Saturday, August 11, 2018

"The Two Queens"

           After spending much of this summer examining and reflecting on our favorite hymns at Christ United Methodist Church, we turn our attention this Sunday, August 12th, to the Book of Esther in the Hebrew scriptures.  We will spend two weeks reflecting on Esther.  The first Sunday, we will explore the first two chapters of the book.

            It’s important for Christians to remember that the Bible is not a single book, a single piece of literature.  Instead, the Bible is more of an anthology, with many different types of writings, including history, poetry, biography, and theology.  The Bible includes a hymnal; it includes wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature, love stories, and short stories.
            Remembering this diversity, 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, when we may have little power or control.  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 are 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 cousin.  Mordecai has risen to a high position within the King’s Court.  The first two chapters in the Book of Esther tell the story of two queens.  

Vashti is the first queen, as the story begins.  However, she soon falls out of favor with King Ahasuerus.  The King has spent a long week of feasting with all of the townspeople from the capital of Susa.  He has used this feast, as well as a previous banquet, to show off all of his wealth and power.  On the seventh and final day of this citywide banquet, King Ahasuerus gets a little inebriated from drinking too much wine.  In his tipsy state, the King sends for his Queen to come and appear before all of the men, wearing her royal crown.  King Ahasuerus sends for Queen Vashti because she is so breathtakingly beautiful.  He wants to show off his beautiful wife to all of the men, who are feasting and making merry.

            However, when she receives the message to appear before all of the men, Queen Vashti replies, “No!” and she refuses to come.  Vashti’s rejection outrages Ahasuerus.  After consulting with his advisors, he decides to depose Vashti from her throne and exile her from the royal palace.  Soon, King Ahasuerus begins searching for a new wife and queen. 

The King’s servants fan out throughout the empire, searching for beautiful young maidens who might interest the King.  It is important to note that the young girls have little choice in the matter.  If they are chosen by the King’s talent scouts, then they are taken from their families and placed in the women’s quarters of the palace.  The young girls spend a full year under the care and tutelage of the King’s trusted servant, Hegai.  Then, after this year of preparation, the young maidens were given one night to spend with King Ahasuerus and “audition” for the role of his wife and Queen. 

            Ultimately, Esther wins this contest and becomes the new wife and queen.  On advice from Mordecai, her cousin, Esther keeps her Jewish heritage a secret from the Royal Court.  Chapter 2 then concludes with a story about Mordecai.  One day, when he was at his usual place, sitting by the king’s gate, he overhears a plot by two of the King’s servants to assassinate King Ahasuerus.  Mordecai tells Queen Esther of the plot, and she informs King Ahasuerus.  As a result, the assassination plot is exposed and the two would-be assassins are captured and hanged on the gallows.

I call these first two chapters, “The Two Queens,” because both Queens Vashti and Esther are strong women who must speak truth to power.  Yet, in the circumstances of the Court, neither woman has much personal power.  Vashti is summoned at the whim of a drunken King.  King Ahasuerus doesn’t really love or care for Queen Vashti.  Instead, King Ahasuerus objectifies Vashti.  She is simply his personal property, and King Ahasuerus seeks to show off his wife in front of the other men at the party, as though she was a prize horse. 

As a young maiden, Esther is given no choice in whether she wants to marry Ahasuerus and be the Queen of Persia.  Esther and all of the other maidens were ripped from the arms of their families by the King’s servants.  Then, they were forced into a ridiculous contest to see who could best please the King.  Ahasuerus did not care about them personally.  He did not even bother getting to know them personally.  Instead, he objectified them, giving them just one night to demonstrate how well they could physically please him.  The maidens were not persons, so much as objects of pleasure for the King. 

While both Vashti and Esther were powerless in their relationship to King Ahasuerus, they both chose to speak truth to his power.  Yet, the way in which they spoke truth was very different because their contexts were very different.

On the one hand, Vashti makes a statement by refusing to go to the King, when he summons her.  Given her context, Vashti must step outside the political system and work against the system to bring about change.

On the other hand, as we will see in more detail next Sunday, Esther makes a statement by going to see the King, even though he has not called for her.  Given her context, Esther must work inside the political system, using the system itself to bring about important change.

Hearing the story of Esther in August 2018, one cannot help but think about the #MeToo movement which has spread throughout our society for the last year.  The #MeToo movement is a social movement intended to demonstrate the widespread—yet, predominantly unreported—occurrence of sexual assault and harassment, primarily perpetrated against women but also, occasionally, against men, as well. 

Just as Vashti and Esther, all of the women who have come forward as part of the #MeToo movement were sexually degraded and objectified.  Again, just as Vashti and Esther, all of these women initially felt powerless to speak because they were in a hostile and threatening context.  Many women were afraid that they would lose their job and friends, just as Queen Vashti does in our story.  Yet, through the #MeToo movement, victims of harassment, assault, and sometimes rape have found a voice and begun to speak truth to power.

Whenever someone speaks truth to power, they are being faithful to God.  We know that every single person is created in the image of God.  Any form of degradation, harassment, or assault is sinful in the eyes of God because God loves each of the victims, with a love which is greater than the love of a parent for a child.  God aches for the victims of degradation and injustice because all victims are also God’s children.  And, on Sunday, I will suggest that God becomes angry when followers of Christ fail to oppose injustices, such as sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

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 12th.  In the proclamation, we will reflect on the two queens in The Book of Esther and how God calls on us to work for justice through the #MeToo social movement, as well as through additional channels.  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.

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