VOICES | Esther: For Just Such a Time as This

timothy_tyson.jpgThe following sermon was delivered at Duke University Chapel on Sunday, Sept. 27. It is reprinted here in full.

By Tim Tyson

I stand before you an imposter. I am not a preacher, I am a historian and a writer. But my Uncle Dewey, my Uncle Tommy, my Uncle George, my Uncle Earl, my Uncle Bobby, and my father, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather were all either Methodist or Free Will Baptist preachers. If I don't have a right to run from God, who does?

And so when I was invited to preach, and you'll notice I said "invited," not "called," I said yes without thinking and then was mortified with fear. And so I was relieved to see that this week's lectionary included the book of Esther. On first appearances, Esther seemed perfect for me -- not a very pious sort of book, but instead part history and part novel. It offers us all that a writer could want: a harrowing tale of concubines and kings, palace intrigue, politics high and low, and the destiny of a captive people.

The tale begins with Ahasuerus, a careless king who ruled 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. At a week-long party, the drunken king orders his beautiful Queen Vashti to come show herself to his guests, and she declines to do so. And so King Ahasuerus dismisses the queen and orders his servants to scour the provinces for the most winsome young virgins to be his concubines, from among whom the king will choose a new queen.

Esther is one of the young beauties chosen to audition. Born a Jew and soon orphaned, she was raised by Mordecai, an elder and a scholar among the Jews, who cherishes Esther as his own daughter.

Mordecai's great-grandfather had been among the original Jews stolen away from Jerusalem. But generations had passed and many of the Jews had accommodated themselves to the ways of their oppressors. Born in bondage, they had let the old songs and the old stories and the sacred scriptures slip away. But Mordecai preserved the history and culture of his people. He schooled his beloved Esther as she grew up, telling her the ancient stories and teaching her about the God of Abraham.

Even so, Mordecai knew that Esther faced a struggle to survive as a Jew in this hostile kingdom. When the king's servants select Esther to join his harem, they do not discover her Hebrew heritage. Mordecai advises Esther to keep quiet about being a Jew, and she does. And every day he walks around in front of the palace gate, picking up snippets of gossip about the selection process. One day, Mordecai hears that King Ahasuerus has chosen Esther to be his new queen.

Meanwhile, an ambitious despot named Haman rises to a position of the highest power within the king's court. Vain and haughty, Haman demands that everyone bow down to him as he passes. But there is an old man by the palace gates -- Mordecai -- who will not bow to Haman. When royal servants ask Mordecai why, Mordecai replies that he is a Jew.

Haman, hearing of this, decides that Mordecai and the Jews represent a threat to the entire structure of authority in the kingdom, and begins to plot their destruction. He uses one of the classic accusations of anti-Semites throughout history: he tells the king that there is a subject people scattered throughout the provinces whose loyalty is to their own laws and not those of the kingdom. Haman urges the king, "Let me have the authority to destroy them." Haman plans to plunder the Jews as well, and promises to pay ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury if he is allowed a free hand. The king, not wishing to be bothered with the details, gives Haman a special signet ring with which he can issue royal orders himself. And so Haman begins to organize a genocidal campaign.

When Mordecai hears of the coming campaign to slaughter his people, he mounts a public protest, dressing himself in sackcloth and ashes, howling outside the palace gates. But it does not remain a solitary protest; many Jews join him in the streets. Mordecai is a good organizer; the Jewish protests spread throughout all 127 provinces.

At first, when Queen Esther learns that her dear Mordecai stands at the gate in sackcloth and ashes, she does not understand. Esther sends Mordecai presentable clothes to wear, which he rejects. But then she dispatches her most trusted servant, and Mordecai sends back an explanation, along with a copy of Haman's genocidal decree. Mordecai urges Esther to go before the king and save her people.

Esther fears to reveal herself, because she is a Jew and also because the penalty for going to the king's inner court uninvited is death, unless the king raises his scepter in approval. But Mordecai warns her that there is no security in silence. He explains that this has been the purpose of her ascendance: "you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this." Esther finally sends back word that if Mordecai and the protestors will fast and pray with her, she will do her best, even if it costs her life. And so she goes before the king, who does raise his scepter, and beseeches him to invite Haman to a special banquet.

Even as Haman plots the destruction of the Jews, he can no longer abide the protests at his door, and orders his men to build a gallows for Mordecai, whom he plans to hang even before he can move against the rest of the Jews.

Soon comes the day of the banquet that Esther has persuaded the king to have for her and for Haman. Esther prepares a fabulous feast with her own hands, buys the finest wines, and adorns herself with care. The king is so delighted with her efforts and giddy with the wine that he asks her what he can do to please her. He says: "Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled."

Esther sees her opportunity and places her life on the line: "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me -- that is my petition -- and the lives of my people -- that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated."

The king roars: "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?"

And Esther says: "A foe and an enemy -- the wicked Haman."

When he hears of the gallows that Haman has built for Mordecai, King Ahasuerus orders Haman hanged on that very gallows.

The king gives Esther the house that Haman lived in at court. He calls in Mordecai and gives him the signet ring that he had once handed over to Haman. Though some of their enemies still rise against them, the Jews defeat them handily. Instead of genocide, the book says, "For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor."

