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A Good Day

Esther 8:15-9:19

By Amber Noel

What makes for a good day? A walk in the park with your dog? Stopping by the café for a hot doughnut and a cup o’ joe? A day when all the to-dos are checked off, your bills are paid, your family is happy?

How about a champagne-spraying, dancing-in-the-streets holiday?

How about a killing spree?

Our new passages from Esther are all about the origins of the Jewish celebration of Purim, what the NRSV calls a “holiday,” and the KJV “a good day” (8:17). What takes place on this good day, when food and drink abound, gifts are given, the poor are fed, and the Jews across the diaspora party hearty? God’s people have just been given the freedom to pre-emptively kill any of their neighbors who would otherwise have killed them. It’s their ticket to survival. A miraculous deliverance. And a lot of killing. Haman is hung. Mordecai becomes an awesome prince. And the obedient, lovely Esther unsheathes a sharp vendetta.

How is God at work? And, as we like to ask, what do we make of today’s delight in slaughter?

I’ve recently found it delightful to read the first two chapters of Acts in light of the Book of Esther. At the beginning of Acts, Jesus Christ, revealed, justified, sits down at the right hand of the Father. He has now taken his royal place. His disciples gather in the capital, with a promise that, though they seem to be left as orphans, vulnerable and lost, they will receive power. They elect a replacement for Judas by lots. They pray, and wait for what comes next. Suddenly, a wind! A violent, rushing wind. The disciples are filled with God’s Spirit and declare his works and goodness in every language of every Jew and convert within earshot. The diaspora hears about God’s deeds of power. Then Peter lays on them a sermon that cuts like a shiv. In awe and fear, many are baptized. Many repent. Many join the believers, who live, eat, and share in common. Food and drink abound. Gifts are given. The poor are fed. And the Lord adds to their number.

Now let’s look at our section of Esther. Mordecai is revealed as Esther’s uncle, glorified by the king, tricked out in royal robes. The Jewish people are thrilled. One of their own is in authority, at the right hand of the king! He will speak for them, work on their behalf. The king’s word regarding what he will do for God’s people spreads abroad, in every language of the empire. Fear and awe come upon everyone. The reversal is mighty, rushing, and violent. In fact, the entire Book of Esther is peppered with the word haste. People are always rushing every which-way, making snap judgments and last-minute choices. Now the end of the Jews’ oppression (under this regime at least) is rushing toward them, on a violent wind. They gather, in one accord. There are many shotgun conversions to Judaism around that time — and why not? Who doesn’t want to save their own skin? Peter will put it no differently: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation!”

And as Jesus’ mother, Mary, carries out the legacy of all righteous Jewish women, we might also backtrack into St. Luke’s first book and see another parallel: the existence of a king’s liberating edict — his gospel, if you will — is due to the faithfulness and courage of a man and a woman who are humble before God and love his people. And the spread of that gospel is due to the faithfulness of countless others, people of whom the ancient world (and ours) would take little account, like, say, slaves and eunuchs.

The king’s gospel, the mighty, rushing word gone out from his presence, empowers every Jew to be a King David, a Judge Deborah, a Joshua (Yeshua/Jesus) clearing the land of dangers and enemies. “On this particular day, you will receive power,” says the edict, in essence. And the very day that might have meant divine abandonment, defeat in vulnerability, turns out to be a day of light, gladness, joy, honor, and festival everywhere the Jews are “gathered” (Esther 9:2) — a good day. This is the day when the world’s powers and God’s people in exile see together the superior power who saves and empowers the ones he loves.

The gospel is this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The Book of Acts asks this: How do you make every kingdom on earth God’s kingdom — or reveal it as God’s all along? How do you begin?

One of the first requirements is that God’s people, his children, can’t all be dead. Survival is good. This is what the Book of Esther — the whole Old Testament — knows. Survival is not the final good (see: Resurrection), but it is a primary good. Life — mortal life, natural human life — is a prerequisite to eternal life. And God made it, preserves it, loves and likes it, and makes it better. The Holy Spirit who comes in power on Pentecost we call “the Lord, the giver of life.” The one who, through the apostles, throws everyone back on their heels in holy fear by healing and delivering natural human life, also bestows in the same breath the gifts of eternal life: faith in the Lord and his Servant, inner transformation, un-gainsay-able authority.

