A Sermon for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (26/09/21): Queen Esther

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

The book of Esther has a cast of characters. They are almost Pantomime characters: King Ahasuerus, Hamon the Agagite, Mordecai the Jew, And Queen Esther herself. Each of them is perhaps a little overdrawn, representatives of broader types of people.

King Ahasuerus is the king of the vast Persian Empire. The book tells us that it was 127 provinces that stretched from India to Ethiopia. He sat on his throne in Susa. Such an empire is of course to much for one person to run . So he has all manner of officials and ministers and nobles and governors who he depends upon to most of the work for him. The nature of the power which King Ahasuerus possessed is isolating. It makes him remote. Most of the provinces are literally remote from him. But also cut off from ordinary life, the real lived experience of the people who he rules. So he is dependent on his officials, and minister and nobles and governors to provide him with the information he needs to make the decisions he needs to make in order to rule. Although Ahasuerus’ power is absolute. And yet, he is also completely dependent. Dependent on those around him who control that flow of information.

Chief amongst those is Haman the Agagite. He is the one who controls the flow of information to the king. He is last link in the chain between all those 127 provinces and the king himself. And so Haman has enormous power. And Haman’s ambition and his power make him proud. As first among all the king’s servants he demands that all the other servants bow to him. And almost all of them know what is good for them and they do just that. All of them that is, except one; Mordecai the Jew. Haman took exception to Mordecai. And he hatches a plot not just to destroy Mordecai but all the Jews with him. Because Haman controls the flow of information to the king, he goes to the king with a suggestion:
There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them. 9If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.
Haman is one in a very long line of powerful people who have sought the destruction of God’s people. It perhaps isn’t antisemitism in the modern sense. Perhaps not even racism as we would understand it. Though Haman’s attitude has elements of both and he shares much in common with modern racists and modern antisemites. His attitude is more personal, it is a product of his pride and his megalomania. Though he and his attitude are dangerous because he wields enormous institutional power. But we want to call his hatred pathological rather than sturctural or systemic or institutional. And he is indeed a psychopath. Except because this hatred is directed towards God’s people, it is theological!

Mordecai can’t and won’t bow to Haman. He won’t bow to anyone. Because he knows that for God’s people there is only one king and they can bow to no other. Mordecai’s people are different from all the peoples in all the provinces. They always were and always will be. Because of their loyalty to God , their covenant relationship with God, expressed in their obedience to Laws different from everyone else’s, they are marked out, they are separate, they are vulnerable. For those who want their power in this world to be absolute, like Haman, the presence of such a people is always a problem. The people of God are always a problem because the only absolute power they recognise is God. The owe no final loyalty to anyone but God. So they are always going to be suspect and a problem to people like Haman. Haman the Agagite: Agagite isn’t the title he gives himself. It’s not even a title he has heard anyone speak out loud. It is name the Bible gives the role he serves in this drama: Agag the king of the Ammonites was the first in that long line of powerful people who tried to destroy the Jews. Haman is merely the latest king of the enemies of the people of God.

Esther is the hero of this story She is Mordecai’s cousin, an orphan, who Mordecai has raised as his daughter. She has many qualities. First is that she is beautiful This is a quality which is both overrated and underrated Overrated because too often too much value is placed on looks. But it is underrated because it can also be too easily dismissed. On this occasion it places Esther in precisely the right place at the right time. She is one of the kings wives. For the moment at least she is his favourite. But she has other qualities. She has love for her people. Though she lives in a palace, and so she has comfort and luxury, this does not make her remote. She knows and feels their suffering. She has courage, she knows what is right and is not afraid to speak, even in front of terrible power like that of Ahasuerus and Haman. And she has wisdom or it it cunning, she knows how to get round the king and foil Haman’s plot. In contrast Haman she has very little actual power. But what she uses what might now call soft-power. She use the resources that she does have, her looks, her love, her courage and her intelligence to achieve her goals.

It is easy for the king to take terrible decisions when he is remote from the people who affect by what he does. It is easy for him to condemn the Jews to destruction when he doesn’t know them. Queen Esther takes a terrible risk, she announces that Ahasuerus cannot condemn the Jews to destruction without condemning her. She is Hadassah and she is one of them. Esther humanises the plight of her people to Ahasuerus. An anonymous mass of humans he could destroy, but he cannot think of destroying the beautiful, lovely, courageous, clever woman in front of him.

The Jews are saved. The tables are turned on Haman. He is literally hoist by his own petard. He is hanged on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai! Their height, 75 feet, is a measure of the monstrosity of the crime he was planning! The Bible asks a question: How does God’s people survive when they don’t have a land to call their own and an army to defend them? Esther answers that question, “God will find a way.” The book is a curiosity in the Bible, God is never once referred to directly! Yet God’s people see God’s hand in all that happens. God can be added to that cast of characters we started with. Indeed God is the central character of the story, since it is God who shapes and determines the outcome. God’s purposes works itself out for the good of those who love him, even through the manoeuvrings of morally compromised people like Ahasuerus, Mordecai and Esther. Jewish people celebrate Esther in the festival of Purim with pantomimes. It is a joyful celebration, the celebration of people who find themselves alive when they expected to be dead. The same celebration perhaps Christians should experience every Easter and each Sunday, discovering instead of death, new life .

Queen Esther by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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