“So how are you?” “Don’t ask. It’s been rough. My cat ran away yesterday. The IRS invites me to visit, but call for an appointment first. A truck rear-ended me, which explains the neck brace.” Then you get interrupted: “Well you think you have it bad. I’ve been suffering for months with chronic chapped lips and dry skin.” Don’t you just love someone who thinks their pain trumps yours?
You think you have it bad, read the Old Testament. The Jews are God’s chosen. That’s not so special. They step out of one pile of hardship into another. They probably wished God would pick on someone else for a while.
In today’s story, a colony of Jews lives in Persia, quietly hiding their Jewish traditions and identity. Babylon brought them here about 150 years ago. About 70 years after their deportation and exile, Persia defeats Babylon. Jews can leave. Not all go. Besides, life here is not so bad. That sets up the story of Esther. Scholars say Esther is more fiction than fact, like a historic novel, an epic. And it’s a darn good, exciting, nail-biting drama, sprinkled with flashes of humor.
Note some key characters: Mordecai is Esther’s uncle, who adopted her as a toddler. They live in Susa, the Persian capital. She’s grown up – a beautiful young woman. Persian King Ahasuerus throws a party – lasting for days: rich foods, lavish gifts, and plenty of adult beverages. Ahasuerus summons Queen Vashti to dance before the revelers. She refuses – gets canned. The king stages a beauty contest to find new arm candy. Mordecai tells Esther: “Go get a party dress, and strut your stuff, girl.” Esther does – King can’t unlock his eyes from Esther – pageant over. Esther wins – Queen of Persia. Mordecai whispers to her: “Don’t let on you’re a Jew.” Then overhearing two servants plotting to assassinate the King, Mordecai tells Esther, who warns the king, who hangs the traitors. He learns Mordecai saved him, yet somehow forgets to honor or thank him.
Next meet Haman, the villain, a pathetic buffoon with an ego as big as all outdoors. All are to bow before Prime Minister Haman. Mordecai refuses. He’s a diligent Jew. When Haman learns this, he goes to the king, asks for a decree to destroy all the Jews. Word spreads like a wildfire. Mordecai alerts Esther: “Go intervene.” Esther argues she could die. “You will anyway. You’re our only hope. Now go.” She succeeds.
Esther hatches a scheme: invite Haman and the king to a feast. Haman pulls his arm out of his shoulder, congratulating himself on being in such high company. Esther asks the king for a favor: “Let’s do this again tomorrow night.”
Leaving the palace and feeling very special, Haman spots Mordecai, and goes into a rage. Early the next morning the king remembers he hasn’t honored Mordecai. Haman walks in, overhears him say that someone is to be honored. “Who else – that’s got to me,” thinks Haman. “What would you do to honor someone?” the king asks. Haman beams, and plots his prize. Oh no – the king means Mordecai. Guess who leads the celebration parade for Mordy – Haman. Haman’s humiliated and steamed.
That evening Esther drops a dinner bomb – “Spare my life and my friends. We’re Jews.” King Ahasuerus explodes: “Who wants you dead?” “She’s a Jew?” Haman thinks – and wets his toga. A servant mentions the gallows Haman built for Mordecai are empty. Haman becomes the first yard ornament of Purim, celebrated in temples and synagogues to this day. God intervenes through Esther.
What a story – fact or faction, it’s more than a good story. It’s truth. Truth is God quietly works through those who risk death for the sake of others, sort of like Jesus did. God’s nature is to change tragedies into triumphs – sometimes before the tragedy comes. Truth is God works through those who ask, “What can I give to others – and for the greater good,” rather than “What can others and the world do for me?” – Sort of like how God loves us, without regard for a return on investment. Here’s truth. No power, principality, evil, death, human frailty, ego-enriched buffoons – will finally defeat God’s purposes, even if God seems AWOL. Esther points us toward God – a story where the deity is only implied, where God has no speaking part – and the truth is, even in obscure and unseen ways God’s grace is still present. Just look. And the people throw a great party to boot.
Read the entire book of Esther this afternoon so you can fill in the missing pieces. By the way, I have given you a hint – try the Old Testament. The story is not a straight trajectory of goodness, saintly behaviors and heroism. But it’s got it all – courage, smiting, reversals of fortune, the good prevail, villains get their due. Maybe we’ll see and trust all over again – and start believing that when all else fails, God doesn’t. So have courage in all things, anyway.