It’s a well-known fact that standards of beauty change from time to time and that they vary from place to place. Whether it’s the size of a bicep or the way a man wears his facial hair, the fullness of a woman’s figure or the tone of her skin—the ideals are constantly shifting. What this means is that when the Bible tells us that Esther was “fair and beautiful” or in another translation “beautiful (of) figure and lovely to look at,” we really don’t know quite what to imagine. Even so, it might be because of this description that we are sometimes given the impression that the story of Esther should be of particular interest to young girls. It appears to fit right in with the popular princess mythology. However, I am beginning to think that Esther’s story is anything but pretty. It certainly is not delicate. And neither, I’m afraid, is it a story particularly suited for children. To start with, Esther’s parents were dead. She was being raised by her uncle Mordecai. And this was just about the same time the Persian king Ahasuerus sacked his queen. Her name was Vashti, and the king fired her because she wouldn’t respond to his drunken command to dance and display herself in front of his court. Both the king and the queen were hosting feasts at the time. The king’s command was delivered to Vashti by seven eunuchs—such was the power of ancient kings. But Vashti said ‘no’ and she lost he position. The officials were worried that her insubordination would catch on. They were afraid of what would happen if the wives throughout the realm would stop doing their husband’s bidding. “Give her position to someone better,” the eunuchs said. Ahasuerus did. The kingdom avoided the slippery slope leading to domestic anarchy, and wives would forever more be meek and obedient.
Whatever being beautiful involved in ancient Persia, Esther had it, and had it in cartloads. One of the king’s eunuchs—parents I leave it to you to explain that term—one of the king’s eunuchs saw Esther’s potential and picked her out of the cattle call. She received a full year of pampering in his custody. After six months of oil of myrrh and six months of spices and ointments, Esther’s was epidermis was duly decorated. She was given her one chance to meet and to “please” the king. Whatever it says of the young Jewish woman, Esther did precisely that, and did it well. She won; she became queen.
To celebrate, the king give a tax break to each province. Maybe in the form of a home renovation refund or a rebate for kids to play expensive sports—who knows. How would you feel if the nation received a tax break just because you were so wonderful? It’s hard for me to imagine. But I do wonder if Esther ever thought critically about being queen.
We usually talk about God’s call in two senses: first as something general, which we all receive. This is the call to new life in Christ and the call to keep and carefully till creation. Second, we talk about specific calls: Samuel was called to relay a message to Eli and several fishermen were called to leave the fishery so they could become students of a rabbi from Nazareth. Did Esther ever think about those sorts of things? I mean, about what it meant for God to be God and for her to have the position she did? The book that tells her story never mentions God at all. I wonder if she did. Did she think she was called by God to be queen, with all the domestic and public duties that might have entailed? It’s common in Christian circles to say that our work, at home or in public, should serve the common good. We think it should enhance our communities. Did Esther think that was true of her being queen? I wonder if she felt she had a choice at all.
Esther’s story proceeds with her uncle Mordecai uncovering a plot against the king. He was hanging out by the city gate and overheard two angry eunuchs. He ratted them out. The conspirators were marched off to the gallows, or more literally, they were hung from a stake. Again, this really isn’t a cute bedtime story is it? The next character to enter the drama was Haman. Haman was a narcissist of the worst sort, that is, one with lots of power. His arrogance and self-centeredness became a problem when he demanded that everyone bow as he passed. Mordecai, Esther’s stubborn uncle, was unwilling. Haman sought to get revenge as such people who have been rotted by evil obsessions do, by taking it out on a whole people group. Like a frustrated and racist white man he turned his rage onto a whole people–the minority Jews. The king bought into the scapegoat logic and stamped the plan with his ring, setting the bureaucracy into motion with chilling effectiveness. The Jewish minority would be “destroyed, killed, annihilated”—that was the language of the order.
They would have been, except for the sleuthing of Mordecai. When he heard what awaited his people he all but set himself on fire—he wept and mourned and clothed himself with sackcloth. Until one of Esther’s eunuchs noticed.
Though not practiced by the Jews, throughout the ancient world, especially the east, eunuchs were trusted with the responsibility of government and given access to the king’s family. This was precisely because they held no bias toward their own children—it was also, and more sinisterly because they formed a social class unto themselves and in many cases were virtually disposable. Such was the price of working for the government in ancient Persia. Such was the way imperial power cut.
It was through one of these messengers that Mordecai begged Esther to convince the king to intervene. However, Esther knew it was impossible—no one could visit the king uninvited. And she hadn’t been summoned for almost a month. She may have been beautiful, but the king’s power was absolute and his interest fickle.
And it’s here that Mordecai presses: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Whether she had thought about it before or not, now Esther had the question in front of her: Why am I here? How do I use this powerful position? Mordecai’s words show that she couldn’t avoid risk by not responding. If she did not act there would still be consequences, and potentially disastrous ones.
