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Sermon about Esther 7:1-10 Year B Proper 21 continuous track

February 12, 2017

esthOur first reading from Esther sounds like it could have been written today.

In the chapters before our reading, King’s advisor Haman claims that the Jews pose a political problem.

It can only be solved by their complete elimination.

The Jews are determined to preserve their racial and cultural identity.

They are ‘scattered, yet unassimilated’, keep themselves apart.’

– an alien element, whose exclusivism is sinister and subversive.

‘Their laws are different from those of every other people’, says Haman,

‘they do not keep your majesty’s laws’.

Therefore, ‘it does not benefit your majesty to tolerate them’
The laborious official language of the resulting edict  ‘to destroy, slay, and exterminate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day’ spells out the final solution to the Jewish problem, ominously foreshadowing the twentieth-century Third Reich.

Could it happen again? To a different religious group?

In bureaucratic spin doctor fashion, could another Haman slither up to the prime minister and say, “It has come to our attention that there is a certain ethnic group who consider themselves above your laws. Although multiculturalism and ethnic diversity is an otherwise good thing, a rule is a rule. Allow me to help by obliterating them.”
Or more likely today by blaming them for terrorism, allowing the free press to misquote and misrepresent them.

 

But is Esther a true story, reminiscent as it is of  One Thousand and One Arabian Nights?

A woman granting a king certain favours in order to get him to change his mind.

The book of Esther barely made it into the canon of scripture because of its complete lack of explicit reference to God.

But no ancient Jewish reader could have read this story of a remarkable escape of the Jewish people from a threat of total destruction without discerning in it the power of God to deliver his chosen people.

The secular atmosphere in which the story unfolds is another reason why it could have been written for today.

It may help us to discern the purpose and activity of God in world affairs.

Scholar David Clines wrote, ‘God, as a character in the story, becomes more conspicuous the more he is absent’.

 

How is God at work?

Through a series of remarkable coincidences and unpredictable occurrences.

The human actors in the story could never have deliberately produced them but without them Israel would have perished:

Mordecai’s discovery of the plot against Xerxes’ life;

the vacancy for a queen and Esther’s ability to fill it;

the king’s insomnia on a particular night – he decides to have the court chronicles read to him;

Haman’s early arrival at the palace on a particular morning, eager to secure Mordecai’s execution as soon as possible, he arrives early at the court.

This piling up of coincidences makes one feel the story to be historically improbable.

But if you take for granted God’s commitment to the survival of his people, you see human actions contributing to their preservation without the actors having any such intention.

Haman, in fact, has quite the opposite intention.

 

But there’s more than coincidence.

There is deliberate action, including deception and disobedience

David Clines again, ‘Without the craft and courage of the Jewish characters the divinely inspired coincidences would have fallen to the ground; and without the coincidences, all the wit in the world would not have saved the Jewish people.” The Bible in Politics – R. Bauckham (SPCK 1989) p. 120

 

Disobedience:

Queen Vashti is called away from socialising with her women friends.

The king wants her to show his visitors her beauty.

She refuses, having the good sense and self-respect not to appear before the drunken king as an object for display.

This enrages the king, who turns to his wise men for advice.

They claim that Vashti’s actions have implications for the entire social order, for the Queen’s conduct will become known to all the women and they will look with disdain upon their husbands.

There’ll be endless disrespect and indolence.

They advise the king to dispose of Vashti and to proclaim throughout the land that all women give honour to their husbands – patriarchal panic!

 

Esther is selected to replace Vashti.

She plays the role of queen quite differently, using her beauty to find favour with the king.

Se prepares a sequence of dinners for him at which she eventually persuades him that her people are not being treated fairly.

Her behind-the-scenes activity also gets her uncle Mordecai elevated to a position second only to the king.
Women can be comforted by the ironic fact that this decree reinforcing male supremacy initiates a story whereby the king gets rid of one recalcitrant wife and ends up with another who controls him entirely.

 

Wifely obedience was clearly displayed in the 1992 U.S. presidential contest.

