YEAR B: PENTECOST
(Sunday between September 25 and October 1)
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Last week we read of the ‘capable’ or ‘strong’ woman/wife in Proverbs 31. She fulfilled the call of wisdom heard back in Proverbs 1. In this week’s reading we turn our attention to another ‘strong’ woman, Esther, by whose wisdom the Jews of her day were saved. The book bearing her name probably comes from the period of the end of the 4th century BCE or later, i.e. when Jews were either subject to the Persians or to the Greeks who followed them. Other stories of ‘strong’ women also come from these late times, Judith for example.
The story is set in the time of the Persian king Xerxes I (486-485 BCE), called Ahasuerus in the story. It takes place at his winter palace in Susa. Ahasuerus has divorced his wife Vashti and has sought a new virgin bride. After an empire wide beauty contest he settles on Esther, who quickly gains his favour and becomes queen of Persia. What Ahasuerus does not know is that Esther is a Jew. Her Jewish name is Hadassah. She was an orphan and her older cousin, Mordecai, had raised her. He was a descendant of those captured when Jerusalem fell to Nebuchanezzar about a century earlier.
In the verses set for today we join the story in the middle of an intriguing game of brinkmanship. Haman, the grand vizier to the king, had taken offence at Mordecai who had not given due recognition to Haman’s position (3:1-6). Haman’s hatred of Mordecai expands into a plan to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Mordecai convinces Esther to appear before the king and change his mind. She could only do that at considerable risk to herself (4:16). She devises an elaborate plan which sees the besotted Ahasuerus slowly but surely accede to her scheme. Her people are saved by the king who had promised Esther anything she would ask. Haman is also revealed as the villain who had plotted to kill Mordecai. In an ironic twist, Haman is hung on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. Before these events, and unknown to Esther, Ahasuerus had been reminded how Mordecai had earlier saved the king from a palace coup. Ahasuerus had taken a fresh interest in rewarding Mordecai for that. When the king discovered that his own vizier was now planning to hang Mordecai, it sealed the vizier’s fate.
The story goes on to say how Esther and Mordecai gained possession of Haman’s house and then, when the king again made an open promise to agree to whatever they ask, they got his assent to allow the Jews throughout the kingdom not only to defend themselves but to actively pursue their enemies (chs. 8-9). These events become the basis for establishing the feast of Purim, seen in the text as a celebration of the defeat of the enemies of the Jews. While the text does not suggest a religious context for the feast it has over time been associated with this festival and the reading of the story of Esther has become, along with fasting, part of the preparations for this feast. Purim has always been a time of great celebration and feasting.
The book of Esther is well known for the fact that it does not mention God at all in the text. There is no explicit religious motivation for anything the characters do. That is a curiosity that has puzzled scholars over the centuries and even raised doubts about the book's authority and value when the limits of the canon of the Hebrew Bible were being debated among early Jews. On the other hand, we should note that some actions do suggest religious motivation: the mention of fasting in 4:16 and 9:31; and Mordecai’s confidence in the deliverance of Israel in 4:14. Also Mordecai’s reluctance to give homage to Haman suggests some other allegiance on his part. If we do see an echo of faith in this book then Esther and Mordecai are seen as two people who maintain their commitment to their people and their God while working within the confines of a powerful and sometimes hostile regime. Through their shrewd action and their courage they help their community survive.
While the religious nature of the book may be questioned, the story certainly deals with the effects of power within a society and government on those from minority groups. How do they maintain their identity and survive in the face of both hostile individuals and systems that do not always discriminate or express compassion? Again courage and shrewd action are the keys (cf. also Judith). Such qualities do not necessarily negate faith and its commitments.
Finally, I should stress the literary character of the book. Esther is not necessarily an account of actual happenings. Nor is it a programme setting out a course of action for others to follow, even though it has become the basis for a later feast. Some of the happenings in it, especially the later revenge by the Jews on their enemies, are not things we should emulate. We are to read it as a story and see what we can learn from it. As such we could reflect on the difficulties and courage of those who belong to minority groups in our community. The sheer power of a government, even if benign or well-meaning, can often be threatening to one’s identity, and that is not to take account of those within the majority who for one reason or another seek to persecute those in vulnerable situations. Historically, Jews have experienced the type of persecution mentioned in Esther, over and over again. In Australia, those of us who belong to the ‘majority’ could ask ourselves whether we oppress or threaten new comers, especially in recent times Muslims or Indians, in ways similar to those experienced by Esther and Mordecai. Have past actions and attitudes, even of government, toward asylum seekers and refugees forced those same people into situations where they feel threatened or have to resort to deceit? It can be most difficult to live within a dominant, strange culture and try to maintain one’s own identity, culture and heritage. The Gospel reading for today speaks strongly about placing ‘stumbling blocks’ before others (Mark 9:38-50).
As we live in a more secularised culture, where questions of faith are often seen as marginal at best, if not irrelevant, we ought not to think that Esther might speak only to the stranger who comes among us. Does it not speak more and more to people of faith striving to express that faith in tangible and yet socially acceptable and meaningful ways within a society which deems that faith of little consequence? Does it not say something about how to be ‘salt’ within society (cf. Mark 9:50)?
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