A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
November 5, 2006
All Saints' Sunday The Book of Esther
Saints are usually thought of as religious goodie-goodies who obey the rules, please the rulers, and are popular with the pious. And undoubtedly many fit this profile. However, there are some saints who are naughty, disobedient, and downright insolent. They have little regard for rules or rulers, and popularity usually eludes them until long after their death. In a world that worships power, affluence, and military might, it is these rebellious saints who are our guides as we seek to live lives of integrity and protest.
The Book of Esther tells us about three such saints – Vashti, Mordecai, and Esther. And every year the Jewish community celebrates these three at the feast of Purim, a riotous fancy dress party.
The Book of Esther begins with a party thrown by the Persian king, Ahasuerus, for all the inhabitants of his capital Susa. After a drinking session, the king summons his queen, Vashti, to appear before the court wearing only the royal crown. Vashti, in the great tradition of brave and self-assured women, tells the guys were to go. The king, angry, banishes her. After a time, the king regrets losing his queen, and his nobles suggest that he hold an empire-wide search for a new one. Ahasuerus agrees, and all the eligible virgins in the kingdom are paraded into the harem in order to have their assets assessed.
At his point we are introduced to the heroine of the book, Esther, and her guardian, Mordecai. Esther enters the harem and wins the regard of all who know her. When her turn with the king comes, Esther woos Ahasuerus, who makes her his queen.
Some time later, the king promotes the talented and bigoted Haman to the position of vizier. Haman demands that all the people bow down to him. Mordecai, in the great tradition of Jewish faithfulness and courage, tells Haman where to go. Angered, Haman plots revenge on Mordecai by slaughtering all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Mordecai learns of the plot, and turns to Esther to intercede with the king. At the climax of the story, Esther, in the great tradition of little people risking everything by doing big things, goes unsummoned to the king. She gains Ahasuerus' favour, uncovers Haman's plot, and foils his scheme. Haman is put to death and Mordecai is elevated to vizier. The book ends with Esther and Mordecai instigating the festival of Purim to celebrate this turn of events.
The Book of Esther tells a story, historicity uncertain, of what to do when the voice of one's own truth demands something quite different from the voice of authoritative truth; when the voice of the God within you conflicts with the voice of the God above you; when the voice, for example within Vashti, says 'No!' to the authoritative voice of the king.
For many the two voices are one and the same, so that listening to the voice of authority is, in effect, listening to God. What the President, Principal, or authoritative person says is uncritically considered to be what God says. Obedience and compliance with authority is automatically considered good and right, while noncompliance and disobedience is automatically considered wrong and selfish.
In Esther, however, we learn a different truth. There is a time for holy rebellion. There is a time to listen to other voices – especially to the voices of those suffering, or those who soon will be. There is a time to be true to the voice within you, and take the risk that you will be misunderstood and vilified.
In the Book of Esther God is silent. There are no prayers either. The main character, Esther, enters a Gentile beauty pageant, marries a non-Jew, doesn't keep the dietary laws, and lives in a Gentile environment. You can imagine what her pious critics would have said!! Although the outcome of the book reveals the disobedience of the three - Vashti, Mordecai, and Esther - as the will of God, the divine silence in the text seems to place a question mark over their actions.
I think there are times when we take some risks – politically, personally or theologically – and there is no God-like guidance to steer us, to tell us that we are doing it right, to tell us that we are the goodies. We walk in the dark, trying to be true to ourselves, and it is anyone's guess whether we will be praised or punished. It is lonely. And the authoritative God, the God whom everyone else seems to believe in, who knows right from wrong and good from evil, is not with us. Indeed this God seems to be against us. So, without a map, we search for a different God.
Vashti wasn't Jewish at all. She was simply a Queen who when summoned to appear naked before a gathering of drunken men refused. She was not going to be used or demeaned. But this was a very public refusal. The king, the male god, was having a session with the boys, and a piece of his property wouldn't play his game. She was lucky to escape with her life.
