On Thursday of this week, two members of the congregation underwent a trial of humiliation, while many of us watched, in hopes of one thing or another. Now it’s Sunday, and those two humiliated people have washed their faces, changed their clothes, and come to church, because they can; they still can.
Which reading from the lectionary for this week should we inhabit with them? The story from Mark about cutting off the parts of our body that offend us? The story from Numbers about the persistence of our taste for cucumbers, and cantaloupes, and bondage?
No: let’s read the appointed passage from the book of Esther.
She’s the woman Ahasuerus, King of Persia, forces into his bed after being humiliated by his wife. He calls her his queen, and she lives as his queen, but she isn’t his queen: she’s a Jew, one of the deported people Ahasuerus has recently agreed to exterminate, at the urging of his advisor Haman, who feels slighted by one of them. Ahasuerus doesn’t know that Esther is a Jew: all he knows is that she’s hot, and he can have her, so he does.
Our mother tradition reads the book of Esther in its entirety every year because it reflects the genuine dangers of living under the whim of great powers, but it treats that serious subject in a burlesque style, which opens possibilities for meaning that conventional treatment wouldn’t afford.
Possibilities for meaning would be good for all of us today.
The passage for today is the climax of that story, where fortunes are reversed. Ahasuerus is so besotted by having Esther that he offers her whatever she wants, unto half his kingdom. At which point Esther lowers the boom: what I want, she says, is the human right to live as a subject, not an object. I don’t want to pretend that I’m not who I am anymore.
“Let my life be given me,” she says — my life, not the life to which you’ve consigned me. Not the bed to which you’ve pinned me. I want to live as who I am, not who you want me to be, and I want that right for everyone who lives under a king, or his advisor, or under the tendency to make our own perspectives absolute, as Harvey Cox has said, “to transform our sense of the good into the good for everyone,” which is the original sin.
Personal courage in the face of overwhelming institutional power is required for salvation, the story seems to suggest.
The Book of Esther is read during the Purim festival every year in part because it explains the origin of Purim, and we yearn for explanations. However, the satirical tone of this book reminds us that explanations can be masks, like the masks we don to celebrate Purim, which is a drinking festival: we’re supposed to get too drunk to tell the difference between “Blessed be Esther” and “Cursed be Haman”.
Perhaps such differences are superficial, like masks, which replace one surface with another, or one life with another, as does the parody genre itself.
Perhaps we hoped those masks would fall away this week, and our lives would be given to us. Our lives, not the ones to which we’ve been consigned. If we watched the trial of humiliation in that hope, perhaps we’d like to get a little drunk today.