Our reading this morning from the book of Esther is the beginning of the end of the story. The main villain, Haman, has had his rise and fall and was just executed. Meanwhile, Esther and Mordecai have risen to prominence and power. Esther has grown from a timid girl to a confident diplomat and confidante of her husband, King Ahasuerus. She started out hiding her Jewish identity and her family relationship with Mordecai, but now stands in complete solidarity with both. The main crisis of the story started when Haman convinced the King to rubber-stamp for him an edict of genocide – he wanted to wipe out all the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. Through a carefully-planned sequence of events, and some marvelous divine orchestration, Haman was finally vilified before the King and executed.
Unfortunately, the edict of genocide was still in place, and here in chapter 8 is where Mordecai and Esther turn their attention to solving that last big problem. The first issue is that by Persian law, royal edicts can’t be undone. So King Ahasuerus, who has never really taken action on his own initiative throughout the story, is still unable to do anything to help. And, true to his characterization throughout the story, he doesn’t seem to care all that much either. “Behold,” he says, “I have given Esther the house of Haman… you may write as you please with regard to the Jews.” This translation doesn’t bring out the King’s annoyance as clearly as others. “Now look,” the King says, “You, you write your own edict however you want.” He’s passing this off to Esther and Mordecai. He has already given them great royal authority; why should he be bothered?
So they go and write up a new edict. The language of their edict is modeled very closely on Haman’s original back in chapter 3. Both begin with the date and proclamation of the imperial power, both use local languages and were distributed quickly and efficiently. Both called for a group of people on a certain day a few months away to rise up, take arms, and wipe out their enemies and plunder their goods. In Haman’s edict, enemies of the Jews were invited to destroy the Jews; in this second edict, the Jews are invited to rise up and wipe out those who would destroy them. There are a couple key differences between these edicts, however, and in each case the new one is better than the old. This one calls for better and faster horses in its distribution, and that it is to be translated not only into the local languages of each province but also into Hebrew, so all the Jews everywhere would hear and understand. Additionally, while the first edict was met with mourning, fasting, weeping, and wailing, this new one was met with happiness, joy, gladness, and honor. These reactions, in both cases, were shared by Jews and Gentiles alike – even the unaffected bystanders were disturbed to hear of their Jewish neighbors’ impending demise, and now are relieved to hear of the reversal of fortunes.
PART ONE: Justice
Perhaps the most prominent theme in this chapter is that of justice. Previous chapters have dealt with similar themes (honor, shame, consequences), but where the concept of honor is a force that can result in both good and evil, depending upon whose honor is being upheld, the concept of justice is a starker matter of good and evil. Where in previous chapters we have seen the course of events constantly being dictated especially by respect for the King’s honor, now the underlying problem of justice is finally addressed.
This theme is most notably present in the writing of the new edict. I’ve already described the contrast between Haman’s edict and Esther & Mordecai’s edict. Beyond mere analysis, we must now look at them theologically – that is, with the identity of God and the Word of God in mind.
Haman’s edict is an example of worldly justice. Early in the story, the King told Haman to do “what seems good” to him to do. To Haman, it seemed good to express his anger at Mordecai by wiping out the entire Jewish race, and that’s what his edict was all about. As we have seen throughout the story, Haman is a classic villain – the kind you just love to hate – and is an archetypal picture of a man devoted to sin. He draws up cunning plans to kill people he doesn’t like, he butters up the king with flattery to get his way, he gloats over his success and wealth to his poor minions who don’t even like him that much… everything about him is irredeemably evil. That is the direction of worldly justice apart from God.
The edict of Mordecai and Esther, on the other hand, is a picture of divine justice. Rather than the innocent being wiped out, it is the wicked who are to be wiped out. Even though earthly power and distribution of information is significant, divine power and God’s Word are even greater. Earthly justice yields emotional upset and social discord; divine justice yields love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so forth. It may be upsetting to a Christian in this day and age to see Esther and Mordecai advocating such bloody massacre and looting – Jesus told us to love our enemies, and this is not a clear example of that. First of all, it should be noted that when verse 13 describes “vengeance” against the enemies of the Jews, the Hebrew word behind it (nqm) usually means “justified retaliation.” It’s a Holy War sort of reference, which in the Old Testament Law is always directly by God’s command under very strict conditions. And, beyond that, this edict is a sort of foreshadowing of the Day of Judgment at the end of this age, when the sins of all will be exposed and those justified in Christ will be vindicated and those who reject Christ will be punished.