And oh, the joy. One of the most terrifying things to the Jews’ enemies was their joy. On the eve of destruction, they’re baking cake and setting off fireworks — something hadn’t gone to their enemies’ plan. Their gladness (and sword-sharpening) struck terror into the hearts of those who’d planned to harm them. And though the disciples’ joy in Acts 2 wasn’t exactly, in itself, terrifying that we know of (except to the Devil, I guess), it was compelling. It was one of the marks of the community. And should always be. If I wrote an apology someday for the faith, there would be a whole chapter on joy. There’s nothing like the joy of God’s people, of people who know, in their very bones, that the best and biggest powers are on their side and they have nothing in the world to fear.

In Esther, this is the same saving God as in the Book of Acts, but working out the salvation of his people in an earlier phase of the plan. Thus, the similarities; thus, the differences.

Acts 2 reads like a recipe for world harmony. Esther 9:7 reads like a Kill Bill hit list. Queen Esther even seems to have an Uma Thurman moment in 9:11-13, when she asks the king to double their vengeance on the Gentiles. Close-up on the face of this beautiful and pious queen, and cue a Tarantino seeing red sequence: “Give me one more … good day.”

I once heard a missionary in the Middle East relay a tale of getting caught with a vulnerable group of people in a crossfire. Taking cover, he spotted an Uzi nearby. “Lord what should I do?” he desperately prayed. The Holy Spirit said, apparently, “Pick up the Uzi and shoot,” with an implied “this time.” Not a comfortable story for a comfortable reader in the armchair. Extremes may require extreme discernment.

And it is worth adding that, though the edict gave Jews permission to kill women and children, to plunder and pillage (with, probably, implied permission to rape), the Book of Esther is careful to say, twice, they “didn’t touch the plunder.” There is also no mention of the killing of women and children, so, call me optimistic on this point.

God’s people saving their skins by violence may not always be wrong. But, I think we may safely say, it is now retrograde. It is part of an old way, an earlier age of doing things. And needs must, maybe, sometimes — but killing should never be the plan. You may have to shoot to save your family, or go to war to protect your land. But should we pre-emptively arm church ushers with pistols? Better ways and means of salvation are here. To use the old in dire straits may be one of very few choices, and the most expedient, but to hold onto the old, to use it as if it is as good an option as it’s ever been, to insist on the continued necessity of violence in order to ensure a “good day,” is a mistake and a failure to realize what it means to live after the Ascension, after Pentecost.

The Jews’ victory in Esther is sudden and clear, mighty and rushing — thank God. Ours, for now, tends to be slow and ambiguous. Victories hidden in obscurity and surrounded by failures — like most of Israel’s history, too. But the victory of all God’s people is inexorable. And in moments when that becomes clear, as on Purim and Pentecost, we should be ecstatic. Through Esther and Mordecai, through Jesus and Mary and the disciples, we see that the slings and arrows of fortune are no match for God’s wit and wisdom. And as Matthias knows well, even lots find themselves doing his will.

If those at Pentecost thought of the Book of Esther as events unfolded, perhaps there is also an uncertain note here. What happens in the Jewish capital anticipates what will happen to all of God’s people. They are in Jerusalem; the Jews in Esther were in Susa, a pagan capital, in exile. Why are Jerusalem and Susa in parallel? God’s destruction and judgment often began in Jerusalem, and ended with arrival in foreign capitals. The disciples were in their own capital now, but in some way, was it like being in Susa? Were they still, even at home, in exile? Was there still a judgment or exile yet to come?

Disaster would soon arrive in Jerusalem, with the desolating destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 and renewal of religious persecution. God’s people were not yet done either with exile or enemies.

But today is a good day. Let’s do what our Lord said and not spoil it by worrying about tomorrow. Here, have a piece of cake. Because, in fact, we’ve already seen what God will do when his people are in the middle of a people who hate them, on the verge of destruction, and all is lost. Besides, tomorrow, by the King’s decree — or the Queen’s request — might be a good day, too.

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