one.
I have mentioned that God is nowhere to be found in this book, right?
This is when Esther enters the story. The king… having gotten rid of his trophy wife Queen Vashti… needs a new trophy wife. So they’re going to do a bit of reality TV… if there was TV at this time… this would surely be broadcast to huge ratings in the kingdom… a gathering together of young virgins from all over the kingdom… and the one who tickles the king’s fancy will become the new Queen. What’s the difference between this and the Bachelor on TV now? So these young women are put through twelve months of beauty treatments before they are trotted out and get to spend one night with the king… who in the morning either makes a decision that he has found his new trophy queen… or he calls for the next contestant. What is to be valued in women in made clear here in the beginning of the book. Except remember… this is a satire.
Spoiler alert… Esther… one of the candidates in this reality show… becomes the new trophy Queen. She wins the contest based on the rules of the contest… not because the king sees something more in her… or he is drawn to her by her fine character… or her devotion to her faith. No.
It’s at this point that this somewhat comedic and satirical story takes a darker turn with the introduction of Mordecai, Esther’s uncle. Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate the king… tells Esther about it… Esther, now the queen, tells the king about it… the plot is foiled and Mordecai’s position rises in the court. All of that is a set-up for something that happens later in the story. So tuck that in the back of your brain.
After these things a new plot point is introduced as the king promotes this a guy by the name of Haman… to a high position in the government and everyone bows down and does the usual and expected groveling before him… everyone except Mordecai. Mordecai does not bow down. And Haman can’t stand this. He deserves respect. He demands respect. This will not do. So there is no other recourse in Haman’s mind than to destroy Mordecai. Oh, and finding out that Mordecai is a Jew… Haman isn’t going to be content with just destroying Mordecai alone… he’s murder all the other Jews in the kingdom as well… big man that he is. Haman… consumed by this obsessive hatred because of Mordecai’s sleight toward him… begins plotting and using his office to enact his revenge. Remember… this is a satire.
Because… I know this might be a stretch… but can you imagine anyone today using the power of their governmental office to satisfy some grudge they have against someone? Or a certain group of people being targeted for some surface reason… maybe because it plays well with the base. The ugliness this satire reveals is how little regard or consideration there is for the inhumanity of policies and laws being enacted by these degenerate and self-serving leaders.
Again… also remember… that God is nowhere to be found in this book… in this satirical and darkly comedic story being played out before our eyes?
Anyway… this is where we finally get to our reading from Esther this morning. On the eve of Haman’s plan against the Jews coming to fruition… at yet another banquet… Esther lets the king know about the plot to destroy the Jews and… surprise… that she herself is a Jew who would also be destroyed. Here then is chapter 7 of Esther…
Caught in his own trap. What delicious… but also disturbing irony as Haman and his whole family are hung on the gallows meant for Mordecai. But… that’s not where our lectionary reading ends today… we are to now read two verses from the ninth chapter of Esther.
So Saints, here’s the problem. By skipping ahead like that and reading those two verses… it sounds like everything works out and right wins in the end. It’s a happy ending. But we skipped over the part where Haman’s plan against the Jews… a plan “to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day”… that plan is flipped around and the king allows “the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods on a single day.” So in the kingdom some seventy five thousand are subsequently killed by the Jews as revenge for this plot that Haman had hatched and released. And the Jews rejoice and declare a holiday.
And I know… I know… for a people who have a history of being persecuted and threats of destruction carried out upon them again and again… I know that this is good news for the Jews of the story… good news to be victor instead of victim this time and that it is part of the satirical twist… but… but… but this isn’t the gospel. Truthfully… it’s a bit scary how much truth about ourselves the satirical mirror of this story still reflects back at us… how horribly relatable this story still is… how much it still sadly parallels our world today… where we are still the butt of the same sad, satirical joke. It’s a bit scary when we as readers won’t think twice about the massive killing that takes place in the story because now… now it’s the good guys doing the killing so that makes it all ok. Murder as a sin depends on how we value who it is getting killed. That’s a sad truth. And the joke is on us.
The point of the gospel… like our reading from Mark… the point of the gospel is to move us away from this world of Esther. It’s a bit scary when men still make laws that regard and reduce women as objects, minimizing their power… that so many still believe the greatest value of a woman is as an object of men’s desire… that we regard debasement of individuals as suitable and cheap entertainment for the masses. It’s sad that the engine that powers a recent law in the US is fueled by turning neighbor against neighbor… to give the incentive to plunder one another through the courts is right out of Haman’s plot. It’s all a sad pitiful joke and this continuing satire is painful to keep living out again and again. The only way to break free of this pattern is Christ… to be salted by Christ… to cut off that which keeps us in sin… to leave behind the kingdom of Ahasuerus and Haman… and finally embrace the kingdom of God. Amen.