The book of Esther may need a trigger warning. So be advised that Esther includes unexamined cultural practices and systemic injustices that include sexism, gender stereo-typing, sexual harassment, slavery, concscription, racism, and violence. I worry about telling this story, but Esther is in our Scriptures, one of three books with a female lead character, and Esther’s story is the centerpiece of the Jewish festival of Purim. As we resist these evil, unjust, and oppressive systems, we celebrate Esther’s triumph over and despite them.
Jewish scholars do not universally consider Purim a religious holy day. It may be more of a cultural holiday like July 4th. Although the Septuagint added some prayers, Esther does not include the words prayer, faith or God. Esther and Purim tell the story of how a jewish concubine saved her people from genocide. She bravely breaks the law and faces a death sentence to save people. The book, with its unbelievable twists and over the top characters, reads more like a fairy tale, comedic play, or fable than a work of history. It may be a mockumentary lampooning royal oppressors. Perhaps, in that spirit, our Jewish cousins read Esther aloud in the synagogue during Purim as congregants hiss, boo, and stomp whenever the villainous Haman appears in the script. Some write the name Haman on the bottom of their shoes as a sign of contempt, rubbing out his name with their stomping. Others cheer or shout encouragement to Esther and the other heroes. At our 8am communion service, Pastor Darren MayBerry Wright pointed out how with these practices our Jewish siblings imbue faith with physical action- connecting body and soul! Please feel free to boo or stomp out oppression, injustice, and evil with your stomping and encourage bravely loving with snaps and claps. Esther’s courage amid a gross system can’t be celebrated enough.
Let us begin the play. “Once upon a time,” back when King Ahasuerus ruled 127 provinces from India to Cush, the king threw a wild 7 day party. Everyone came to the festival. The playwright tells us the royal gardens were bedazzled with violet blue banners, silver streamers, and gold wine glasses. Think Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday. The open bar rule was “No limits!” King Ahasuerus stayed hammered. “When wine had put the king in high spirits, he ordered Queen Vashti” to put on her sexiest dress and crown and parade her beauty before all the powerful guests and even the local riff-raffs. Are you stomping, booing, or yelling at your screen?
Despite the Royal order, Queen Vashti refused to come. Snapping? Now the drunken king grew angry spouting how his word was the law. Boo! Well, when his festive hangover wore off, the king and his cabinet worried that when women heard that Queen Vashti refused to obey the king, they would also ignore their husbands’ demands. So the king made a law that any queen could be replaced if they refused to obey the king. They sacked Queen Vashti. Stomp out oppression. Needing a new queen, they held a royal beauty contest to select a new queen. Stomp. They sent out posters to each of the 127 provinces, translating the “new queen contest” announcement into dozens of languages.
Now, there was a Jew, a descendant of the exiles, who was raising his orphaned niece Esther. We do not know how much choice she had, but Esther won the regional “new queen” contest and headed off to palace finals. At the women’s palace, Esther was tutored under the fabulous Hegai, the king’s eunuch. Hegai loved Esther. Esther quickly began 6 months of beauty treatments followed by 6 months of make-up school. And sadly, they put all the contestants on a diet. Hegai gave Esther palace experts to help her get ready for her big interview with the king, including her personal assistant Hathach. Esther listened carefully to her handlers and did exactly what Hegai and her uncle Mordecai told her. Now, you should know that three times Mordecai tells Esther to never let anyone know she was Jewish. Esther denied her identity to become queen. How much choice did she have? We do not know. After a year of palace protocol and charm school, Esther interviewed with the king. And you know where this is going, the king loved Esther more than all the other women he loved and placed the royal crown on Esther’s head making her queen in place of Vashti.
Life at times has real villains, and every fairy tale needs a villain. In the play, the king promotes the pompous Haman over every other royal official. Haman loved that power, especially when each citizen had to bow face down to him. Everyone did this except for Mordecai, the Jew, who refused to bow down to Haman. Now, although the play never mentions God, prayer, or faith, Mordecai may be quietly upholding the first two commandments by refusing to bow and scrape before a human idol. Why did Mordecai stand his ground with Haman but tell Esther to hide her identity? Mordecai’s illegal resistance burned through the proud Haman. Haman’s personal hatred led him to a plot against all the Jews, telling the king, “A certain group of people exist in pockets among the other peoples in all 127 provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of everyone else, and they refuse to obey the king’s laws. Why put up with them any longer?” Religious liberty is a precious human right. From Moses to the Apostle Paul, the Bible tells a story of faithful people being pushed down by powers from Egypt’s Pharaoh to Jerusalem’s Pilate. Jesus was crucified by civil and church authorities.. We must defend everyone’s right to worship as they see fit. Stomp out oppression, Sadly, many politicians prefer feel-good nationalism to human dignity. So the king removed his royal ring, empowering Haman to “do as you like with (the unnamed) them.” Haman plotted and legislated genocide.
