On Sunday during a candlelit evensong, Markus Dünzkofer managed to cover the nature of religion and scripture, identity and ‘othering’, the environmental crisis, fear and power, and fasting and partying, all on the basis of a 2000 year-old story. I liked it so much that I begged it as a guest blog post: I hope you enjoy.
A few days ago I was called a “Socialist” on national TV. The person who labelled me thus was rather angered. And one could argue that because of something I had done he was justifiably infuriated. I would say, though, that his conclusions are not mine. But there we are.
I did wonder, though, why he used this particular word: “Socialist”. Was he trying to insult me? And if so, was he trying to link me to the murderous regime of Joseph Stalin? Eventually, I had this thought: Maybe he used the word “Socialist” to imply that despite of being a priest, I am a godless person. Because that’s what Socialists are, right?
Well, if that is true, we have a problem today, because this would make the biblical book of Esther, from which we have heard earlier, “Socialist,” too. The book of Esther is one of two books in the Bible that never mentions God. It is godless. And yet, is divine revelation. Intrigued? Well, let me tell you the tale:
The story begins with Persian King Ahasuerus, whose Greek name Xerxes at least I can somewhat pronounce, having a jolly in his palace. In antiquity this often was code for an outrageous orgy. Drunk with power and with wine, hormones and lust raging, Xerxes wants to show off his wife to his equally drunk and horny guests. It doesn’t need much fantasy to realise that the showing-off would have led to other things. Understandably, the queen refuses. Xerxes, however, is so outraged that he casts her out. A man must save “his face and his manhood,” right? So, there is need for a new wife.
Meanwhile, Mordechai, a Jew, who, together with his king, Jechonja of Juda, had been forcefully exiled to the city of Susa in Persia and now, at age 120 is working at the palace in Susa — this Mordechai comes up with a cunning plan. His niece Esther, who he took in after her parents had died and whose beauty captivated many, should be shown to Xerxes as a potential future queen.
And even though there was stiff competition from a number of women from the 127 countries he governs, Xerxes picks Esther and makes her queen. And did they live happily ever after? No.
Mordechai learns of a plot to kill Xerxes. Through Esther he conveys the plan to the king, who hangs the two assassins. Mordechai’s deed, however, is written into a dusty old book.
This is when Haman, the anti-hero of the story enters the scene. Xerxes appoints him prime minister. But Haman is full of spite, envy, vanity, and ambition. And when Mordechai, because of his religion, refuses to bow to him, he completely loses his plot: He convinces Xerxes to order a day of pogrom on which all Jews throughout the Persian Empire shall be annihilated. But the lots he casts to determine the date pick a day almost a year later. This gives the Jewish community time, and they use it to fast and to pray. Not what I expected!
During this interval Mordechai approaches Esther to intervene. And this is where we find ourselves in today’s reading.
It takes some convincing of Esther, though, because she is not out as a Jew at court. Eventually Esther does agree and comes up with a shrewd plan to influence Xerxes, a plan that involves two banquets and copious amounts of alcohol. I will spare you the details and some other subplots, so that the choir can get to their own banquet in time.
But Esther knows what she is doing and convinces Xerxes to change his mind. But it isn’t so easy. He cannot just revoke his original order – what has been written has been written. Instead, he allows for the Jews to arm and defend themselves on the day of the previously appointed Reichskristalnacht.
When others side with the Jews — after all they are now in Xerxes’ good books — it all ends in a bloodbath that would make our contemporary stomachs rightfully churn. It is pretty awful. And no, Haman and his house don’t survive. Ironically, Haman ends up on the gallows he’d built for Mordechai. The end.
We could have a long discussion about the heinous ending of this biblical book, and maybe that will be the content of the sermon in three year’s time, when we will read the text again. Let me just say so much:
This is not a historical account but a historical novella that builds on numerous experiences of pogroms during the Jewish exile. Mordechai’s age is but one indicator that makes the story factually unbelievable. And there are others. Historically, there was no massive bloodshed. It’s all a hyperbole.