Beside the two edicts, we can also learn about God’s justice by looking at King Ahasuerus here. Our Lord Jesus told a story that we usually call the Parable of the Persistent Widow.
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary.’ For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:2-8)
The parallel between Jesus’ story and the interaction between Esther and the King is striking. In both cases a comparatively weak woman is going to the man in authority for justice, and he eventually agrees – not because he cares about justice but because he doesn’t want to be bothered about it. Although at least in Esther’s case, there are indications that the King also cares about her. The lesson that Jesus draws from this story, which we should also see with Esther’s story, is that even though justice is sometimes slow (or even absent) in this life, God will work justice speedily. Jesus’ final question, too, is a pointed reminder that we, represented by the “weak” people in both stories, need to keep the faith and continue to be persistent like the widow, and like Esther.
A third lesson about God’s justice to be gleaned from Esther chapter 8, and indeed from much of the book, is the concept of reversals. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, like the book of Esther, contains many ironies & reversals. Evil was brought into the world by the fruit of a special tree – salvation was brought into the world by the “fruit” of another special sort of “tree.” The Devil sought to kill Jesus, but it was through Jesus’ very death that the Devil was to be defeated. Resurrection and eternal life are attained through dying to self. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Even today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 14:1-11) has an example in Jesus’ words “every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” There are many such reversals in the story of Esther. It isn’t just funny or satisfying to see Haman hoisted by his own petards, so to speak, but it’s divine justice. God takes the blind attempts of worldly justice, turns them on their heads, and puts things to right.
PART TWO: Solidarity
Besides justice, another important theme that comes together in Esther chapter 8 is that of solidarity with the Body of God’s people. As Esther embraces her Jewish identity, she is more and more empowered to serve them. This began earlier in the story – it was way back in chapter 4 when Mordecai first convinced Esther to stand up for her people and go to the King at the risk of her own life to intercede on their behalf. After much fear and prayer, she did so, and slowly embraced her true identity as a member of God’s people – both in public and in private. As we discussed last month, this was a huge step of growth for Esther, a conversion experience, in fact. And, as the story has unfolded since then, the fruit of Esther’s commitment becomes more apparent. First she wins favor from the King, then she was able to get rid of Haman, and now she has found a way to work around Haman’s edict of genocide. If she had kept quiet, or “hid her light under a basket” (Mark 4:21), she would never have gotten this far.
Her example of solidarity inspires others eventually, too. At the very end of chapter 8, it says “And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them.” The Greek version of the story specifies that these Gentiles became circumcised – actually converted to faith in God. This final verse could also refer to people simply sharing in their joy, rejoicing along with God’s people, or even to people who pretended to be Jews so as to benefit from the temporary high status. Whatever the case individually, Esther’s stand of solidarity was contagious. When God’s people stand up for the faith and for one another as a united Body of believers, the Holy Spirit moves powerfully! It is when we squabble among ourselves and divide that we most readily “quench the Holy Spirit,” as St. Paul warned about (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22). So the call to active unity – not just “invisible” or “spiritual” unity, but visible tangible unity – is very much a lesson from Esther 8. Today’s Epistle reading (Ephesians 4:1-6) also calls for unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
PART THREE: In Christ
You might ask, quite fairly, what these two topics – of justice and solidarity – have to do with each other. Is Fr. Brench just trying to preach two different sermons from the same text at the same time? No, in fact these two themes do connect. As is the case with basically all true Christian theology, we find a point of connection at Christ on the Cross. That is where everything comes together – justice, solidarity, love, creation, life, death, everything!
As far as bringing together our themes of justice and solidarity is concerned, I could put it to you this way: divine justice is found solely in Christ. Only by the Word of God is creation created, only by the Word of God is truth proclaimed, only by the Word of God is salvation effected. Sometimes in popular piety we are encouraged to think about our relationship with God as individualized as if each of us goes directly to God with no “in-betweens” to go through. This is not quite correct: Jesus Christ is the “in-between,” the Mediator. The only way to the Father is through the Son. Every tradition of Christianity has some version of this statement, but in the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion, Article 18 states: “They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” Thus, in each of our individual journeys to God, we all meet up together at the same place: in the person of Jesus Christ.
