“Then the king asked, ‘What is it, Queen Esther?’” [Esther 5:3]
This week in our Lenten Study, we see Esther’s courage and determination emerge as her defining characteristics. Risking her own life, Esther went before the King to plead for the Jews to be saved from Haman’s genocidal plot. However, she doesn’t do it all at once. Having spent 3 days fasting and praying with her attendants, and knowing all the Jews in Susa were fasting and praying with her, she had crafted a plan. She went before the king, and he granted her permission to speak. He asked Esther what she wanted, promising her he would giver her even half his kingdom, should she so desire. But all she desired was for him and Haman to attend a banquet she would host for them. Immediately, the king agreed and summoned Haman. At the banquet, his curiosity building, the king again asked Esther what she wanted - even half his kingdom would he give to her! But all she asks for is that he and Haman attend a second banquet, the following day; and on the following day, she would make her request known.
Rather than blurting out her wish at the very first opportunity, and rather than be distracted by the king’s offer to give her half his kingdom, Esther kept her eye on the prize. She slowly drew the king’s attention back to herself. She slowly separated him and Haman from the rest of the court. She slowly stepped them away from their centre of power, into a space where they were more equal with one another. Rather than engage in a battle of power and wills, Esther took a risk on trusting in the power of the relationship and respect she had built with the king. She will not try to manipulate him or Haman, she will simply set her eventual request for the salvation of the Jews in the context of trusting, respectful relationship.
In contrast to Esther’s magnificent courage and respect and humility, Haman’s worst characteristics are on full display in this chapter. Haman, drunk on wine, left Esther’s first banquet to head straight home and brag to all his family and friends about how important he was to be singled out for a banquet with just the king and queen. But Haman was not only a braggart, he was also incredibly petty and small-minded: after all that time, and after all those shows of favour from the king, he could not forget the disrespect shown to him by Mordecai the Jew. While Esther had surrounded herself with attendants who loved and respected her, Haman had surrounded himself with sycophants, ego-strokers and power-hungry schemers, including his own wife. They advised him to make a public show of his power by erecting a pole 70 feet tall (maybe as tall as the cell tower on top of the church!) on which Mordecai should be hung, and the idea delighted Haman.
We noticed a huge difference in the kinds of communities that Esther and Haman had cultivated. Right back from when we’re introduced to Esther, she is looking to form bonds of respectful friendship and care with others - mutual bonds, in which she and others serve and support one another. When the crisis hits the Jewish community, Esther asks them to support her by prayer and fasting, while she agrees to support them by putting her life on the line. The arrows of support and respect go both ways between Esther and her community. In contrast, there is a cycle of abuse and manipulation at the court of King Xerxes. Beginning in chapter 1, the king demands the respect of others, while others seek to manipulate the king, tear down their opponents and get the best of the situation for themselves. Now we see this same pattern repeating itself in regard to Haman. Haman seeks to manipulate the king and get the most out of it himself; and meanwhile, Haman is also cultivating a “court” in which he demands respect, and is in turn surrounded by those who are manipulating him and trying to get the most for themselves. One of the great beauties of the Book of Esther is seeing this cycle of abuse broken by the power of upright, godly character standing against behaviour that is wrong.
This week, I invite you to read chapter 6 on your own, and privately consider the following comment from the study guide: “When I take an honest look at myself, I see many ugly spots that mar my character. One of my ugliest traits is my desire to make myself look better than others. This ungodly character trait seeps into my relationship and damages intimacy. For each of us there are things about our character that are displeasing to God; perhaps pride or arrogance, selfish ambition or manipulation. Because we let those things grow in our lives rather than allowing God to remove them, we experience various consequences of our unrighteousness.” As we prepare ourselves to meet Jesus on the Cross this coming week, I invite you to spend some time allowing God’s great grace to lead you to open your heart and be honest with God about your character. With as much graciousness as you can muster - and as much honesty - offer to God what you find. Ask God to help you heal and grow.
Next week on Wednesday night at 7pm we gather again to read chapter 7 together, and see the power of godly character at work, breaking the cycle of abuse. (Note: there is no soup next week.)