Sermon by Rev. Deborah Sunoo
I toyed with idea of having a few of you come up and pantomime that scene while Alina read it. In fact, you really wouldn’t need any words at all to follow the plot line: The queen pleads with the king. The king looks puzzled. The queen points to Haman – he’s the villain! Haman cowers. The king storms out. Haman falls down at Esther’s feet and pleads with her to spare his life. The king comes back and is horrified to see Haman reaching toward his wife. Then a trusty sidekick points to the gallows – hey, there’s an idea!
And how would the typical audience react to the execution scene there at the end? If you haven't developed enough loathing for Haman yet to be sure, picture the big, burly guy with the black hat and dark sneer who’s just made the mistake of aiming his six-shooter at Clint Eastwood. Picture the villain pitted against Captain America or Wonder Woman or Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action-adventure flick of your choice. “Hasta la vista, Haman!” And the crowd goes wild. We knew he had it coming, the minute he walked on screen. . . And lest we think those spontaneous cheers only erupt in movie theaters, think about how folks in our country reacted when Osama bin Laden was killed. I’m not saying it’s a reaction we’d be proud of. But I expect we all have our villains (historical or contemporary), our enemies (national or personal), folks at whose funerals we’dbe hard pressed to shed a tear.
That’s the kind of scenario we’ve entered here in the closing chapters of the book of Esther. When Haman is put to death, the storyteller presents it as simple matter of poetic justice – hanged on the very gallows he’d built for Mordecai. Getting what he deserved.
Granted, some of us may find this ending a little too tidy. Wasn’t it convenientthat the gallows just happened to be sitting there, and that the king would at that very moment just happento show the first inkling of concern for justice he’d shown in the whole book? It doesn’t always work that way. As we know, villains can get away with murder, quite literally. Victims often find that justice eludes them. Esther really does start to read like a blockbuster movie script here. Not only do the good guys win, decisively, dramatically, but we don’t even have to worry about the bad guy making parole in the sequel!
Of course, this has been a pretty wild story all along, and when we read a little further on into chapter 8, we find that even with Haman gone, the plot thickens once again. Remember, “over and over, Esther’s Persia has been characterized by arcane laws, rules so nonsensical as to make the U.S. tax code seem a paragon of clarity and efficiency. [Queen] Vashti, who [back in chapter 1] refused to appear before the king, is ordered not to appear before him; officials are commanded to bow before Haman’s vanity; the nation is ordered to spend a single day eleven months hence exterminating the Jews. No one may enter the palace gates in sackcloth; no one may approach the king without being called. Now, we learn in chapter 8 that no one, not even the king himself, can revoke a royal edict that has been sealed with his ring (8:8). Haman is dead, but [it turns out] his deadly plan lives on.” So that momentary elation that the enemy has been captured and executed is followed by a weak-kneed realization that nothing’s really been solved. Esther again pleads that the lives of her people be spared, and the king finally allows her and Mordecai to issue another edict. One that at least permits the Jews to defend themselves against the deadly attack that, bizarrely enough, cannot be called off.
And when the day finally comes, and the Jews prevail, triumphant cries erupt that make the first round of cheers pale in comparison: “Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king, [we’re told] wearing royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purple, while the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor. In every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict came, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a festival and a holiday.” (8:15-17) The feast of Purim is inaugurated in chapter 9, “as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.” (9:20-23) And the closing credits begin to roll. Another happy ending.
A little too tidy? Perhaps. But think about the value of a happy ending to a story-typethat so often in the course of history has not ended happily. A powerful political enemy seeks to wipe out the Jewish people. Hunts them down in their homes, carries them away into captivity, or worse. Much worse. Try hearing this story, with its happy ending, through the ears of a Jew living in Russia during the worst of the pogroms. Through the ears of a Jew living in Nazi-era Germany, or Poland. And those are just a couple 20thcentury entries in a long list of similar scenarios. Maybe the bitter irony would be too much to bear – that here in Esther’s Persia the enemy is so easily defeated. But there may also be some satisfaction in hearing a story like this even when we know life isn’t so simple. Or perhaps especially then. Because it appeals to our sense of justice. This is how things oughtto work. The good guysoughtto win.
There’s another way an ending like this can be appealing. Think about what you find yourself longing for after yet another gut-wrenching tragedy in the news. Once you tear yourself away from the news coverage for a little while, do you go out of your way to sit down and read War and Peace? Or to find a heavy drama on TV? Or do you find yourself longing to watch something a little lighter than CNN? Perhaps with the world in the state it’s in right now, it feels like a guilty escape – but it’s an escape many of us feel we need. Something to take our minds off our worries.
In an old black and white Depression-era movie called “Sullivan’s Travels,” a rich actor wants to travel around the United States and create a documentary about what it’s like to live in absolute poverty, homeless and hungry. He feels society needs such a film, that it would be a gift to those who are suffering to put images and words on their experience. The moral he learns, finally, is that the suffering masses for whom he wants to make this film would, quite frankly, prefer a light-hearted comedy. Reality they’ve got. What they need is an escape. A film with a happy ending.
Now none of this, mind you, gets us around the typeof happy ending we find in the book of Esther. Somehow it just didn’t seem appropriate to read aloud in worship this morning the rated-R-for-violence portion of the conclusion in chapter 9. The way the story unfolds there is not remotely consistent with biblical teachings about love and forgiveness. Nor are the parallels I’ve been drawing with those action-adventure movies accidental! But it’s one thing to watch a fictionalized car chase / explosion / shoot ‘em up finale in the theater, and quite another to find this stuff in our Bibles. It can be a little frightening, actually, to discover such raw emotions, such blatant longing for revenge, here in the Good Book. Because we know that’s not how we’re supposedto behave – the Bible itself has told us so!
This is precisely why it’s so crucial to read the Scriptures with an understanding of genre – of the different typesof literature we find there. Certainly there are many verses, whole chapters and books even, whose purpose is that we should “go and do likewise.” They are prescriptive teachings – they tell us what we ought, and ought not, do. But there are many other portions of the Bible with different functions. Some are more descriptive. Not “thus says the Lord” but “this is how it is” or even “this is how it feels.” The Book of Job comes to mind. The psalms of lament, too. And I, for one, find this kind of descriptive (“this is how we feel”) element here at the end of Esther as well. This story is clearly not about teaching or doctrine. It conveys extreme emotions in an extreme situation. Imagine your own family – your parents and siblings, your spouse, your children or grandchildren, living for 11 months under a brutal death sentence. How would you react if – having thought for all that time you’d be defenseless and have to watch your family die right in front of you – how would you react if you were given a chance to fight back? Like that handful of psalms that call down curses on the enemies of Israel, these final chapters of Esther may well be “an embarrassment to folk who have never lost that much, been abused that much, or hoped that much.” But perhaps even for those of us who have not experienced that level of suffering or grief, they can “provide a window on the world of those who have.”
Would that it were otherwise. Would that we lived in a world where hate and violence never reared their ugly heads. A world where no one even knew the meaning of words like vengeance . . . mass violence. . .genocide. In such a world it might well be the psalms of lament we couldn’t relate to in the Scriptures, rather than the tidiness of a happy ending.
But until that world—until that kingdom comes, there will be moments when, as Shakespeare puts it, “the weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
The hymn we’re about to sing speaks of “a world preparing for God’s glorious reign of peace, where time and tears will be no more, and all but love will cease.” Would that our longing, hoping, praying, working for such a world could do its part to make it come. Or can it?
It can’t hurt to try.
Patricia K. Tull, Esther’s Feast: A Study of the Book of Esther” p. 48
The Duke of Albany interpreting the tragedy of King Lear.