Back in 1989 Barbara Bush said in a interview “that she ’absolutely’ favored a ban on weapons like the one used in the shooting at a school in Stockton, California

President Bush, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, had said that he did not favour such a ban.

A few days later, a New York Times headline read, “Barbara Bush to Shun Public Stands on Issues – she will no longer talk publicly about things like gun control and abortion, “ Gay Theology without apology – G. Comstock ({Pilgrim Press 1993) pp. 53f

 

Obedience and disobedience:

Another reason why Esther might have been written for today?

It tells a story of what to do when the voice of God demands something quite different from the voice of authority.

For many, the two voices are one and the same, so that listening to the voice of authority is, in effect, listening to God.

In Esther there’s quite a different lesson.

Compliance with authority emerges as the evil and selfish choice.

In solidarity with the oppressed, disobedience appears good and honourable.

Today, the traditionally sacred, authoritative arenas of church, government, and family are in crisis.

Dissent within the Catholic Church has grown

The more that comes out about the Iraq war, the more the government is distrusted

The increase of dysfunctional families shatters belief in the permanent, unconditional nature of parental love.

 

But how can we know when to be obedient and when to be disobedient?

The Jewish experience of God is as: the champion those without hope, the humble, insignificant, weak, despairing.
Esther directs Mordecai, “Go and assemble all the Jews… fast on my behalf…… I and my maids will also fast in the same way. Thus prepared, I will go to the king contrary to the law.”

Fasting heightens Esther’s sensitivity to opportunities for action and she receives the courage needed to persevere.

So acts of civil disobedience today are started by spiritual preparation.

Esther and Vashti are the only women described as “beautifully formed and lovely to behold.”

While the king has his pick of beautiful virgins, he singles out two.

What sets them apart is perhaps their independent, disobedient spirit.

Fortunately, the king finds independent women attractive but “women who are bold, direct, aggressive, and disobedient are not acceptable; the praiseworthy are unassuming, quietly persistent.

 

Befriending the enemy is perhaps the most disturbing characteristic of holy disobedience.

Heart already “shrunk with fear,” standing “face to face with the king” was more than Esther could bear. “‘I saw you, my Lord, as an angel of God, and my heart was troubled with fear of your majesty. For you are awesome, my Lord, though your glance is full of kindness.’

As she said this, she fainted.

“The king became troubled.”

At the sight of Esther’s profound weakness, the king appears to be a changed man.

One bent on destroying the Jews becomes their saviour.

Nothing terrifies and overwhelms more than seeing one’s enemy as “an angel of God.”

Encouragement to “love the enemy” often provokes outrage from the oppressed, generating even more hatred.

 

But the end of the story?

Falling far short of vengeance the Jews, do not exercise the right to kill innocent women and children;

do not take the personal belongings of the dead for private use.

A new law for dealing with the adversary emerges:

eliminate only the enemy, protect the innocent, take nothing for yourself.

Between severity and mercy lies compassion. Holy Disobedience in Esther By Karol Jackowski

 

What about us?

Esther didn’t know whether the story would work out right

‘Who knows whether. . . ?‘ is not scepticism, but nor has it the confidence of prophecy.

This is what Christian activity is usually like.

Our actions rarely determine the outcome of events:
they are effective only as they interact with a given context and with quite unforeseeable occurrences.

We must hope to co-operate with divine providence, but remain largely in the dark about the role which our actions will play in the larger divine purpose, trusting the outcome to God.

Esther used what power she had, manoeuvred skilfully within the limits imposed upon women by the culture, and did a great thing.
“I’m no martyr, I’m just one little guy, what can I do?”
We may not do anything particularly spectacular.

More likely we will be given the opportunity, or the dilemma, of summoning up the courage to speak out, to put in a word to the boss on behalf of someone who can’t speak for himself.

Not large. Not grand. But still good.
This story is for us.

In little, ordinary, unspectacular ways, the Kingdom of God, is being defeated or advanced through us,

Through our little words, gestures, and acts.

See also here

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