10 In reply Esther ordered Hathach to tell Mordecai: 11 “All the king’s officials and the people in his provinces know that there’s a single law in a case like this. Any man or woman who comes to the king in the inner courtyard without being called is to be put to death. Only the person to whom the king holds out the gold scepter may live. In my case, I haven’t been called to come to the king for the past thirty days.”
12 When they told Mordecai Esther’s words, 13 he had them respond to Esther: “Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace. 14 In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.”
15 Esther sent back this word to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa and tell them to give up eating to help me be brave. They aren’t to eat or drink anything for three whole days, and I myself will do the same, along with my female servants. Then, even though it’s against the law, I will go to the king; and if I am to die, then die I will.” 17 So Mordecai left where he was and did exactly what Esther had ordered him.
Thoughts on the passage:
For the last two months we have been looking at what I have called the Bible Basics. My original idea was to cover core stories of the Bible that many of us remember from Sunday school but not recall the details or how they fit in the larger narrative of the Bible. The hope would be to use these basic Bible stories to help us stay grounded in our faith and aware of the larger tapestry of scripture as it is woven together.
Our story this week is interesting because it is a classic Sunday school story. It has all the great story-telling elements that make for a good lesson for children, yet it is a more obscure text in terms of how it is seen in the Bible. I think it might be unique in the Bible in that God is never directly mentioned in the story. It also does not hold a critical place in the historical narrative of the Bible. The events it depicts have no direct impact or reference point at later points in scripture. Unlike Ruth, who is connected ancestrally to both David and Jesus, none of the characters in Esther are referenced again in scripture. It is maybe for this reason that text is much less known.
Esther is a part of the historical books of the Bible. It is set during the Persian empire, when Israel has been conquered and the Israelites are scattered across the empire. Also known as the time of the diaspora, this is a critical period in Jewish literature, and it is a time from which we get many of the great writings of the prophets and the wisdom literature of the Bible. The book of Esther tells the story of Esther, who becomes a Persian queen despite being a Jew. In turn she is given the chance to save her people from genocide at the hands of Haman who is trying to wipe them out because of a grudge he holds with Mordecai, Esther’s adopted father.
Our text for today comes right at the point that Esther has learned of this plot to wipe out her people and she is being challenged by Mordecai to find a way to stop it. Esther has a real reason to be afraid of the king she is supposed to go and speak to. The only reason she is queen is that the previous queen was deposed when she disobeyed the king. She is now trapped between the dilemma of faithfulness to the Persian law or to her own people. In the end, as we see, she chooses faithfulness to her people over the law.
Before we go more into the role of Esther and what we can learn from her actions, I want to explore the argument made by Mordecai that gets her to act in the first place. Mordecai makes two statements, first that Esther might be at risk even if she does nothing, the second is that if Esther does nothing, the people might still be saved, and she will be judged the worse for it. While Mordecai does not directly mention God, the hand of providence is certainly implied in the faith Mordecai has in this deliverance. God is going to save the people, Esther can choose to join with God in this act of salvation or not, the choice is hers.
The intersection of God’s omnipotence and control as compared to our free will has always been a source of theological tension. If God is all powerful and orders the whole universe, then how do we have any control? If we do have free will, does this mean we have the ability to thwart the will of God? Theologians have debated this for centuries and yet in Esther I find a sense of an answer. Yes, we have the power to do whatever we want, but God is still going to do what God wants. We can choose to not be a part of God’s work in the world, but that will not stop God from being at work in the world. Just like a stone tossed in the river cannot stop its flow, our own inaction will not stop God’s work in bringing about God’s kingdom. It will however change our relationship to God.
Esther was written over two thousand years ago, and yet this message is haunting in a post holocaust world. Esther talks about a plot to wipe out the Jews and we have another direct example of a time when people sought to do the same thing. After World War II we also entered a similar time of reckoning as to what the role of all of us was in this time of great threat. From the Nuremberg trials to questions about the role of world leaders like Pope Pious XII and King Edward VIII and to the very personal questions of what everyday people like you and I knew and did in response to the horrors of the holocaust. Many of these people have not fared well in the judgement of time.
Esther makes the choice to have faith and to act. She asks for prayers of support from her community. After her own time of prayer and fasting she summons her courage and goes to face the king. The courage of Esther helps to save her people from being destroyed. She in turn becomes a part of God’s redeeming work in bringing the Israelites safely through the diaspora and their eventual return to Jerusalem.
When Esther chooses to act, she has two things she needs to confront, the first is a very real threat of punishment and maybe even death for disobeying the king. The other is a reverence for the law. Esther is not alone in her strong belief that rules are meant to be followed. I know that I for one tend to subscribe to that belief and I suspect that many of you do too. The challenge is what do we do when the laws run up against our own very real fears of something worse. If Esther was not willing to break the law, who knows if she would have been able to save the people.
In his letter from the Birmingham City jail, Martin Luther King, Jr expresses similar concerns from well-intentioned clergy who are concerned about his actions. They dislike the public spectacle and the breaking of the laws that King and others are encouraging as a part of their protests and boycotts. They preach caution and restraint to King. It is these concerns that King seeks to address when he replies with his famous letter. I hear similar concerns expressed by those in the United Methodist Church who grow frustrated that others are not following the rules of our church when it comes to the ordination of GLBTQ clergy and performing same-gender weddings. I hear similar concerns with those who express frustration at those who come to our borders seeking asylum. Here is what Dr. King said about his own struggle with breaking the laws.
YOU express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an "I - it" relationship for the "I - thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn't segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.
Obviously, I have my own opinions about what laws I think fit or do not fit into the definitions of Augustine and Aquinas. I do not offer these examples to tell you what you need to think about them. Rather, I want us all to remember the challenge we have in following God is that even those things that are meant to guide us to right actions, such as laws, can become corrupt guides and false barriers to the work that God calls us to do. Esther made a choice, that the laws that kept her from seeing the king were less important the moral imperative to protect people from harm. She summoned up her courage and chose to act.
I would challenge us to do the same. Our baptismal vows are to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. We are to do this because that is what God is doing. As Sidnie White Crawford writes in her commentary on Esther, “God is on the side of the oppressed, but works though human instruments to achieve divine purposes. Esther is a human heroine for a human situation and, as such, speaks powerfully to all oppressed people through the centuries.”
We all have the ability to be heroes and heroines if we want to join in God’s redemptive work in the world. We can be a hero when we help provide school supplies to people who do not have the resources to do so, or milk to people who are struggling with the crushing burden of poverty. We can be a hero when we share the liberating message of the Gospel with those who are struggling with the chains of addiction or depression. We can be a heroine when we speak up when we see others being mistreated or harassed because of their gender, sexual identity, race or religion. Like Esther, we have the free will to choose our actions. Do we wish to sit back and hope that our own power and privilege will keep us safe, or we will risk that security to be a part of God’s work in the world? Amen
Questions to Ponder:
What does the story of Esther say to you?
Who are those that you see as being threatened or victimized that you can help?
How do you discern where God is at work in the world so you can act accordingly?
Loving God, the story of Esther reminds us that you are always about your redemptive work in the world. You were working to save the people of Israel then and you are working to save us today. Help us never to forget how your hand has brought us forth from darkness into light. Help us to have the courage to reach out our hands as well that others might be drawn forth into your magnificent radiance. Amen