Tuesday 7th September
Esther 6: 1 – 13
That night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king. It was found written how Mordecai had told about Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, and who had conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. Then the king said, ‘What honour or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?’ The king’s servants who attended him said, ‘Nothing has been done for him.’ The king said, ‘Who is in the court?’ Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the king’s palace to speak to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for him. So the king’s servants told him, ‘Haman is there, standing in the court.’ The king said, ‘Let him come in.’ So Haman came in, and the king said to him, ‘What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honour?’ Haman said to himself, ‘Whom would the king wish to honour more than me?’ So Haman said to the king, ‘For the man whom the king wishes to honour, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honour, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honour.”’ Then the king said to Haman, ‘Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.’ So Haman took the robes and the horse and robed Mordecai and led him riding through the open square of the city, proclaiming, ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honour.’
Then Mordecai returned to the king’s gate, but Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered. When Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him, his advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, ‘If Mordecai, before whom your downfall has begun, is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him, but will surely fall before him.’
As I was preparing this reflection, I kept hearing a Radio 3 advert for a production about the life of William Byrd, starring David Suchet. One line in particular struck a chord with my own thoughts about this passage, as the sixteenth century composer pondered how he could be both “loyal to faith and obedient to power.” This is the essential dilemma, with added theatrics, that is being played out here.
In the Book of Esther, all the characters’ lives are determined and directly shaped by the edicts and whims of an absolute ruler. To be honest, Xerxes gets a comparatively easy pass in this account, far better than he deserves. But it was he who divorced Queen Vashti and unthinkingly gave Haman the power to destroy the Jews. Then here he recalls that Mordecai needed a thank you gesture, hence alienating Haman, before eventually issuing another edict that resulted in the massacre of 75,000 of the latter’s family, friends and allies. Quite frankly, Xerxes has all the power and responsibility, but little moral grasp of their consequences.
The king aside, none of the principals – including Esther – has seemingly much power of agency, but they still have important choices to make within the confines of an autocratic system. For Haman it’s all about self-aggrandisement and the accumulation of murderous power. For Mordecai and Esther, the imperative is loyalty to life and the need to avoid a massacre of their co-religionists. This results in them taking extraordinary personal risks.
The approach taken by Christians to being true to God in the face of overwhelming power has varied enormously over the years: from strict passivity to outright rebellion. Surely ultimately, in answering Byrd’s question at the start, the right response is to give primacy to being loyal to the Kingdom of life and love and everything else will follow?
Lord, our world is disfigured by mighty powers:
They may be totalitarian regimes who imprison and torture at will
They may be corporations and individuals at the very apex of the capital system
They may be technology platforms whose sole focus is profit and discord.
Give us the wisdom of Mordecai and the cool bravery of Esther
In not being dominated by them,
By aligning our thoughts and actions with the utter imperatives of your Kingdom.