Dr. Anne M. Cameron
September 4, 2011
Fourth in a series, "Unlikely Heroes and Heroines in the Bible"
The events in the book of Esther take place amid the court of Xerxes I of Persia in Susa, near the Persian Gulf. Susa no longer exists, but in its place is the modern day city of Shush, about 200 miles north of Kuwait, in Iraq. The time is sometime after 538 BC, following the end of the Babylonian captivity.1
Esther was an orphan girl brought up in the home of her uncle, Mordecai. As a young woman Esther was presented to the palace as a candidate to replace the deposed queen of Xerxes. Evidently, Esther pleased King Xerxes, and he made her queen. Esther seems to have been a responsive and compliant person, eager to please people in authority. Her uncle Mordecai advised her to keep her Jewish identity secret, and she obeyed him.2
When we begin Chapter 4 we soon realize that something terrible has happened. Esther's uncle Mordecai is in great mourning. There has been a decree issued by Xerxes, a decree which commands the destruction of all Jews in Susa.
When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2 he went up to the entrance of the king's gate, for no one might enter the king's gate clothed with sackcloth. 3 In every province, wherever the king's command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
4When Esther's maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. 5 Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king's eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. 6 Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king's gate, 7 and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king's treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. 8 Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.
9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11 "All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law-all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days." 12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, "Do not think that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this." 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 "Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish." 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
"For just such a time as this." You may recognize this phrase, as it is used a lot these days, most often when someone has decided to run for political office. This usage of the phrase doesn't really help us understand our unlikely heroine Esther, though, because the last thing Esther wanted to do was to rock the boat. The last thing she sought was the limelight. Certainly Esther did not see herself as having much power or influence, and indeed, this was true. Esther was a quiet woman, living almost as a captive within the king's harem. Though a queen, she had no formal power. Under the usual rules of protocol, even the queen could not initiate a conference with the king. Even the queen risked her neck by coming into the court without an express invitation from the king. And Esther hadn't so much as seen the king in over a month.
Esther is the only Biblical book in which the name of God is not mentioned. Neither does the book of Esther mention prayer, sacrifice, or worship. The book of Esther is considered to be the most secular book in the entire Bible.
Oddly enough, it is a modern secular book which captures one element of what this pivotal story of Esther is about.
It is a book written for business managers, called "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High" (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler).
Because what Esther had to do in order for God to save her people was this. She had to engage in a crucial conversation. She had to speak up at a critical time. She HAD to talk when the stakes were high. She had to tell the truth to someone who was much more powerful than she. This is what this book emphasizes---how to go about telling difficult truths in ways that are mature, calm, and effective. Esther had to bury her fear, and speak the truth in a spirit of care and love.
Crucial conversations are about speaking the truth in love. Now we are not talking about hearts and flowers. We are talking about tough love, the kind of love that does not shrink from what is difficult. It is not violent, nor aggressive, but neither is it wimpy.
We Christians are often accused of being wimpy. Milquetoasts. Wishy washy. Some of us avoid confrontation at all costs. You know, turn the other cheek and all that. What we see here in the book of Esther is a powerful---no, more than powerful----an unequivocal message that this is not God's way. In the Bible God makes it clear that there are plenty of times to let things be, but there are also times when it is absolutely essential that we engage in crucial conversations.
This is what we heard in our gospel reading this morning (Matthew 18:15-20.) Jesus says we are supposed to engage in crucial conversations! We must confront someone who has done us wrong. If she won't listen, we are supposed to get others to help us confront. Jesus even goes so far as to tell us we might have to call in the whole church for a recalcitrant individual. Pretty extreme, yes? It's in the gospel of Matthew, and we see echoes of it in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and in the gospel of Luke (Lev 19:17, Deut 19:15, Luke 17:3). Holding a crucial conversation with someone not only has the potential to do good things for the one who's been wronged, but also for the other person.
In his letter to the Ephesians (Eph 4: 14-15) Paul equates "speaking the truth in love" to spiritual maturity. When we are able to do this, we are no longer tossed around by changing circumstances. When we have mastered the art of crucial conversations, we will have mastered more than just a negotiating skill.
That is because, when we speak the truth in love, when we risk saying a difficult word to those who take advantage in the workplace, when we stand up for the kid who is being harassed by a bully, when we firmly but calmly defend our neighbor's rights, we have to conquer some of our own spiritual weaknesses.
We have to let God work God's changes in us to make it possible for us to speak the truth in love. For some people, the tendency is to lash out, or to silently take revenge. Others' tendency may be to ignore big problems and issues, saying "it's none of my concern." God can help us with both of these kinds of spiritual weaknesses: one reflecting a lack of self control, the other, a tendency to be self-centered.
It is neither wise nor necessary to confront every bad situation we encounter. We have to pick our battles. I suspect (for most of us here) our biggest challenge is not controlling our anger, but knowing when and how to break the silence, to allow God to use us effectively. If I had to guess, I would say our own spiritual weaknesses center around passivity and silence in the face of wrongs or injustices. Most of us would simply rather not bother. We can relate to Esther.
Esther did not want to confront the king. She was fearful and afraid of what the law demanded. She didn't see confrontation as part of her role. It wasn't in her job description! She didn't want to have to take a stand, but Mordecai convinced her, and God used her.
God used a powerless woman, a woman accustomed to obeying orders, to bring a serious injustice to the king's attention. Esther decided that, to be faithful, she just might have to risk her life: "If I perish, I perish." What freedom she expressed in those very words!
Would that God would help us have the mind and will of Esther.
What in your life requires a crucial conversation?
Is there something that is unfair?
Have you failed to set a limit where one is needed?
Are you afraid to tell someone "no"?
Is there someone who needs you to defend them?
Is there a wrong that needs righting?
I pray to God that God will give us all the strength, the courage and the wisdom to say the crucial words which need to be said. Even when we are scared. Even when something important is on the line.
For such a time as this, God has given us brains, language, and a heart.