Mordecai tore his clothes and put ashes on his head when he caught wind of Haman’s plot. Mordecai sat just outside the palace crying out loudly and bitterly. It was against the law for anyone to enter the palace grounds wearing mourning clothes. Mourning brought the king down. Esther felt ill when she heard about Mordecai. An instagram star, Esther sent new clothes for Mordecai! Maybe her love language was outfits! When Mordecai refused the outfit, Esther sent her assistant Hathach to check on her uncle Mordecai.
Mordecai told Hathach of Haman’s planned corruption, kickbacks, and genocide. He begged Esther to intervene and speak to the king. Let’s not forget Mordecai taught Esther to hide her identity! Esther longed to help, but it was a capital offense to visit the king without an invitation. So Esther told Hathach, “I haven’t been called to spend the night with the king for a month.” Stomp oppression! Mordecia wrote back, “Esther, don’t think that, unlike other Jews, you’ll survive this genocide because you are in the palace. In fact, if you don’t speak up at this crucial moment, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.” What do we do when we appear safe and dwell in relative privilege? Esther risked her life sending back the message “Go, gather all the Jews in Susa and tell them to give up eating for three days to help me be brave…then, even though it’s against the law, I will go to the king, and if I am to die, then die I will.”
So Esther called her seven fashion and charm experts, dressed in her best outfit and crown, and posed in the outer courtyard. When the king looked up and saw Queen Esther standing there, he was pleased, and after some royal flirting said, “What is it, Queen Esther? What do you want? I’ll give you anything!” Now, she knew the king did not really mean this, so Esther invited the king and the rotten Haman to a dinner party at her palace. That night they sipped wine and watched the sunset and the king said, “Now what is it you wish? What do you want? I’ll give it to you.” Esther answered, “If I please the king, I’d like the king and Haman to come to a second feast tomorrow, and then I will answer the king’s questions.” Haman spent the next day posting on social media: “Queen Esther has invited no one else but me and the king for food and drinks two nights in a row!” But he also noted “all this loses its meaning every time I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.” Funny how hate can wreck you.
Now sipping wine on the second night, the king asked, “What is your wish, Queen Esther? What do you want? I will give you anything.” Queen Esther answered, “If I please the king, give me my life—that’s my wish—and the lives of my people too. That’s my desire. We have been sold—I and my people—to be wiped out, killed, and destroyed.” King Ahasuerus raged, “Who is this person? Where is he? Who would dare do such a thing?” Esther replied, “It is this wicked Haman!” Well let’s just say, Haman got just what he planned for the Jewish people. Indeed, the play ends with Queen Esther wearing the royal ring and writing her own law that protected minority religious rights.
Tales like Esther’s remind us that God is working through us even amid evil, unjust, and oppressive systems. Stomp put oppression! We might prefer that Esther could have stood up to the king, like Queen Vashti did, or called out the king like John the Baptist. We might judge Esther for not being louder and prouder of her roots. We all long for a world without pandering rulers and evil schemers, but our human story is full of self-serving political sinners. Today, let us celebrate Esther, the beauty queen, who bravely said, “I will go; and if I am to die, then die I will.” What words are braver than those? Let us not miss that God’s salvation came from Esther, a teenage queen- who faced down death for raising up her very marginalized voice! God usually calls from the margins! And let’s celebrate that Esther used the tools she had to overcome evil. She used everything she learned at charm school to end genocide! Esther knew how to wine and dine the king and invite Haman over for a hard fall. She orchestrated that like a seasoned diplomat! Esther answers God’s universal call with her experiences and beauty school tools! What unlikely tools do you hold to stomp out oppression? Who knows… maybe it was for a moment like this that God placed you here? Let us use the experiences and tools we have at hand, from beauty school, to costume design to zoology, to stomp out evil, injustice, and oppression. Amen.