Saturday, August 18, 2018

“‘For Just Such a Time as This’”

            This Sunday, August 19th, is our second week focusing on the Hebrew Book of Esther.  As we observed last week, we should approach the Book of Esther as a written, fictionalized short story.  It would be a mistake to assume that Esther is intended to be read as a historical piece.  It is not.  Rather, the author of Esther intended that we read it as a short story, more of a parable, which contains important insights and encouragement for living faithfully during times of great difficulty.  That is, we should read Esther, asking how this parable can teach us to live faithfully as God’s people.

            The story of Esther is set during the time when many Jews were in exile from their homeland, living under Persian rule.  The Book of Esther is set in the city of Susa, one of four capitals for the vast Persian Empire, and it occurs during the reign of King Ahasuerus.  It tells the story of two Jewish immigrants: the young girl, Esther, and Mordecai, her uncle. 

            Last week, we explored the first two chapters of Esther, learning how Esther was chosen as the new queen of King Ahasuerus and how Mordecai uncovered and exposed a plot to assassinate the King.  The assassination plot was foiled, but Mordecai received no recognition or thanks for his central role in exposing the would-be assassins. 

As Chapter 3 opens, we are introduced to the fourth main character in this story, Haman, the Agagite.  Just as Mordecai, Haman is a foreign immigrant to Persia, who has risen up through the ranks in the palace to become a high court official.  Historians tell us that, at this point in history, the Persian Empire was very cosmopolitan, with many different peoples, and it was not uncommon for foreigners to obtain high positions in society.  Ultimately, Haman is promoted to the very top of the palace hierarchy, second only to King Ahasuerus, himself.

Soon, a conflict begins to brew between Haman and Mordecai.  Mordecai refuses to bow down when Haman passes by the king’s gate.  It is not clear why Mordecai refused to bow before Haman.  There is nothing in Jewish law which prohibits bowing before a superior.  Over the centuries, various biblical scholars have speculated on the reason for Mordecai’s refusal to bow and show respect.  While these are interesting hypotheses, there is nothing in the scripture itself, which explains Mordecai’s actions. 

At first Haman does not even notice Mordecai’s disrespect, but soon his servants called this daily affront to his attention.  Once Haman learns that Mordecai is not bowing when he passes, Haman becomes furious and he begins to plot his vengeance.  Here’s how the Book of Esther describes what happens next:

“When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.” Esther 3:5-6

Obviously, Haman’s reaction is completely disproportionate to the offense.  He magnifies a silly, personal provocation from Mordecai into a vendetta of genocide against an entire ethnic group.  Haman’s exaggerated reaction would be comical, if it were not for the fact that he actually has enough power to make his threat of genocide a reality.

            Haman marches into the King’s court and lays out his complaint.  Without identifying the Jews, Haman tells King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). 

            Then Haman offers a bribe to King Ahasuerus.  He promises to donate 10,000 talents of silver, if the King will grant him permission to exterminate all of the Jews throughout the vast Persian Empire.  Sidnie White Crawford, a biblical scholar, notes that this was an absurdly large amount of money:  approximately the equivalent of 375 tons of silver.  As a point of comparison, historians estimate that the annual income of a Persian king in this era would be around 14,560 talents per year.  Essentially, Haman offered King Ahasuerus a bribe worth nearly 7 times his annual income!![1]

            Without even bothering to determine the identity of the race which Haman wishes to destroy, King Ahasuerus quickly accepts the bribe.  The appropriate political decrees are drafted and sent throughout the vast Empire.  All Jews—men, women, children—are to be executed and their property is to be plundered by their enemies and executioners.  A date is set for this sentence to be carried out; approximately 12 months from the time in which the death degrees were first pronounced.

            Haman will carry out vengeance upon all of the Jews because of the minor slights of a single Jew, Mordecai.  King Ahasuerus has received a humongous bribe and, yet, he is so indifferent he does not even know which group of people is to be slaughtered.  Reflecting on this scene, the scholar Sidnie White Crawford writes, “Because the Jews are perceived as different from the Gentile (whether Christian or not) culture in which they live, they often have become the target of bigotry from the majority population.  This bigotry can take the form of active hostility, like that of Haman, or passive indifference, like that of Ahasuerus.  Most people choose the path of indifference, but the result is the same:  the destruction of innocent human beings.”[2] 

            After learning about the edict authorizing the destruction of the Jews, Mordecai contacts Queen Esther and urges her to intercede with King Ahasuerus on behalf of her people, the Jews.  At first, Esther refuses.  There is a law in the Persian Court that only those invited by the King may enter the inner royal court.  The penalty for approaching the King without a summons is death.  The only exception to this penalty occurs if King Ahasuerus were to raise his golden scepter to the individual entering without an invitation.  Esther has not been summoned by the King for 30 days.  Therefore, Esther is afraid that approaching the King is too risky for her.

            Mordecai does not accept Queen Esther’s excuse for not speaking with King Ahasuerus.  Instead, implying that perhaps the Divine had a role in elevating Esther to the throne, Mordecai replies, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14c).  Esther resolutely agrees to petition the King, saying:  “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16b).

