Know Your Place

Know Your Place

Blogger, Brian Zahnd, posted on the site OnFaith this week.  He began with the catchy premise, “I have a problem with the Bible,” and went on to say:

Here’s my problem…

I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.

That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.

I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.

Reading Esther, it’s clear that the Jewish people were outsiders in Persian society.  They had been displaced during the overthrow of Jerusalem and were now making the best of it in their new land.  They were acclimated to their new society, but they kept their native/family/tribal language, they followed Jewish law, they were “different.”  Haman says to King Xerxes:

There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. (Esther 3:8 NIV)

One of the themes in Esther is that of knowing and keeping your “place” in society.  Queen Vashti refuses the King’s request for her to parade in front of his male guests to show off how beautiful (read: sexy) his woman is.  As a result, she is banished from the King’s presence and looses her crown … her “place.”  And, just so we don’t miss it, this decree is sent to all corners of the kingdom and written in every language so that “every man should be ruler over his own household.” (Esther 1:22 NIV)  This is the order of society Persian society: women are subordinate to men.  Women need to know their place.

Haman sees his place as right hand to the King.  Such a privileged position!  But when Mordecai doesn’t bow to that “place”, Haman becomes irate.  Mordecai is a Jew.  The Jews need to learn their place.  Everyone had a place, including the Eunuchs, the slaves, the concubines … this is order, this is good.  Or is it?

A friend and I were having coffee and chatting about racism.  She said to me that racism, sexism, etc. is all about people challenging their “place” in society.  When the people in the privileged position are challenged by those who are lower in the pecking order, they don’t like it.  Who would?  The hateful political opposition to President Obama, many point out, is race- and place- related.  It is brought on by the blatant challenge a black president has on the privileged place of white males in our culture.

Well, Esther knew her place — she was an orphan, a woman, and a hostage of the King.  She obeyed Mordecai when he told her not to let anyone know about her Jewish heritage.  She listened to the counsel of Hegai, the King’s Eunuch.  She did all she could to “please” the King.  And, even, when she dared approach the King without him summoning her, she did so with all of the reverence you’d expect from a servant to her lord.  She knew her place.  She knew the risk she was taking on behalf of her people.  The risk was so great, in fact, that she asked her family and inner circle to offer three days of prayer and fasting on her behalf.  Their prayer and fasting wasn’t in reverence to the King, but in supplication to God.  Esther knew, if she came out of this with her life, it wasn’t because of her worthiness, it was God’s miracle.

It was a miracle.  Not only was she spared her life, but she was offered all of Haman’s estate.  This is the “Good News” time and time again.  That God is in the place of the lowly, the peasants, the exiles, the shepherds, the poor, the Samaritan, the lepers, the blind, the tax collector, the woman, the prostitute, the slave … that God loves them, and God upholds them.  In fact, Jesus says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  (If Haman being impaled on his own pole isn’t an example of the first becoming last, I don’t know what is)

For those of us in the more privileged classes of our own society … it can be a difficult message to hear.  We are not in these places because God loves us more, or values us more.  We are here to listen to the Word of God and to be ready to hear the cries of the oppressed.  We are placed here “for such a time as this.”  To help up end the “order” of society and take risks for justice.  For what does the Lord require of us?  To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8)

Hoist By His Own Petard

Petard

A “petard” was a bomb used to blow open a gate to a city. To be hoist by one’s own petard was to have your bomb blow up in your face, literally lifting you off the ground (and killing you)

For me, a recurring theme throughout all of the stories we’ve read has been that of pride, in a negative sense. (That probably says as much about me as it does about the text.) Not simple pride in an accomplishment, but rather the inflated ego of one who thinks they’re better than everyone else, and deserve special treatment because of it. This week is no exception, though, for a change, it’s not the Israelites who are prideful. No, they’re still suffering from the humiliation of their exile. Instead, we see the pride of Haman, an Agagite. For reasons unexplained in the text, Haman was raised up by King Xerces to a station above all the other nobles in the kingdom. By the king’s command, all were to bow down to Haman. But one Jew would not. Sound familiar?

Even though the entire kingdom was paying obeisance to Haman, the fact that this one Jew was not robbed him of all the enjoyment that he expected to feel from his lofty position. Even after he used his position and influence to arrange for what we today would call an ethnic cleansing of all the Jews in the kingdom, the lack of fear and respect from this one man stuck in his craw and would not leave him any peace. He was the second most powerful man in the kingdom, but he wasn’t happy.

Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? No matter how great we have it, we’re bugged that it could be better. A while back, Pastor Stephen’s sermon included a reference to a study that showed that, once income crossed a certain threshold, further increases in wealth did not correspond to a similar increase in happiness. In fact, the opposite often was true. More money often leads to less happiness.

In Haman’s case, that dissatisfaction with what he had lead to his downfall. Had he simply ignored Mordecai, no doubt he would have continued for many years in comfort. But, instead, by plotting the destruction of Mordecai and the rest of the Jews, he planted the seeds of his own destruction. He didn’t know it, but Esther, also known as Hadassah, who was the queen, was a cousin of Mordecai, and a Jew. Esther had also been elevated to her position of great power by the king, but, unlike Haman, she remained humble. She risked all in order to free her people from the order of mass extinction engineered by Haman. And she used Haman’s own pride to lure him in. She invited Haman to join her and the king at a banquet two days in a row — a high honor indeed. Yet even while Haman was boasting of this, and all his other accomplishments, to his friends, it was Mordecai the Jew that was foremost in his mind. So he decided to erect a giant pole in front of his house, and to ask the king to have Mordecai impaled on it the next day. Surely that would finally make Haman happy!

Of course, that’s not how it worked out. That night, the king discovered (accidentally?) that Mordecai had earlier thwarted a plot to have the king assassinated. So when Haman arrived at the palace the next day, before he could ask about Mordecai, the king asked for a recommendation of how best to honor somebody. Haman of course assumed he was the one to be honored, so he came up with an elaborate plan to raise up himself and lower somebody else. I can only imagine what Haman’s reaction must have been when he found out it was Mordecai who would be honored, and Haman who would be humbled. God clearly has a sense of humor. And when it’s revealed that Haman is the one trying to wipe out all of the Jews, including queen Esther, Haman is the one impaled on that pole, not Mordecai.

So, what does all of that have to do with us today?

To me, this story is an indictment against our greedy, “whoever has the most toys wins” mentality. We spend so much time and effort trying to acquire more and mores “stuff.” Just like Haman. And, just like Haman, we focus on what we don’t have, and not what we do. And I fear that, like Haman, it will lead to our downfall. Haman is clearly the villain in this story, but I can empathise with him to an uncomfortable degree.