Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
At the heart of the Jewish festival of Purim, celebrated by Jews around the world is a special story of an attractive and bright young woman who in the ruthless politics of the Persian court stands up to defend her own people from genocide. The central ritual of Purim is the reading of the biblical book of Esther aloud in synagogue as a celebration of Jewish salvation and the defeat of anti-Semitism.
The book is named after the “star” of the story, a young Jewish girl named Hadassah who was taken from her guardian, Mordecai, and forced to become part of the harem of King Ahasuerus(Xerxes I, reigned 485—465 B.C.E.) Not much is revealed about her character, except that she is described as beautiful (2:7) and obedient (2:10). She attracts the attention of the palace chief eunuch, Hegai, remember our discussion about the place of eunuchs in a palace a couple of weeks ago. When her turn comes to spend the night with King Ahasuerus, he falls in love with her and makes her queen of Persia and renames her Esther, Persian meaning “star.” The Hebrew meaning according to some it means to “conceal.”All this takes place while Esther keeps her Jewish identity secret (Esth 2:10, 20).
After Esther becomes queen, her cousin Mordecai becomes part of a power struggle with Haman the Agagite, a descendant of an Amalekite king who was an enemy of Israel during the time of King Saul (1 Sam 15:32). Mordecai refuses to bow before Hana and this so infuriates Haman that he resolves to put him to death and follow this by the genocide of the Jewish people.After this had been arranged with the fickle King Ahasuerus, Mordecai learns of the plot and informs Esther who initially feels helpless. On the pain of death, she cannot approach the King without being summoned and the king has not summoned her in thirty days, implying that maybe she has fallen out of favour (Esth 4:11). However, following Mordecai’s insistence, she resolves to speak up and do what she can to save her people noting “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esth 4:16). The pliant and obedient Esther has become a woman of action.
Esther appears unsummoned before King Ahasuerus and desires to speak with him. The King attracted by her beauty not only does not kill her but promises to grant her whatever she requests. Through careful planning, Esther asks the king to a dinner party (Esth 5:4).The king, accompanied by Haman, attends Esther’s banquet and again the King seeks to discover her request, which she once more deflects with an invitation to another dinner party. Only at the second dinner party, when the king is sufficiently beguiled by her charms, does she reveal her true purpose: the unmasking of Haman and his plot. She reveals, for the first time, her identity as a Jew and accuses Haman of the plot to destroy her and the Jewish people. The volatile king springs to her defence, Haman is executed, and the Jews receive permission to defend themselves from their enemies, which they do with great success (Esth 7-9). The book ends with Mordecai being elevated to the highest office in the land and political power is now concentrated in the hands of Esther.
The focus on a female hero serves an important function in the story. Women were, in the world of the Persian diaspora like in many other cultures, essentially powerless and marginalized members of society. Even though she was essentially powerless and marginalized, power could be obtained through one’s wits and talents. But, as the actions of Esther demonstrate, this can be done. By astutely using her beauty, charm, and political intelligence, and by taking one well-placed risk, Esther speaks up by truth telling and a desire for justice. This saves her people, brings about the downfall of the ruthless demonic Haman.
The Book of Esther differs from other biblical diaspora stories by the marked absence of God or any overt religious elements. Similar to today’s secular society.
When we look at the Gospel reading for today we find Jesus also reflecting on the need of people committed to justice for people. Here Jesus shares some of his hardest sayings:
42 If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.
45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.
47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,
In these hard sayings Jesus is not goading us to bodily mutilation but is asking in the strongest metaphors possible the Social Justice question. What actions are you prepared to take to make sure that you don’t cause people to stumble, to be hurt or damaged in any way. Providing the cup of water and being the salt of the earth is our calling to speak out for and act for justice. This is summed up in the words of our next hymn TIS 690:
Beauty for brokenness, hope for despair,
Lord, in the suffering, this is our prayer.
Bread for the children, justice, joy, peace,
Sunrise to sunset your kingdom increase.