Several years ago, Jerry and I attended Purim at the synagogue of our friend Rabbi Jeffery. Purim celebrates and commemorates the story of Esther and this particular synagogue service we attended was truly a hoot. I normally don’t describe worship services as a “hoot;” but that was before I participated in Purim.
The Scripture was cantored, that is, sung in a disciplined singsong way as is typical in every Jewish worship service. All the reading, of course, was done in its original language, Hebrew. But even those of us who could not understand the Hebrew, even we recognized when the name of the hated Haman was pronounced. And whenever his name was mentioned, we booed and hissed and rattled our noisemakers trying to drown out the sound of his name.
That’s why I say it was a hoot.
Jewish worshipers really get into Purim. They “get into it” by thoroughly enjoying themselves and having fun with the story. But they also get into it by making it personal.
During Passover, Jewish worshipers affirm: “God delivered US from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” Here again at Purim – and other times as they remember their history – they confess: “WE have been saved from disaster.”
Just a few years ago, during the season of Purim and Passover, yet another hater of the Jews sought to wreak havoc and destroy. At the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park Kansas, an angry, pathetic, shriveled up soul killed three people; in a strange and tragic twist, none of them were Jewish.
Mindy Corporon got there just after the shooting and she found her own father and her teenaged son dying. Even so, at the community prayer vigil that evening, Mindy spoke with a deep conviction that her loved ones were together with God. “We were all having life,” she said as she described the activities of the day. “And I want you to know, we will all keep having life. And I encourage you to have more life also.” This is personal. We are all in this together.
The book of Esther is a story of high drama, filled with ironic turns of fortune and karmic twists of fate, and interestingly, it is the only book in the Bible that does not mention the name of God outright. Even so, the story is powerful testimony to ways even the Hidden God keeps promises and continues to work on behalf of the Divine covenant. Even though God is not explicitly named, it is still a story about God and it is definitely a story about how God’s people participate in covenant.
We’ve explored the notion of “covenant” recently: The covenant is the gracious act of God, (Dr. Gene Boring says); it is often associated with deliverance, validation of life and security, total well-being and peace, shalom; it is a saving act.
“The unity of Scripture lies in the central theme of covenant that runs through every book of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Sub-themes of the covenant — experiences of pilgrimage and promise, bondage and freedom, duty and blessing, famine and plenty, barrenness and fertility — weave their way through both testaments.” (Hambrick-Stowe)
Some years ago, the Christian Century journal published an article that reflected on some of the ways the book of Esther fits into the larger story of God’s covenant: “The Book of Esther, with its tale of suffering, crisis and eventual triumph, testifies that we are not trapped helplessly in a destructive global fate…With bold faith, Esther took events into their own hands to secure the future of the covenant. Her story shines as an example of the human side of covenant responsibility…Esther, read through the prism of Christ, points us beyond fatalism toward the hope of the earth.”
It is bold faith indeed that Queen Esther demonstrates. “If I perish, I perish…” She gave herself over to the salvation and redemption of her own people, risking her own life in the process. But this is not fatalism; this is a deep wisdom.
Some scholars place the Book of Esther in the category of Wisdom literature. Not like the Proverbs or Ecclesiastes that recite proverbial wise sayings, this is a story – a story that embodies the lived wisdom of Jewish understanding. Esther and Mordecai acknowledge that she has been put right here in this place “for such a time as this.” Her destiny drives her forward because whatever happens to her personally, it is the covenant that matters. She is committed to participate in the way of God in the world because she knows it is the future of God’s people that matters. This is this wisdom that is the “hope of the earth.”
In our New Testament, the Gospel stories continue the sub-themes of the covenant – pilgrimage and promise, bondage and freedom, duty and blessing, famine and plenty, barrenness and fertility – all these experiences of living turn our attention to God’s faithfulness and the great need for wise living.
I’m always amazed when I read the stories about Jesus’ keen wisdom for living. He always seemed to have just the right balance in everything: self-sufficient while at the same time completely selfless and self-sacrificing; always in control and yet always at the disposal of others; proactive and assertive while still being totally responsive to God’s leading.
Matthew’s Gospel shows us the dilemmas that constantly challenged Jesus: adversaries on every side; companions who were often quite clueless; the fickle crowd. In some ways, the Gospels are other examples of Wisdom literature that show us how Jesus embodied wisdom as he participated in the covenant.
Our Living in The Story Scriptures bring 1 and 2 Corinthians into the mix during the season of Lent and then Easter. In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, we hear Paul speak of this same wisdom demonstrated by Esther and by Jesus: wisdom that motivates self-sacrifice on behalf on another; wisdom that looks like foolishness and maybe even recklessness to the world. The foolish wisdom – Paul says – of the cross.
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong… GOD is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption…
(1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
During Holy Week, we follow the way of the Christ from the highs of “hosanna” toward the darkness of the cross.
“If I perish, I perish” is the lived wisdom of Jesus as well as Esther.
But there is no fatalism here; there is only deep cosmic wisdom. The upside down wisdom of God that gives unceasingly, that loves unconditionally, that saves unendingly. “God is the source of our life – in Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ has embodied the covenant, has become the gospel, and has enacted the salvation that is the gracious act of God – validating life and accomplishing shalom.
If we follow in the way and wisdom of Jesus – we will find out what happens on the other side of death only by dying to ourselves and giving ourselves over to God’s promise of resurrection.
Dying to ourselves is not fatalism; rather it is deep wisdom that allows us to participate in Christ: the hope of the earth, the life of the world.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle
Living in The Story reflections from Esther, Matthew 21-25 and 1 and 2 Corinthians
Mindy Corporon on YouTube
Eugene Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).
“Ruth and the New Abraham, Esther the New Moses” by Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe
Christian Century, December 7, 1983. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation.