Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday in Proper 20: A woman whose courage is worth celebrating

Opening Sentence
I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord." Psalm 122:1
I Will Come to You in Silence

Collect of the Day
Grant us, Lord, not to anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things which are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Psalter: Psalm 88 (M); 91, 92 (E)

Lessons: Esther 8:1-8, 15-17; Acts 19:21-41; Luke 4:31-37

Strangely absent throughout the book of Esther is any mention of God. His name is never invoked, never spoken, even by the devout Jew Mordecai, Esther's uncle. Yet, in reading the whole story of Esther and the Jewish people under subjugation to the Persians, the hand of God is evident in every detail.

The Jews, dispersed throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus (the king's title, not his name), are to be exterminated. The evil Haman has prevailed upon the king to issue a decree because he is angry with Mordecai for refusing to bow to him. Mordecai, however, appeals to Esther, whom Ahasuerus had chosen as queen in place of Vashti, to plead the cause of her people before the king. Esther is initially reluctant, citing the law that one must be called by the king in order to enter his inner court. Having not been "called to come to the king these thirty days" (4:11), Esther does not wish to imperil her own life.

"Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews," Mordecai warns her. "For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish" (4:13-14a). In other words, imperiling her own life is precisely what Esther will be doing if she remains silent. Mordecai has faith that God, though his name is not mentioned, will deliver his people in some way. He knows the decree against the Jews will not have its intended result. He also knows that Esther, being providentially placed in a position of authority at a time when she can be used as God's instrument of deliverance, would not be saving herself but condemning herself if she fails to act. "And who knows," asks Mordecai, "whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (4:14b).

Mordecai's response emboldens Esther. She calls on all the Jews in Susa to fast on her behalf as he prepares to approach the king. Being a Jew in the palace will not protect her from the king's decree, but her presence there is no mere coincidence. God, though his name is not mentioned, has placed her there for the purpose of saving his people and making his name known throughout the kingdom.

Haman is one of the most detestable characters in the entire biblical narrative. His jealous hatred for Mordecai and, consequently, for all the Jews is utterly irrational, driven by an inflated sense of his own importance. While the crowds bow in his presence, Mordecai reminds Haman he is only, after all, a man. It is a reminder Haman would rather live without.

In having the king honor Haman with a banquet (5:4), Esther sets the trap which will ultimately lead to Haman's downfall. Haman has no idea that the queen whose favor he thinks he has won is the niece of the hated Mordecai, whose refusal to reverence him still angers Haman even after the banquet.

It is difficult to imagine a man so consumed by hatred as Haman. His pride will be his undoing. His boasting to his family (5:12) is a cover for the prick on his conscience that Mordecai is (5:13). Haman dreams of becoming a god. Mordecai reminds him he is only a man; and as a man, Haman will come to a most ignoble end.

For anyone else, the irony would be tragic. For a man as evil and filled with hatred as Haman, however, it is nothing short of side-splittingly comic. The king, upon learning that nothing has been done to honor Mordecai (6:3) for saving his life, calls in Haman and orders him to parade through the city the very man whom Haman is conspiring to kill.

Once again, Haman's enormous ego entraps him in a most hilarious situation. "Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?" Haman asks himself. In his self-centered universe, there is no one more honorable in the king's sight than himself. So, he recommends only the highest of honors be given "to the man whom the king delights to honor," thinking, of course, that he will be the one who will be dressed in the king's own "royal robes" and paraded about the city square on the king's own horse. What a shock it must have been to Haman to learn that he is not "the man whom the king delights to honor" but, rather, "the king's most noble official" who is commanded to parade through the city square the man he so despises (6:5-11).

At this point, Haman and his family seem already to know the outcome of the story. Haman will fall at the hand of Mordecai. Mordecai's people will be delivered, all of Haman's plans will come to nothing, and the Jewish people, and God-fearing people throughout the world, will celebrate and honor, on that day and throughout the ages, the courageous woman whom God raised up to be in the right place at the right time to deliver her people from destruction.

I'm Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says Sing