[Esther 7:1-6, 7-10; 9:20-22]
Every week we are given several possible texts that might anchor our worship service. One of options this week is a passage from the book of Esther. At a point in time when the public conversation keeps looping back to the ways many women have been mistreated by men in positions of power, it would be strange not to take this opportunity to sit with the story of Esther. This is the story of a woman who chose to step off the path her life seemed to be on. She chose to take a risk, and not a selfish risk, not a risk for herself, but a risk for others. There is a lot we can learn from Esther’s story, but one thing is surely how to live a life of significance—even in very difficult circumstances.
At first glance you might not think the book of Esther has much to say about something like living a meaningful life. After all, in most of our Bibles the book of Esther is lumped in with the history books. It comes after II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, all of which are ‘historical’ books. It’s placed there because one thing the book clearly tries to do is tell us about the origins of the Jewish festival of Purim.
However, there’s another way of thinking about the book of Esther. In the traditional Jewish ordering Esther is lumped in with Job, Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. This is a group of books simply known as ‘writings’ (or Ketuvim). These books don’t say much about history or much about the covenant relationships between God and the ancient Hebrews. They don’t say much about religious ritual. In fact, the book of Esther never mentions God at all! In this company the book of Esther looks more like wisdom literature. It looks more like a story intended to help us all live well, regardless of what we might believe about God or how we might practice our faith.
For instance, Esther’s story finds an echo in the story of a contemporary woman named Khalida Brohi. Every year Forbes Magazine produces a Top 30 under 30 list. These are the lists that make most of us feel like failures. In 2014 the Forbes list featured was a woman from Pakistan named Khalida Brohi. Brohi grew up in a common tribal village. But unlike many of her peers, Khalida’s parents thought it was appropriate for a girl to receive an education and they took steps to make sure she did. This made her something of a privileged person. But privilege is a relative quality. When Khalida was a teenager her cousin was murdered. She was the victim of an “honor killing.” The young woman had made a choice that, according to custom, brought shame to the men in her family. (Incidentally, this dynamic of honor and shame is active throughout the scriptures.) Khalida’s father, by contrast, told her that he would be honored if she did well in school.
With support like this from her parents, Khalida Brohi must have had the option to choose a relatively lucrative and stable career path. Certainly that would have made her parents proud. What she actually chose was to work vigorously to raise the status of women in the villages of her homeland: she worked with others to provide more educational opportunities for women, more business opportunities for women, more opportunities for them to realize that they too were worthy of honor. And Khalida Brohi is still at it. Her work for the women of her homeland puts her own life at risk. When she’s asked about this, she responds by saying that if she stopped doing this kind of work, she wouldn’t really be alive anyway. So Khalida Brohi made the Forbes Top 30 under 30 List. It was well deserved. She appears to be a person of deep courage.
Few of us, however, have had our lives validated by making such a list. Esther did not. Even so, it seems pretty clear that the biblical writers were convinced that her life was well-lived. Commentators point out that Esther’s story is told in a way that parallels that of another great Hebrew hero, Moses. Both Moses and Esther were raised by adoptive parents. Both lived in situations where they had to conceal their true identity. Both were trained by a royal household. Both rose to power in the courts kings. Both took risky actions to preserve their people from destruction.
What’s important for us to grasp is that, although Esther is a hero, she isn’t ‘blessed’. Her life takes place in a terrible context. It’s a context of entrenched imperial violence and deep patriarchy. In fact, part of what makes Esther’s story meaningful is that it exposes the absurdity of the political leaders of her day. She is surrounded by powerful figures who are inept and the foolish. Think of how the story begins with a king looking for a new queen. The man commanded thousands of soldiers and he ruled over other lesser kings in a realm that spanned two continents, but he could not compel his wife to entertain his buddies. He decides the problem is him but his queen, so he sets out to find a new one. After many ‘interviews’ he chooses Esther.
Unbeknownst to the king, Esther’s adoptive father, a man named Mordecai, had a run-in with one of the king’s officials. That official was a devious buffoon. His name was Haman. He’s a man so terribly proud and terribly self-absorbed, that he symbolizes the decadence of the empire.
What Haman loved more than anything was being loved. He was particularly pleased by the fact that people would bow to him as he walked through the city. However, Mordecai refused to suffer the fool. He wouldn’t bow, even a bit, and Haman had nothing better to do than to obsess over this slight.
To get even with Mordecai and not look petty in the process, Haman put together an elaborate plan to kill every Jew in the empire. He convinced the king to back the plan by pointing out that the Jews were a unique people. They had their own values and traditions. Empires don’t like uniqueness, they like homogeneity. However, what the king didn’t realize was that the plan he approved would include his own wife! How’s that for marital intimacy?
So, yes, Esther lived in a situation where narcissistic idiots have way too much power. In fact, the king was so infatuated with himself that it was illegal for anyone to approach him without an invitation. So for Esther to raise the issue of her people’s peril with the king, she had to put her own life at risk. What would make more sense would have been for her to remain silent. She could have quietly congratulated herself for rising above the problems of her relatives. She was on a path of wealth and leisure. In such a ludicrous situation why would she want to risk that?
It’s one thing to read Esther’s story and maybe to compare it to that of a modern woman like Khalida Brohi. It’s another to think of how it relates to our lives. The truth is that very few of us face such stark decisions. Few of us will ever find ourselves at the cross-roads of stand-alone moment that will determine the story of our lives. Let’s remember, though, that what wisdom literature like the book of Esther does is it consolidates the little every-day decisions we all make and gets us thinking about them more critically. Satirical stories like these simplify things and make the choices starker. But still, Esther’s story invites or maybe demands that we think about our own. Are the gifts we have been given for our benefit alone? Does the story of our life point beyond ourselves or is it just about us?
Esther must have wondered if her life would be defined by this one opportunity to step beyond the security of her position into the chaos created by narcissistic and powerful leaders. And that is what she chose to do. She took a risk. She invited the king and Haman to dinner and spilled the beans. After he learned what Haman was up to, the king stomped out in a huff. Haman grabbed Esther and asked for mercy. When the king returned he thought Haman was assaulting the queen and had him hung straightaway. Esther was not working with the best, the brightest or the most well-behaved. Even so, she offered what she had for the salvation of her people. She modeled a meaningful life: she used her talents and influence for others, even when things were chaotic.
We have more information available to us today than any before. The information in some of our children’s books would have been cutting edge science a couple hundred years ago. But what does it mean? What’s the story?
There is a lot that is different between our world and Esther’s, just as there is a lot that is different between our world and the homeland of someone like Khalida Brohi. Yet there is a constant. The constant is that each of us faces a series of decisions regarding what our life is about. Is it just about us, our security and our comfort? Is it just about having our fingerprints on a policy, our name on a patent, our address as the best looking on the block?
If we answer ‘yes’ to that question, I’m afraid we’ll find little sense of meaning. Time and again, inside and outside of the scriptures, that approach has proven hollow. On the other hand, the story of Esther suggests that extending our story to include others is where we find meaning. It is worth the risk. That is why Esther’s work is celebrated with a festival. In an impossible situation she chose to put success, wealth and comfort on the line for a chance to act for the good of others. The good life is probably not one of those things we can hack. Living well takes a lifetime. But if we are looking for a place to start, I offer you this example of Esther, a woman who took what she had been given and what she earned and put it to work in the service of others. Esther’s life reveals a paradox at the core of all of our lives: finding satisfaction begins with a chosen sacrifice. In that, named or not, is the grace of God.