Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We will pick up the story of Esther today just after her uncle Mordecai has heard about a royal plot against the Jewish people in Persia. Though we may not have seen this coming exactly, Esther had been told when she entered the palace not to “reveal her people or her kindred” (2:10). Now we find she had good reason to hide. Haman, one of the king’s closest advisors, is out to get the Jews. The reason, he claims, is that “this Jew Mordecai” refuses to show him the honor he feels he deserves. Haman believes he ought to command a great deal of respect, and when Mordecai doesn’t bow down before him when he walks by, he’s furious. What does he do about it? The text tells us Haman “thought it was beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, [he] plotted to destroy all the Jews. . . throughout the whole kingdom.” (3:6) He shares his bizarre logic with the king, who strangely enough doesn’t question his advice, and the order is given. “Letters [are] sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day” (a day roughly 11 months away), “and to plunder their goods.” (3:13) Chapter 3 ends with the king and Haman enjoying the equivalent of a three-martini lunch back in the palace, while all around them the city of Susa is “thrown into confusion.”(3:15) Panic might be a better word. Here comes a messenger from the palace to announce that you and your family will be completely wiped out, later on this year.
That’s the message that Mordecai so urgently needs to get across to Esther when we pick up the story in chapter 4. The first part of this text will sound familiar to you if you were here a couple of weeks ago, but we’ll read on a little farther this time, into chapter 5.
[READ ESTHER 4:9 – 5:8]
This section of the book of Esther describes a major turning point in the queen’s story. Up to this point, Esther has deferred to the men in her life: her uncle, the eunuch in charge of the king’s harem, and the king himself. But while it’s Mordecai who first urges her to act heroically, by the end of chapter 4, “Esther becomes the one giving orders, and he begins to obey her. She takes charge.”
And notice howshe takes charge. First by making clear how great a risk she is taking. ‘Let there be no mistake, Uncle Mordecai. This is no small thing you’re asking.’ Then ordering her uncle and all the Jews to fast with her for three days. ‘If I’m going to do this, you’ve got to be with me.’ Following her three day fast, we see Esther changing into her finest royal robes. And then we listen as she selects her words as carefully as her wardrobe. Having won the king’s favor the minute she walks into the room, we’re a little surprised at the simplicity of her request: “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet that I have prepared.” (5:4)
But notice how her careful, patient, studied approach contrasts with the words and actions of all the other characters here. Mordecai says ‘hurry up and do something!’ Esther says ‘If I must, I must, but first I’ll set aside three days to fast.’ The king says ‘Snap to it, Haman, get over here, the queen’s throwing us a banquet.’ Haman hurries over, and they enjoy this party, no doubt, with as much…relish as they’ve enjoyed all the others in the story, and the king again blurts out: ‘what can I give you, Esther? I’ll give you anything you want.’ Esther’s response to all the hurrying, scurrying, guzzling, gobbling, panicking, and blurting… is to slow down the frantic pace of the whole thing, and to say simply: “why don’t you come to another banquet tomorrow?” She will eventually make her desperate request of the king. “Spare my life and the life of my people” she’ll plead a couple of chapters and a couple of banquets later. (7:3) But she has the good sense to know this isn’t yet the time. First, she’ll invite the king to do something he’s shown himself willing to do anytime—attend a party in his own honor.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to fast, and a time to feast. . .
A time for sackcloth and ashes, and a time for royal robes. . .
A time to mourn, and a time to dance. . .
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. . .
Biblical wisdom in the tradition of our first lesson from Ecclesiastes is not only about knowing the right thing to do, but also about knowing the right time to do it, and Esther is portrayed here as an extremely wise woman. Her pace is deliberate. She knows what’s at stake, but she also knows the king. She knows this guy loves to make big decisions with a wine glass in his hand. She knows exactly what she’s doing. And she takes her time about it.
Remember that her time has not, until this moment in the story, really been hers to take. Others have planned her days and her nights. Six months of beauty treatments with oil of myrrh. Six months with perfumes and cosmetics (2:12). In other words, a full year of waiting before that fateful first night with the king. Followed, even after she’d been selected as queen, by months – or has it been years now? – of never knowing which night the king will decide he wants her. Thirty days recently without being summoned at all. For Esther suddenly to be the one making requests, issuing invitations, giving orders, controlling the timing of this whole situation, is really quite remarkable.
It seems she’s gotten good, too, at playing her cards close to her vest. She’s had to. If forced to hide her identity, she’ll also hide her plan.
I wonder how much of Esther’s wisdom came simply from the experiences of her life. Losing her parents at a young age. Conscripted into the king’s harem. Separated from the uncle who’d raised her as his own child.
We might also wonder if any of Esther’s wisdom came with age. While much is made of her youth and beauty at the beginning of the story, we don’t actually know how old she is when she begins to carry out this careful plan to spare the lives of her people. If she hadbeen queen for some time by this point in the story, I wonder how she might have spent those intervening years. Wonder what she’d seen. What she’d learned.
Whatever the source of Esther’s wisdom—some of the harsher experiences she’d had, her observations of palace life, lessons picked up from her uncle and the rest of the village who raised her, the Jewish community in which she grew up—Esther comes across here as incredibly well-grounded. Poised. A woman with an impeccable sense of timing. A woman of wisdom, who has clearly come into the kingdom for such a time as this.
As we read a little further on in the book of Esther next week, we’ll learn more about this royal advisor, Haman, the one who hatched the plan to destroy the Jews. In striking contrast to Esther, Haman seems always to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, saying things he really shouldn’t say, making strategically bad moves. We’ll also read the end of the story, to learn how things turn out for our impressive heroine and for our evil villain.
But for now, we’ll follow Esther’s lead, and bide our time…
Patricia K. Tull, “Esther’s Feast: A Study of the Book of Esther”, p. 24