We have to remember, though, that the story was written from the perspective of the oppressed, of an enslaved people. This it is a scenario far away from the comforts of our 21st century mostly middle-class comfort. Achieving justice back then did look different from the ways we pursue liberation from oppression. Yet, this is not cop-out. The book of Esther still entices us to confront oppression, even at the price of one’s own safety. If injustice is not named, even at times named provocatively, then those, who shy away from naming it, enable that very injustice – even if they are only bystanders.
But enough of this part of the story, because today I would like to focus not on the end of the book of Esther, but on two principles we find within the book: the principles of faithfulness and identity.
From the reading the book of Esther it is clear that Mordechai is held up as a model of faithfulness to the covenant that God made with Moses: He doesn’t bow to Haman, because that would violate the first and second commandments, which orient our worship to God alone.
But one might ask: doesn’t exactly this refusal to bow to Haman get Mordechai into trouble? Isn’t Mordechai’s faithfulness the reason for the impending genocide? Well, you would say this only if you forgot that God’s plan for salvation is already in place. And through the faithfulness of the Jews, through their fasting and praying, God’s plan of salvation can take its course.
Fasting and praying. These are not necessarily activities we would choose. But I wonder how fasting and praying would empower our personal life and the life of our faith community? And I wonder what our planet would look like if we were to engage in more fasting and praying?
This reminds me of this year’s Lent, when we here at St John’s walked through the book of Jonah and challenged the church and society to repent from its unfaithfulness to God’s plan on matters environmental. And? Did we listen? Are we — like the Jews in the book of Esther — fasting and praying for God’s salvation and liberation both for us personally and for the planet? Are you?
And then there is Esther herself. Initially at court, she does not reveal her true identity for fear of rejection. And when she is faced with Mordechai’s charge in today’s reading, she fears her own death.
There is that little word: “Fear”. Fear of being known. Fear of confronting the powers of this earth. Fear of upsetting the applecart. Fear of being rejected. Fear of disappearing in the midst of strife. Fear seems to be everywhere.
I know what I am talking about, I have been afraid. I have feared the consequences. I have been so scared I could neither move, nor act, nor think, not pray, nor sleep. Richard Holloway once said: “Fear is the greatest enemy of the Gospel.” It is indeed a darkness that needs to be pierced.
When Esther reclaims who she is, when she embraces, who God made her to be as a woman and as a Jew in the midst of a misogynist and anti-Semitic environment, then God’s light is revealed. Identity is not a threat to our society, regardless of what that identity might be. What will eat up and destroy who and what God made us to be is fear:
- Fear of the other, especially when the other is different.
- Fear of losing comfort in order to support those, who have less.
- Fear of having to give up something in order to save the planet.
- Fear of looking like silly lunatics, when witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in prayer, in action, and in word.
- Fear of celebrating our identity.
Fear is a powerful foe.
We are in the middle of Advent. And during Advent, we hear prophets raising difficult and provocative and maybe even fear-inciting questions. But the church must be faithful: she must be faithful to this prophetic tradition and continue to raise questions. And sometimes this might cause a stooshie.
We are in the middle of Advent. And in Advent we wait for that divine light that came into the world and that still pierces the darkness, the darkness of fear and any other kind of darkness — even the darkness of death. Our true, God-given identity is connected to embracing this light. And our identity is not connected to labels we throw at each other, nor to names by which we incite fear or exclusion — and this goes for all of us.
Our Jewish siblings commemorate the events of the book of Esther with the annual festival of Purim. And according to Jewish tradition, one should drink on Purim until you can no more make a distinction between arur Haman, which means “cursed be Haman”, and baruch Mordechai, which means “blessed be Mordechai”. Quite an alcoholic feat!
In the heavenly banquet we will also be drunk. We will be drunk with God’s love, so drunk indeed that we will longer distinguish between Greek or Jew, Male or Female, Slave or Free, young or old, outsider nor insider, gay or straight, believer or doubter.
All will be children of God — even supposed godless clergy.
Markus Dünzkofer is the Rector of St John’s Princes Street and is on twitter @homouusian.
You can find out more about the global interfaith initiative to “fast for the climate” at fastfortheclimate.org