As I said a moment ago, divine justice is found solely in Christ; but now understanding Christ as the Mediator between God and mankind, we can phrase it a little differently: we are justified only in solidarity with Christ and His Church. You see, as we all meet up in Christ, we are spiritually (or mystically) gathered up into His Body. This Body of Christ is also called the Church, and thus there has been a saying that “there is no salvation outside the church.” This saying goes back at least as far as St. Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop in North Africa in the 300’s. One of my favorite early British Saints, the Venerable Bede, put it this way: “Just as all within the ark were saved and all outside of it were carried away when the flood came, so when all who are pre-ordained to eternal life have entered the Church, the end of the world will come and all will perish who are found outside.” (St. Bede, Hexaemeron)
The great reformer, Dr. Martin Luther, said something similar:
“Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.”
Another reformer, John Calvin, agreed, and clarified this by quoting St. Cyprian again: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.”
The Old Testament had a version of this doctrine too. In Numbers 9:13 it says, “the man who is clean and is not on a journey, yet refrains from keeping the passover, that person shall be cut off from his people, because he did not offer the Lord’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin.” So not only was belonging to the people of God necessary, but participating in the cultic life, the rituals, the liturgy, or whatever you want to call it, was a necessary part of that “belonging.” So we can’t just claim to be Christians, in relationship with Christ, a part of the Church, without actually participating in her Sacraments – chiefly Baptism and Holy Communion.
PART FOUR: The life cycle of the church
All this to say: the Gospel of Christ calls us into a covenant community, a mystical body, the Kingdom of God. This call to solidarity, wherein justice and justification are found, gives us a foundation for understanding the entire lifecycle both of the individual Christian and of the local church congregation.
First, knowing and believing that we are in union not only with Christ but with one another, we live accordingly. We reckon our fellow Christians as family and treat them especially well. We stand up for one another, we help one another, and share in one another’s joys and sorrows.
Second, as we make a lifestyle of being a part of God’s people, we witness accordingly. When people observe our lives, they see not some sort of solitary spiritual guru, but a member of a community, a person who is connected. As we stand together as a distinct people in the world regardless of race, nationality, political views, or any other divisive issue, we portray a witness of the people of God.
Third, as we give witness to our solidarity with the Church throughout time and space, we evangelize accordingly. When telling other people about Christianity, we don’t confine it to “my personal relationship with Jesus.” Rather, we speak also of the relationship that we develop with all God’s people, past and present. We’re not just trying to “win people for Christ,” we’re inviting them into a family, a spiritual home where they will belong, be loved, and be grown.
Fourth, as people turn to and accept this Gospel of union with Christ and in Christ, we disciple accordingly. So many discipleship programs and materials out there these days emphasize our individuality to the point of neglecting the Church. Rather than directing new believers straight to their spiritual gifts, their spiritual dispositions, and their individual callings in ministry or service, we make sure to nurture them as family members, and emphasize that spiritual gifts and callings are for the benefit of the whole Body rather than just the growth of the individual.
Fifth, and finally, as people are taught and discipled to be members of Christ’s Church, they live accordingly. We’ve come full circle. Our living, witnessing, evangelizing, and discipling leads to the next round of living, witnessing, evangelizing, and discipling. This is the life-cycle of a congregation. As a Body we are called to be disciples who make disciples. We achieve this not by celebrating extraordinary individuals with amazing talents and skills, but by taking seriously our identity as members of God’s people. When we focus on certain individuals to “make it happen”, we burn them out. When we try to jump up and be heroes on our own, we burn ourselves out. Even though Esther was a hero, she was not working alone; Mordecai helped and advised and encouraged her throughout the story. And beyond Mordecai there was a whole community of others praying and fasting.
So as we look to the future of the Church – be it this particular congregation or the Church in a larger context – we must keep in mind the call to solidarity. For it is as a Church that we are saved, and it is as a Church that we must continue to live and grow. As in everything, may God’s grace both precede us and follow us, that we may be able to live in such unity, to His glory. Amen.