October 25, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I am preaching a series on what the Bible has to say to us in our times of suffering, and today I want to look at the Biblical word for those who are suffering under social, political, or personal oppression. For that, I turn to the Book of Esther.
The Book of Esther takes place in Persia during the 5th or 6th century BCE. This was a time after the fall of the Jewish nation and the exile, when the Jews were living under the rule of the Persian Empire as, what we might call today, resident aliens. In other words, they were living in community with the Persian citizens but they had fewer rights and no political power.
In the book of Esther, the King of Persia, King Ahasuerus takes the young Jewish woman Esther as his wife, and when she discovers that one of the King’s officials has ordered the persecution and massacre of the Jewish people, Esther uses her influence with the King to save the Jewish people from annihilation. You may be familiar with Esther’s story which is reenacted every year at the Feast of Purim but many people today believe that Esther’s actions on behalf of the Jews wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for another woman who preceded her. Her name was Vashti and she was King Ahasuerus’s first wife, until she dared to defy him.
Excerpts from Esther 1
[King Ahasuerus gave a great banquet for all of the officials in his kingdom and] on the seventh day, when [King Ahasuerus ]was merry with wine, he commanded … the seven eunuchs who attended him to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.… At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
The king consulted the sages who knew the laws … [and one said] “This deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands… If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him… that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she, so when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom…, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.”
This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as [his sage] proposed; he sent letters to all the royal provinces … declaring that every man should be master in his own house.
Vashti doesn’t get a lot of space in the Bible, only 12 verses. When she is introduced, she is holding a banquet for her women friends while her husband feasts with the men and the King’s servants interrupt her party to command that she appear at the King’s banquet so that he can display her before his drunken friends like a playboy bunny. She refuses and as a result, he casts her off and exiles her, and her story is apparently over by the end of chapter one. I would argue, however, that her story, or at least the example she set continued in the person of Esther to once again challenge and this time upset the systems of oppression.
The book of Esther is the story of entrenched injustice and of the ways in which the powerful cause suffering for the powerless. Vashti’s brief appearance at the beginning of the book warns us that we should read the book of Esther as an essay on social justice. When Vashti challenges her husband Ahasuerus, the Bible tells us that she is defying not just the king but an entire world view. The Bible says that the King’s officials were frightened by Vashti’s independence because, they are afraid that the noble ladies of Persia and Media [in other words, their own wives] will hear of the queen’s behavior and “rebel against the king’s officials, [in other words, them].” The writer Erica Brown said, “Long before the days of social media, Vashti’s disobedience was assumed to travel near and far, toppling the patriarchal hierarchy in homes everywhere.” (1)
It is not just women, however, who are affected by the authoritarian system of Ahasuerus’ court; the same unjust system which favors the powerful later threatens the lives of the Jewish people living in Persia when Haman, an official of the King’s court, decides to eliminate the Jews in a pogrom of ethnic cleansing. When Haman asks the King’s permission to massacre the Jewish people, King Ahasuerus allows it with the same casual disregard of the humanity of the Jewish people that he showed toward his first wife Vashti. We are never told what King Ahasuerus himself felt about the Jews; in fact, it would be easy to imagine him saying, “I’m not an anti-Semitic. Hey, my wife is Jewish!” and yet he allows Haman to use the power of the throne to oppress and destroy the Jews. We often measure moral character by how people treat individuals but the Book of Esther says, to quote Reinhold Niebuhr, that even the most moral people can contribute to immoral systems and it is the immoral systems which oppress the powerless and rob them of well-being and peace. If we are truly to live out God’s desires and bring peace to all people, we not only have have to live individually moral lives — we not only have to be individually free of bigotry and judgement — but we also have to be courageous enough to challenge the unjust systems that diminish all of us.
Vashti stood up to the oppression of her husband’s court and though it seems like she lost the battle, the effects of her defiance were not so easily erased. At first, Vashti’s replacement Esther doesn’t appear to be anything like Vashti, which may be the reason Ahaseurus chose her. She was modest and quiet and accommodating, obeying the King’s commands without question. She was so willing to recede into the background that when Haman decides to kill all of the Jews, no one seemed to remember that this meant that Esther’s family would be among those murdered. Esther, like Vashti before her, was caught in the clutches of an oppressive system which threatened to destroy her family because of their ethnicity and which denied her a voice because of her gender. Esther’s suffering must have been profound when she heard of Haman’s plan because there is nothing more crippling than watching violence and pain rolling toward you and feeling powerless to stop it. Esther’s suffering was the same suffering that refugees experience who are trying to protect the well-being of their children but are turned away from every safe haven. Esther’s suffering is the same pain as that of the 545 children and their families who were separated at the border by immigration services long ago and continue to remain separated because they are voiceless and powerless to reunite their families. Esther’s suffering is the suffering of people in the midwest whose communities are devoured by unemployment and addiction to opioids. It is the pain of young Black men who are afraid a traffic stop might be fatal. It is the suffering of Sophie, Caroline, Katherine, and all of us who care about Jiaxi, imprisoned in China for his work to bring better human rights to that country. And it is the suffering of each of us who even if we are not the direct victims of oppression, have empathy for those who suffer injustice, and yet who feel powerless to change the entrenched behaviors and assumptions that diminish their well being and ours. How do we cope with our despair in the face of oppression and our seeming powerlessness to change it?
The book of Esther tells us that we need to look to those who have gone before us. Often our despair is caused by a belief that we are alone and helpless in our struggle; but the Bible reminds us that there are many who have walked this path before us; many who know our pain, and who have worked on behalf of their communities and future generations to bring new life and new possibility for us. They may not have accomplished their task fully, but they have left footprints on the road for us to follow and they remind us that we can leave the same footprints for those who will come after. The writer Erica Brown says, “Vashti taught Esther, as she teaches us, that there are women who stood up for their dignity and suffered so that women later in the future might understand how to continue the fight.”
We will not be able in our lifetimes to overcome all of the injustices which keep people imprisoned, but we can look to those who have gone before us and follow in their footsteps. We can remember Vashti and her willingness to assert her dignity even at the cost of her throne. We can remember Esther who overcame her propensity to modesty and accommodation to stop the violent plans of one man. We can remember the heroes of our generation — Martin Luther King, Jr., the Freedom Riders, Reverend Gene Robinson, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu — who may not have changed the world permanently but showed us how much better we can be as people.
And as Christians, we look first and foremost to Christ who the gospel says, was himself tested by what he suffered, and so is able to help those who are also being tested. We don’t walk this road alone; we walk in the footsteps of Christ who spoke out for the lowly and the powerless, who lifted up the persecuted and lost, who pushed back at the forces of injustice to bring the possibility of a fuller life for all people. Christ himself did not fully change the world but he changed us by teaching us that the powers that appear to hold us imprisoned are ultimately no match for the grace of God. We will follow in his footsteps leaving our own footprints firmly pressed into the road toward justice that those who come after us may have hope.