In response to Vashti's rebellion a decree was passed that “all women bow to the authority of their husbands, ensuring that each man might be master in his own house.” [1:20 -22]. Isn't it fascinating that Vashti's refusal to be paraded as a pinup was seen to threaten the power of every man? The decree, this ridiculous over-reaction, reveals the ego-fragility of the king and his male entourage.
Mordecai, Esther's cousin and mentor, also committed an act of rebellion that likewise elicited a huge over-reaction. Haman, the new vizier or chief official, as was probably his right, received the bows and due groveling associated with his office. Mordecai refused to play along. We are not told why. Only, in the worst traditions of racism, Haman uses Mordecai's disobedience as an excuse to plan to slaughter every Jew in the Persian Empire. Haman presents the plan to the king as 'we should all be one people' – one law, one faith, one rule for all… Sound familiar? Difference is really deviation, and deviation is really disobedience, and disobedience needs to be destroyed. The King goes along.
In the Book of Esther there are four reasons given for holy rebellion. Firstly, when there is unbearable oppression. This may be personal, as in the case of Vashti, or communal as in Haman's genocidal plans. Secondly, rebellion is called for, like in Esther's case, when there is the hope of relieving oppression. Thirdly, rebellion is warranted when the oppressed community calls for it, as the Jewish community asked of Esther. Lastly, holy rebellion is justified when the voice of authority, in this case the king, believes he is the supreme authority, and thus denies the sovereignty of God.
Mordecai asks Esther to intercede on behalf of her people. He wants Esther, as the favourite wife, to go immediately, unsummoned, into the king's presence and plea for the Jewish people. Esther objects saying that anyone going uninvited into the king's presence invites death. She is not due to next appear in his presence for 30 days. Mordecai responds: “Your position will not save you. In the end they'll get you too.” One cannot read the Book of Esther this side of the Holocaust without seeing the parallels.
So Esther, who has hidden her Jewish identity to date, who is successor to the feisty Vashti, who is the beautiful winner of the king's affection, the very king who has issued a decree wanting women obedient and Jews dead, makes the appearance of her life. And she does it with class.
Step one: look your best. She spends three days getting mentally and physically ready. She gets made up, and puts on her royal, queenly robes. Beautiful and regal.
Step two: be subtle. When the king sees her he is pleased. (Relief, big relief). He asks her to name her request. She doesn't. Instead she invites both the king and Haman to a banquet.
Step three: know your men. Food is the doorway to many a deal. The banquet is magnificent, and the king again asks her to name her request. Again she doesn't. Instead she invites them to another banquet. She knows about men and food!
Step four: when the odds are in your favour, lay down your cards. The king was in Esther's debt. For the sake of honour he needed to be generous to her, as she had been to him. She appeals to his emotions. “Spare me and spare my people.” Then she appeals to his pocket. “The loss of the Jews would be a great financial loss to the Empire.' The king, having forgotten that he himself agreed to the killing of the Jews angrily asks who is planning the massacre. Haman is accused.
Esther disobeys the rules. She went unsummoned. Esther uses brains, beauty, and manipulation to get what she wants. Her ethics are the ethics of those fighting to survive. She has courage. She has spirit. Ironically she displays the same self-assurance and determination of her predecessor Queen Vashti. While the king has his pick of beautiful virgins, he singles out two who have independent, disobedient spirits. The king, despite his inadequacies, seems to get queens with backbone!
All live happily ever after, save Haman and his ilk. No conclusion could be more fitting to the Book of Esther than that of celebrating Purim; honouring holy rebellion two days of every year; celebrating the courage of women and men, the indestructibility of the human spirit, and the memory of all those who stood up and suffered for the voice of a different truth.
May we this All Saints day remember all those who have worked, suffered, and believed in the cause of a different truth – one beyond the control of the controllers. And remember too that part within ourselves that works, suffers, and believes in that truth. And give thanks.