Commentary on Esther, Working Preacher Narrative Lectionary
To the preachers: It’s unlikely that your audience knows the whole story of Esther, so give them a condensed story arc highlighting the main characters: Esther, Mordecai, Haman, and King Ahasuerus.
Also important for listeners to grasp is that the Jews, God’s chosen people, are now in exile. Jerusalem was conquered, its people taken in chains into Babylonian captivity. Although Persians now rule, and have allowed some Jews to return to Jerusalem, there are still diaspora Jews who have married, settled and made their homes in Susa, living as a recognized religious minority in the heart of the powerful Persian empire. As an orphan and a female, Esther is a nobody among nobodies in this minority community.
Because this text is not well known and contains so much dialogue, use different readers for the voices of Mordecai, Esther, and narrator. This will help listeners track the action.
Esther is an unlikely heroine. As a mirror image of the Hebrew people in exile, Esther is herself an orphan, without the security, identity, and rootedness of family. She appears to be rescued when she is taken in by her cousin, Mordecai, who becomes her foster parent. But even this respite is short-lived when she is tapped for the king’s harem, and taken from the safety of his home in Susa, and thrust into the intrigue -- both political and sexual -- of the Persian royal court.
Add to this list that she is a Jew, another drop in status as an outsider in Persian culture -- especially in the royal city of Susa. She is a resident alien, a foreigner, and a member of this peculiar tribe that Persians tolerate unevenly.
Throughout it all, as orphan, foster child, and consort, Esther must decide whether and how to reveal her Jewishness within the dominant Persian culture. Early chapters show Esther and Mordecai at times hiding and other times revealing their Jewishness in varying contexts. This requires sophistical judgments with each new circumstance. As the plot takes twists and turns, we realize that the expression of religious identity is not static, but always dynamic and responsive.
As queen, we might expect Esther to be aware of her own power and to exercise it. Yet, at least up to this point, Esther has not identified herself as a player in the king’s political circles. She has not weighed in on policy, or leveraged her position to maneuver others into power, or even strategized to produce a male heir, always the quickest path to power for women at court. She makes none of these power plays.
When Mordecai calls upon her to act on behalf of her people, we can easily imagine her saying “Who? Me? I don’t have any power or authority. I’m just an orphan Jew who doesn’t even belong at court, faking my way through each day. Can’t some passionate prophet step up and do it? Or maybe one of Yahweh’s priests?” It’s clear that she has never thought of herself as having the agency to effect change or make a difference.
Mordecai makes a case to Esther that she must step into this particular historical moment. Her personal history intersects with the Jews’ corporate history at this particular time, in this particular place. In fact, says Mordecai, maybe her personal history has led her precisely to this moment, “for such a time as this,” because, as a Jewish woman who is also Queen Esther, she is in a unique position to save her people.
When the king decrees the destruction of all Jews, the crisis comes to a head. Esther’s own Jewishness, so carefully hidden at court, now comes into play. Is she most deeply a Jew? Or a cousin? Or a Persian queen? Or simply another woman whose life is determined by others in power? Who will she decide to be?
Esther does indeed step forward, though she initially resists Mordecai’s request, knowing she risks her own life if she approaches the king on her own initiative. Importantly, she calls upon the support of her Jewish community, asking them to fast and pray for her as she steps out to claim her God and her faith. She takes the risk to speak up for her people, even though it could mean her own death. Deliverance comes through claiming her faith publicly. The king responds favorably and the Jewish people are saved (Esther 5:1-8, 7:1-2). Esther’s brave leadership is enshrined in history through the annual festival of Purim in Judaism.
Esther’s struggle with identity and risk raise critical questions for Christians today, including these:
How do we maintain our witness of faith in a culture dominated by material consumption and political brinksmanship?
What power does any one of us really have to make a difference?
What kind of risks are we willing to take on behalf of those vulnerable and threatened?
Which of our identities ultimately shape our lives? Am I first and foremost a parent? An American? A Christian? An employee?
What complicit agreements do we make with cultural or political powers to maintain our own status and privilege?
How might God be preparing us to step forward to speak truth to power?
This text can fire our imaginations “for such a time as this.” For some of us, the courage of faith will fuel us to take risks in our towns and neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. As importantly, we must also speak truth to power when that power is us. Our congregations, our denominations, need Esthers who will step into hard places of fear and vitriol, to speak a word of life. Like this unsuspecting queen, or a babe in a manger, we, too, are part of God’s story, right here, right now.