We stand with Esther at this point. We face the same questions: Who are we . . . as individuals, as a church community? What do we do with our own position, our education, our wealth and our relationships? Who knows whether we have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? We can’t dismiss the question. There is no safety in ignoring it. How do we respond to those around us, at this time, in this place? I don’t know the specifics of your situation, but I know you have an opportunity to act, what will you do? How will you respond to the call of God?
Esther chose to break convention. But she didn’t make the choice by herself. Mordecai prompted her, but she involves others as well: “Go, she says, “gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
It’s almost like she says, “you only live once.” It’s almost like that, but not quite. “You only live once,” is usually a self-centered, selfish line. “You only live once,” so bungee jump or skydive or take the drug. But Esther says, “if I perish, I perish,” and that comes as she offers herself on behalf of others, not when she takes a senseless risk to bring a spark of energy to an otherwise grey, directionless life. “If I perish, I perish,” that comes after she asks for her community to fast with her.
And that’s another part of the story I want us to see. Esther’s calling is something she works out and works at in relationship with other people. Even though she is a powerful woman she needs companions, and she opens herself to their influence. Not only is this essential to life with others people, it is essential to life with God. To know God we must open ourselves to encountering something beyond the idols we carry in our minds. “Fast on my behalf,” Esther commands. It’s in the company of those who pray and fast that Esther works out the implications of her calling in that particular moment.
In our own place and time we vacillate between two general ways of understanding of ‘selves’. It was René Descartes who said he knew that he and the world really existed because he could be sure that he was thinking. “Cogito ergo sum”—I think therefor I am. Descartes believed that he could doubt everything, maybe the whole world was a figment of his imagination. But in that very act of doubting he knew that he existed. How else could he doubt? Sometimes we think like children of Descartes—we believe that our thought or our decision is the foundation of things. But our assumptions about knowledge, just like our perception of beauty, are subject to change.
More recently the French psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan wrote something to the effect of this: “I am not a poet, but a poem.” For thinkers like Lacan the world doesn’t hang on the individual, thinking self at all. Rather the self is the creation of the social world. In this perspective we think of ourselves as projections and confections of political and social forces. Notice the shift, from Descartes’ confidence in the independent self to Lacan’s dismissal of it.
It’s between these two perspectives that we find ourselves as we read Esther’s request for others to fast on her behalf. As children of Descartes we say, “what’s the point,” responding to God is up to each individual. As postmodern siblings of Lacan we’re also tempted to wonder what the point is since we assume our views are the result of our culture. That’s a bit simplistic but I think it captures two common reactions to a story like Esther’s.
But let’s place another biblical passage alongside the one from Esther, the one from 1 Thessalonians. I think it points to a way of being that we might describe as mutuality. Our reading from the apostle’s Paul’s letter began with this: “the day of the Lord will come like thief in the night.” The day of the Lord refers to the moment when God will correct injustice, when the wounded will be healed and evil actions brought under judgment. That day will come when we don’t expect it. But even so, God has intended us for salvation not for wrath. But since we don’t know when history will reach its telos or its goal we have work to do. “Therefore,” we are told, “encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” We can’t manage our callings on our own, we can’t figure them out.
The dynamic of community is important to all churches. At its best this makes them places where we fast and pray for each other, and where we encourage and build each other up. But this can also mean that our appreciation for relationships can become cemented into unchanging channels. That is, it can become appreciation for just a few specific relationships. This can be a challenge because we then have a hard time welcoming new people, and when we can’t welcome the new, when we can’t say “yes” to the offerings of the present—we get stuck. The openness of Esther and the mutual encouragement recommended in 1 Thessalonians are a live thing, a constant thing, an ongoing thing—something that shifts and changes as our lives and the makeup of our community unfolds.
I appreciate one of the observations Donald Miller makes in his little book Blue Like Jazz, he’s actually borrowing from a lecture he heard at Westmont College. Here’s the point though: we tend to think of relationships or community through economic metaphors: we invest in others, a relationship can be bankrupt, we value certain people (Miller, 218). But the passage from 1 Thessalonians changes the metaphor; it asks us to “build,” not to give so we can get, but to build each other up. The writer goes on to tell the community to be at peace with each other and to be patient. You see a church actually isn’t a generic community, just as Esther’s people weren’t a generic group. The church, even our little part of it, is bound together in response to what God did and is doing in Jesus.
What is God calling us to now as a church? What is God calling us to now as individuals? How are we to build each other up? We grasp the answers only as we pray for each other, as we are open to each other. Such a thing cannot leave us unchanged. Such a thing will not keep us from risk.
Esther won the king’s favor. Haman was forced to parade Mordecai around the city on the king’s horse in royal robes. Then Haman was hung. The Jewish people were allowed to defend themselves and to do whatever “pleased them” with their enemies. And the whole thing is commemorated with Purim.
But we aren’t at the end of our story yet. We’re still with Esther at the moment of decision. The question we should leave with is this: How can we, here in the summer of 2015, be stewards not only of our own sense of call but also build others up as they do the same? How can we fast and pray for each other?
(Esther 4:10-7; I Thess. 5:1-2; 9-11)