            After preparing herself, Queen Esther approaches King Ahasuerus’ inner court.  Here is how the Book of Esther describes the scene:  As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor and he held out to her the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. The king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom” (Esther 5: 2-3).

            At this point, Esther has been Queen for around 5 years.  She is no longer the shy, young girl whom King Ahasuerus originally married.  She has grown and matured over the years.  She now understands how the royal court operates and, more importantly, she knows how to influence and persuade King Ahasuerus.  So, Esther does not immediately tell King Ahasuerus that she has come to seek a reprieve for the Jews.  (At this point, King Ahasuerus does not even know that Queen Esther, herself, is a Jew.)  Instead, Queen Esther manipulates the situation for a few days before inviting King Ahasuerus and Haman to a special banquet in her chambers in the palace.

            At the appropriate time during the banquet, Queen Esther springs her trap.  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” (Esther 7:3-4a).

            King Ahasuerus is flabbergasted.  He asks Esther who has threatened her in this manner.  Then, Esther, probably pointing a finger at Haman, says:  “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” (Esther 7:6)  King Ahasuerus is enraged.  A swift and deadly reversal occurs.  King Ahasuerus quickly strips Haman of all his power and then executes him, along with all of his sons.  Then, new royal decrees are written, essentially reversing the decrees which Haman had bribed King Ahasuerus to proclaim earlier.  Queen Esther has astutely played the political game and saved the Jewish people from a terrible genocide. 

            The story of Esther is a marvelous and compelling story.  Space requirements preclude me from describing some of the fascinating subplots within the story.  Yet, is the Book of Esther anything more than just a very captivating story of a woman who astutely plays the game, despite her lack of real political power?  Does it have anything to say to twenty-first century Christians?

            Sidnie White Crawford, who has focused much of her biblical research on this book of the Bible, writes:  “The book of Esther, with its theological underpinning of belief in the providence of God manifest in human events, also offers a message of hope to other minorities living in majority cultures, such as African Americans in the white-dominated United States.  To those who are oppressed the book gives a message of active faith and hope in the face of threat…Further, the book of Esther teaches that in every situation God is able to work through willing human agents (not by miraculous intervention) to ensure that justice is done.”[3]

            Certainly, the Book of Esther offers hope to all who suffer from racism, marginalization, and oppression.  But, what about contemporary Christians who are not victims of prejudice and violence. 

What does the Book of Esther say to those of us who are not victims?

In their book, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen identify four ways in which the Bible can serve as a resource for moral life.  The third avenue they identify is when the Bible provides theological perspectives which focus the church’s response to ethical issues.  As they develop this response, they observe:  In its diversity the Bible provides a complete range of theological viewpoints, no one of which can be called the biblical theology, but all of which might be made available as appropriate contexts for ethical response in a given set of circumstances.”[4]  Expanding on this observation, they note that sometimes Christians who are in dominant social positions need to interpret their Bibles as calling on them to help those, who suffer violence, by working for justice.

Many white Christians living in the United States do not suffer from prejudice, violence, racism, or marginalization.  This is certainly true for most of my congregation at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.  For us, the Book of Esther offers a challenge to actively oppose injustice and violence.  Further, Esther suggests that we may need to pay special attention to the rising threat of genocide in our country.

Genocide starts with language.  Over the past 100 years, we have seen over and over around the world how genocide grows out of a language which dehumanizes the other group.  The Nazi Holocaust; the 1994 Rwanda genocide; the 1992-1995 Bosnian genocide; Saddam Hussein’s genocide against Kurds, all provide just a few examples.  Using language, one group gradually comes to see the other group as sub-human.  Once the opposing group is characterized as less than human, then the permission is given to exterminate them because they “are just animals.”  When this happens, genocide can occur.

Currently, we do not have the conditions for genocide in the United States.  Yet, there are troubling developments which suggest genocide may be on the horizon, if we are not vigilant in our opposition to the marginalization, denigration, and violence perpetrated against certain groups. In our current political climate, we have a leader who routinely uses de-humanizing language to undermine and intimidate his opponents.  Others have followed his example.  In addition to the erosion of civil discourse, there is another troubling sign:  the rise of white supremacists and other groups who denigrate and attack persons of color as well as others—as happened in the Charlottesville tragedy a year ago.

For Christians who belong to the dominant groups within society, the Book of Esther teaches that we must actively oppose hate-speech which denigrates others and undermines their humanity.  We must actively oppose racism in the form of white supremacist groups and others.  We cannot be indifferent as King Ahasuerus was.  Words matter.

Of course, when we stand up in active opposition to racism and hate-speech, we also take risks.  We risk being expelled from our assumed, dominant position in society.  We risk losing our jobs, our friends, our status quo, maybe even our families.  Yet, just as Esther who took the risk in order to save her people, so also those faithful to God must take the risk in order to oppose and stop our country’s slow slide towards genocide.  As with Esther, perhaps God has called us “for just such a time as this.”

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, August 19th.  In the proclamation, we will reflect on the Book of Esther and ask how God calls us “for just such a time as this.”  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Sidnie White Crawford, Commentary on Esther in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 3, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, revised and expanded edition (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Press, 1989), 184.

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