The scripture notes that "Mordecai recorded these things," and that he and Esther create an annual holiday commemorating the rescue of the Jews, a holiday during which they would feast and give presents to the poor. The name of Mordecai is blessed forever, "for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants."


Now I admitted at the outset that, given my flimsy qualifications as a theologian, I was delighted with the story of Esther. With its winding plot, dark politics and triumphant ending, Esther reads like a historical novel. And yet, in the end, I am like old Haman, snared on my own crazy scaffold, for the narrative that pulls us in so easily will not let us off the hook so lightly.

Esther is not only a meditation on the nature of evil and the power of memory, but it is God's call to courage and self-examination. Where do we see ourselves in this drama? What do the characters here reveal to us about the ways we ourselves participate in and resist evil?

Most of us would hope to be Esther, though perhaps we don't see ourselves in her position. But Esther's failings are familiar. She becomes so blinded by her comfort and security that at first she cannot understand Mordecai's sackcloth and ashes, and tries to send him proper clothes. But soon she recognizes that Mordecai has something crucial to say.

When he asks her to intercede for her people, Esther nearly succumbs to her fears for her own personal wellbeing. All of us know the feeling. As Thomas Jefferson said privately about the question of slavery, "justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." But Mordecai reminds her who she is, and whose she is, and she willingly risks herself to save God's people.

When she takes that risk, she does not act recklessly, but exercises shrewd political judgment. The unruly protests in the streets are necessary, but not sufficient, to stop the madness. Love and mercy also require careful action in the corridors of power. A failure of nerve will mean death for many. James Baldwin reminds us that civilizations are not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that they be wicked, only that they be spineless.  

Esther finds her backbone, even though she herself is subjugated as a woman, only one beauty contest above a concubine. Like most of us; she has some limited power, but would rather not get involved. Esther is tempted to quietly let things be decided without her. But she recognizes that her time to speak has come. Her daring defeats Haman, who still wields dangerous power in the palace.

Few of us see ourselves as Haman. Haman is the convenient face of evil, one that lets all of us place ourselves on the side of the angels. By defining evil as the thing with horns and claws, we avoid any real self-examination. Haman probably does not think he is Haman, either. My guess is that he tells himself that all his machinations are a means to some laudable end. Right now he is just consolidating his career. Later, he will use his power for the public good. 

It is not clear what drives Haman's genocidal ambitions. It is not merely hatred of Mordecai that fuels his plot. It is not clear that he even believes his own anti-Semitic fulminations. What is quite clear is that he sees there is big money to be made by eliminating the Jews.

Even though we like money, most of us are not Haman. If we serve Haman, we do so by being Ahasuerus, whose sins make us wince with self-recognition. The king lurches this way and that, stumbling along the edge of catastrophe. He has generous impulses and, in the end, he does the right thing, thanks only to Mordecai and Esther. But his carelessness and his enslavement to his own appetites are nearly as deadly as Haman's poisonous wrath. Haman's moral monstrosity is only possible through Ahasuerus's blundering indifference. The king's real flaw is that he blithely signs over his power to others, happy to pocket the profits but unwilling to explore their origins or implications.

But it is the man outside the gates, Mordecai, whose willingness to challenge power saves the day. Mordecai is a monument to the power of memory. He keeps the legacy of his people and understands that they were born in bondage, not born for bondage. That memory steels Esther when the moment for courage comes. And when they are saved, and they hold history in their hands, Mordecai and Esther declare a holiday to mark the emancipation of God's people so that they would never forget. As Milan Kundera tells us, "The struggle of humanity against power is the struggle of memory over forgetting."

Hard remembrance is our best defense against Haman. We recoil at Haman's ruthless cynicism as if it were not part of us, but powerful interests in our own society are willing for human beings to die needlessly in order to safeguard their profit margins. Those interests are not above whipping up baseless fears and exploiting raw prejudice. Corporate fortunes are being spent to persuade the gullible that President Obama is a Nazi, a foreigner, and has a secret plan to kill old people. His leading critic claims that national health care is actually "reparations" for slavery -- in other words, a means of taking white people's money and giving it to black people. Where is our sense of history? What does Esther call on us to do in the face of ruthless false witness? And how does Esther ask us to respond when that paranoia is strengthened by prejudice?

That prejudice is rooted in our history, which many people nowadays urge us to forget. But we can hardly afford to do that. Haman still walks among us, eager to profit from the vulnerability of others. Our kings still waver and stumble, so preoccupied with imperial power that they forget what it is for. And Esther still lives in our hearts, prone to blindness and fear, but also capable of the courage that preserves God's people. Mordecai still stands outside our gates, reminding us to draw strength from our roots, to challenge oppression in the streets and in the palaces, and to use our power in the service of love. He urges us never to forget from whence we have come. We tell the stories, not only because God has been at work in our history, but because God is still at work in history, reminding us who we are, and whose we are, and calling us to courage in the service of love, mercy, and liberation. God has given us the story of Esther for just such a time as this.

Tim Tyson is a senior research scholar at Duke University and a member of the board of directors at the Institute for Southern Studies, the publisher of Facing South. His award-winning book Blood Done Sign My Name -- the autobiographical story of the uprising that followed the murder of a black man in Oxford, N.C. by a white businessman exonerated for the crime -- will soon be released as a film starring Rick Schroder.

(Photo of Tim Tyson from Duke University website)