Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 18th Sunday after Pentecost + September 27, 2015
Today is the day St. Andrew specially recognizes the Women of the ELCA. It is also the only Sunday in which the lectionary offers us a Bible reading from the book of Esther, one of two books in the Bible named for a female character. When I first realized that, I thought: that coincidence is just too cool for me to pass up. I have to preach about Esther’s story.
The story starts off with the king of the Persian Empire giving a huge banquet, inviting all his officials and all the governors of his empire…just to show off how rich and powerful he is. It goes on for 180 days. And then he throws another, little banquet — only seven days this time — where he includes the “little people” of his kingdom.
Then comes the first power struggle of the story. The King wants to show off one more thing — his beautiful queen — but she refuses to show up at his party. The king is infuriated and calls his advisors to help him figure out what to do with this disobedient queen. They say the queen’s refusal is not only an insult to the king, but to all the rulers, and to all men everywhere. If the other women hear about this, won’t they all start ignoring their husbands, thinking they can do whatever they want? Won’t they start taking away our power? They have to make an example of this disobedient queen, and so they banish her and start looking for a new wife for the king.
Next we are introduced to someone with very little power: Mordecai, a Jew. Mordecai’s great-grandfather had been captured and carried away from Jerusalem when the Babylonian Empire conquered Judah. Mordecai is still living in the land of exile, and he is raising his young, orphaned cousin, Esther. As you probably remember, Esther is one of the many young women who are paraded before the king, and she is the one he chooses to be his new queen.
Now comes the main power struggle of this story. We are introduced to Haman, the most powerful man in the king’s court. When he walks in the court gates, all the servants bow before him. All of them, except Mordecai.
Haman is furious about that. But he thinks it’s beneath him to punish this one, lowly man. So he decides to put Mordecai in his place by killing all of Mordecai’s people. He’s going to kill all the Jews in the kingdom.
But to do that, he has to get the king on his side. So he goes before the king and says: “There is a certain people living in your land, scattered among your other peoples. But these people won’t assimilate. They keep their own laws, and their laws are totally different from every other people’s. They don’t keep your laws; it’s really not appropriate for you to tolerate these people. So I propose that you issue a decree that these people be destroyed. And I’ll put 10,000 talents of silver into your treasury to help make it happen.” The king gives the plan his blessing.
Mordecai finds out what Haman is doing, and he and the other Jews start tearing their clothes and wearing ashes and wailing and fasting. Queen Esther sends her servant to find out what is going on. Her servant comes back, explains everything, and tells her that her uncle has charged her to go before the king and plead for her people’s lives.
Esther hesitates. She knows that if anyone approaches the king without being summoned, they are to be executed — and he has not asked to see her for a full month. And she remembers what happened to the last queen. But Mordecai sends her a message: “Esther, if you don’t go to the king, all your family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Esther asks all the Jews to fast for her and summons up all her courage. She puts on her royal robes, then, knowing it might be the last move she ever makes, she steps into the king’s throne room.
He is delighted to see his beautiful queen, and he immediately offers to give her anything she asks for. She invites the king and Haman to a banquet, where she will make her request.
At the banquet Queen Esther pleads for the lives of her people, and she is crafty about it. She knows that she has to spin her request so that it sounds like something the king needs to happen in order to keep and display his power — just as the king’s advisors did when they got rid of the first queen, and just as Haman did when he asked for the decree. When she pleads for her people’s lives, her reasoning is: “no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” And the man who would dare do such a thing to the king is sitting right there with them — Haman.
The tables are turned. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had specially prepared for Mordecai, and his family goes down with him. The Jewish people destroy the enemies who would have destroyed them.
It’s a violent ending, one we wouldn’t want to use as part of our ethical codes. But it is a happy ending for Esther and her people.
As I retold this story, I tried to point out who had power and how they were using it. Maybe you noticed: I never mentioned God, or God’s power. That’s because this book of the Bible never once uses the word God. It doesn’t even allude to God acting in the lives of Esther and Mordecai.
But that’s the thing about this book that feels most real to me. The story of Esther is outrageous, like a fairy tale: a feast lasts 180 days; the women who parade before the king have to spend a year getting prettied-up first; the hangman’s gallows Haman builds is 75 feet tall — all that is kind of ridiculous, and it’s supposed to be. But that when we look for God in this story we have to read between the lines — that is exactly what we have to do in our own lives, most of the time.
And when I read between the lines of Esther’s story, I see God working. Most of all, I see God in this: there are a lot of very powerful people in this story, but nothing goes according to their plans. Something or someone else seems to hold the real power.
The king of the Persian Empire is one of the most powerful people in the world: but he is just a ball of emotions that other people play with to get what they want. Haman is the second-most powerful, and rich enough to buy what he can’t just command, but all his plans backfire and destroy him. And although the story begins with the king’s advisors warning, “But imagine what could happen if women think they have power!” in the end, a woman disobeys the law, approaches the king, and makes a request — and she is the victor.
So why does all this happen? If all the people we recognize by earthly standards as having the most power don’t get their way, where is the real power? As the story is written, Esther and the small community of Jews in Persia come out on top because of a string of coincidences and good fortune: the first queen decides (for unknown reasons) to disobey the king, and he gets rid of her; Esther is naturally beautiful, and so the king chooses her as his wife; when Esther approaches the king’s throne, he is delighted to see her despite having ignored her the last 30 days. The story is full of coincidences like this. The Jews are saved because Mordecai and Esther hear and respond to their callings in the midst of all these bits of good fortune.
Though God is never named in the story, this story ends the same way all of our stories about God end: with the lowly being lifted up, with God’s people being saved. And so we look back, and see God in the details, in the coincidences, in the “good luck.” We see God in Mordecai’s entreaties to Esther; we see God in Esther’s courage to respond to the call.
And aren’t those the same places we find God in our own lives? Those times when a scripture passage we really need to hear keeps coming up, over and over. The times when a friend just seems to know you needed a phone call, or a hug. Or when you find you have the courage to do what God is calling you to do, or you make a hard sacrifice in the name of Jesus.
Most of us don’t hear God’s voice like you’re hearing mine now; most of us don’t see God like you can see the person sitting next to you. But, I think most of us believe that God speaks to us, guides our lives somehow, believe that God is at work here among us.
Maybe part of why the book of Esther is in the Bible despite never mentioning God by name is to remind us: God is at work even when we’re not seeing angels or miracles. Sometimes, God is doing powerful things even in places where no one is even saying God’s name at all.
With thanks to Kathryn M. Schifferdecker for her commentary on this passage from Esther at workingpreacher.org.