The story of Esther is an entertaining one, but I’ve been questioning this week what good it is to the church. This is a story where there are no truly good people, no heroes here. You know who you are supposed to dislike, but the people you are supposed to like are also pretty flawed and kind of awful.
This is not a story that we hear in the church too much — not even in Sunday school. My guess is that it’s not one that can be relayed in any uncomplicated way. The least complicated part of the story is the part we read in worship today. But there’s much more to it, so I’ll try to tell it efficiently.
The king threw a big party, and at it he asked his queen, Vashti, to dance for the banquet wearing nothing but her queenly crown. She refused, and the king banished her from the kingdom.
The king needed another queen, so he held a beauty pageant. Esther, a Jew, won the pageant and became his new queen. Esther kept her Jewish identity secret, on the advice of her uncle, Mordecai, who was an advisor to the king.
Meanwhile, two of the king’s advisers plotted to kill the king. Mordecai learned of the plot, told his niece, and Esther reported it to the king. After the king hung these traitors, he appointed Mordecai as his senior minister.
Another adviser, Haman, demanded that everyone who served the king have complete loyalty to the king, and ordered them all to bow down to him. Mordecai could not, because it was forbidden in his Jewish tradition. This made Haman very angry, and he sought to destroy Mordecai and all the Jews in the kingdom.
Haman wrote a decree that all those who did not bow down to the king should be killed, and the king, not realizing the implications of this, agreed and signed the decree. Mordecai, Esther and all the Jews were distressed. They fasted from food and water for three days.
At the end of those three days of fasting, Queen Esther summoned all of her courage and went before the king. Using her beauty and sexuality, Esther persuaded the king to offer her the fulfillment of any wish. She told him about the plot against her people and asked that it be stopped. The king granted her wish and ordered Haman to be hanged. So, on the day intended for their destruction, the Jewish people were saved.
Not only were the people saved, but Mordecai and Esther went after their enemies and killed every last one of them.
This is a pretty messy story. And, it’s the only one in scripture that doesn’t mention God in a direct way. In this story, the good people — Esther and Mordecai — use Esther’s sexuality to get the king’s attention. And when they win their struggle, and the lives of the Jews are saved, they go and kill their enemies.
There’s no clear moral argument in this story for how one should act. There’s no really good person. There are only really flawed people trying to do the right thing with whatever’s in front of them, whether it be by using their sexuality, their power or position.
I have to admit that I’ve been in the weeds with this story this week. How does one get anything good out of this really messed-up story? What do we do with this story?
As messy as this story is, I keep coming back to the interaction between Mordecai and Esther that we read in chapter 4. Mordecai went to Esther and told her of Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews. He told her of the gravity of the situation, and said to her, “Esther, you were born to save your people. You were put here for such a time as this. And if you choose to stay silent, deliverance will come another way, and you and your family will die.”
Mordecai’s laying it on pretty thick. But he has a point. In her unusual position of royalty, Esther has the power to do something good for her people.
These words of Mordecai, to a young Esther, are stirring. Mordecai is convinced that Esther has and that we have the power and agency to change things, especially when we are increasingly feeling like there’s nothing we can do to stop any of the evil happening in the world.
It feels like we’ve hit a lot of these “for such a time as this” moments in the past several years:
Charleston, or any of the many brutal and public shootings.
Or maybe the “for such a time as this” moment is the refugee crisis.
Or maybe it’s the many climate disasters. Everything from dying bees, to the hottest summer on record, to a water crisis around the world.
There are a lot of moments where we say to ourselves or each other, “Who’s going to fix this? Who will make this better? Who is going to step up?”
And according to this complicated book of Esther, some of us are born “for such a time as this” — to use what we have been given and our station in life to save each other’s lives. We need people like Mordecai in our lives to remind us that we were born to do. We need to be willing to lay down our lives “for such a time as this.”
But here’s my ongoing concern with Esther’s story — there’s no sign of God anywhere. No mention of God, no inspiration of God, no conversation with God in prayer.
There’s no sign in this book that God even exists.
As a pastor, this bothers me. As someone who believes in God, and in the centrality of God for our freedom from oppression, this story deeply troubles me. This is the very thing that I worry about with people of faith: that we are concerned with “for such a time as this,” but not so concerned about where God is in all of this.
In the story of Esther, Mordecai declares that this is the right time for Esther to save the people, to rescue them from death. But this is a very human appeal, which results in very human outcomes — that Mordecai and Esther, in their zeal to save the Jewish people, went further than just saving their people. They killed their enemies. They didn’t just save themselves.
It’s not unlike what happens in the book of Judges where the people do what is right in their own eyes, and in an attempt to do the right thing, they end up doing what they want. They end up doing incredible violence.
This story begs the question that I’ve been asking since my sabbatical — where is our faith in our social justice? What role does it play? Where is God in “for such a time as this?”
My greatest fear is that in our zeal for social justice, we lose sight of God’s call, and we forget to listen for the spirit at work, we stray from the path of discipleship. I fear that we might forget to balance our love for justice, with telling the story of Jesus and praying for wisdom to know how to act.
So many of the stories in the Hebrew scriptures — Esther and the book of Judges included — are reminders of how much we need God. When we do what is right in our own eyes, when we act “for such a time as this” without God’s guidance, I fear that we too might lose our way.
The story of Esther is — today — a reminder of our need for God. We can do much good without God, but we can also very quickly lose our way without God’s guidance and wisdom.
We were born for such a time as this, but we still need God. AMEN.
Amy Yoder McGloughlin is pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. This is a sermon she gave based on Esther 4, first posted on storiesfromtheredtent.com.