As a boy Christmas began in the same way every year, with the Sears “Wishbook”. My sisters and I would page through the toy section and dream what might come under the plastic tree.
While it is true that the older we get the toys we want just get bigger too, they also change. The toys we now want aren’t made of plastic or metal, they are made of people, identities, relationships and empires. We are no longer satisfied with something that will occupy us for a few hours on the living room floor, we want to be enthralled, loved, and worshiped and we want it to on forever. Nothing else will do. We are restless until we are at the center of the inner ring.
Katy Perry Getting What She Wants
Katy Perry’s story is an interesting one. I don’t listen to her music, maybe I’m too old for that, but her story fascinates me. She was raised the daughter of a Pentecostal minister and initially tried to launch a career in Christian music. She failed. She then relaunched her career, and new self, as a secular pop star with the kinds of songs and productions that look very much like rejection of the place she began. She might not see it so. She’s got “Jesus” tattooed to her left wrist, and “Anuugacchati Pravaha” which means “Go with the flow” on her right bicep.
Her most recent major performance on the American Music Awards was criticized for being racist. The complaint by one Asian psychologist was that she was disrespectfully appropriating Japanese cultural artifacts without honor the people or the source.
She’s now I’m sure a mega-millionaire, with a huge fan base. Her latest album was reviewed by ThinkChristian.net, a website missioned to work the intersection between Christianity and culture. The Christian reviewer, on a similar note to the Asian psychologist complained that she appropriates Christian and other religious images but finally takes them no place interesting.
There is no image too sacred for Perry to use for her own purposes. Her spiritual vocabulary is rich indeed, but it seems to point to a hodgepodge of motivational philosophy and hedonism that is completely disconnected from anything having to do with the Gospel. Perry’s is a sadly self-centered spirituality in which every hunger is worth satisfying. There’s no doubt she is extremely talented, it’s just too bad she can’t seem to connect to the truth and power behind the religious images she so deftly misappropriates.
King Headache, Queen Beautiful and A Jewish Orphan
The book of Esther is surely one of the bad books of the Bible. No Christian wrote a commentary on it for the first seven centuries of the Church. John Calvin never preached on it once nor bothered to write a commentary. Martin Luther denounced the book as apocryphal.
Conservative scholars are troubled by the fact that God isn’t mentioned once in the book. In fact there are places in the book where it seems the author is intentionally avoiding mention of the divine.
Feminist scholars likewise hate how Esther, the heroine of the story plays the sex kitten, used by her uncle, shaped by the harem handler and bedded by the emperor.
Historians are frustrated because while the book drops solid clues that it tells a real story it uses names like Ahasuerus for Xerxes I which if said in Hebrew sounds like “headache” and Queen Vashti means “beautiful” in Persian.
The story itself is an exciting tale and I think it has some interesting things to say to a people of God living in the midst of empire.
Esther for Advent?
What does that have to do with Advent?
From beginning to end the Bible is a story told by the weak looking for hope in the midst of a rebellious, overpowering empire. Genesis 1 tells a counter-point creation story in rebellion to the stronger stories of Egypt and Babylon. Exodus describes how Yhwh rescues the Hebrew slaves from the grip of Pharaoh, and in the desert from the grip of an imperial way of life. The story of Jesus tells us of how God inserts Himself into the story, wresting us from Satan’s grasp, empire’s lure, and the crumbling age of decay. Paul, Peter, James and John will help churches apply the revelation of Jesus to their imperial contexts. They will learn how their suffering, like Jesus, makes way for the coming resurrection and renewal of all things.
In each situation the context is blurred, muddled, confused and confusing. The people of God are always caught between their maker and empires that seek to replace God’s right to the world. God’s people are both always in jeopardy to the avaricious ways of empire, and tempted towards assimilation.
Esther fits into this narrative. She takes her place with the rest of the characters of the Bible, deeply flawed, often suspect, failing regularly, but somehow in the end used by God to point to a rescue from empire that is perpetually on the horizon. Even when the victory at the end of the story is secured, we see that it itself is too only a pointer to a far larger, more permanent victory that awaits the returning King of Kings.
Act 1, The Seduction of The People of Yhwh
If you’ve never read the book of Esther in one sitting you should really do so. It’s a terrific read. Short, dramatic, worthwhile.
The story begins with a feast, a party lasting 180 days. Xerxes, also known as King Headache wishes to impress the nobles and lesser kings with his wealth and his power. Some scholars note the timing as the beginning of his failed campaign conquer the Greeks. Some think that perhaps the feast is a way to impress his constituent powers and mobilize them for the great campaign.
In any case Persian parties, and the empire in general, was known for its excess. The king was especially generous on this occasion to not force drunkenness on his guests, they were merely invited to drink as much as they pleased and the wine was provided. Persian leaders believed they made their best decisions inebriated.
At the height of the partying Xerxes, who according to ancient Greek historian Heroditus was the tallest, most handsome, most virile of the Persion greats, declared that Queen Vashti, Queen Beautiful should be brought out to be displayed before his drunken guests.
The queen had been throwing her own party simultaneously and didn’t want to be counted among the other animals and furnishings of the king’s garden.
When the queen refused Xerxes, buoyed by his habit of making important decisions while under the influence makes some rash and universal declarations. He and the other men agree that if Queen Vashti’s rebellion is allowed to stand, women all over the empire will rise up against their husbands. She must be stripped of the example she has been made to be of beauty and splendor and she must now be a new example of the wrath of men. She will be stripped of her crown, her status and his visibility to live the rest of her life in the prison of the royal harem exiled from her husband.
While the Bible regularly gets cast as an anti-woman book, the book of Esther clearly wishes to display the treatment of women in the empire. Women are valued for their looks, not the context of their character. This is a story about how women are prized and valued in the world and how it dehumanizes them. Like in many of the stories of the Bible, however, the message is not conveyed bluntly and loudly by someone standing up on a soap box, but subtly and powerfully through story. The current of the story whispers “empire kills, people are meant to be loved and not used.”
Royal Beauty Pageant
After sobering up a bit King Headache is having some regrets. The righteousness and vindication of his drunken moment now doesn’t look so clear. He becomes sullen.
The king’s court knows just what the imperial doctor ordered. If losing a hot wife makes the king sad, getting a younger, hotter wife should fix him right up. But how will they find the new royal hotness? A context! They will gather the hottest young women of the empire, gather them into the royal palace, prep them, groom them, each gets their chance to wow the king in his bed and the winner gets to replace Vashti.
Mordecai and Esther
Now we meet our “heroes” of the story.
Mordecai is a Jew. He and his family was taken from Jerusalem in the bad old days when the Babylonians were in charge. They were hauled up to Mesopotamia in Nebuchadnezzar’s assimilation program. When the Persians took over they decided to give the exiled peoples of the Babylonian empire a choice. They could stay where the Persians found them or they could return to their homelands to repatriate their fatherland and worship their own gods as they choose.
In the Bible we find the stories of the repatriates in Ezra and Nehemiah. The return from exile wasn’t the glorious restoration that many of the prophets seemed to foretell. Even though the Persians underwrote the cost of reconstructing the temple in Jerusalem, the community struggled for resources and were in conflict with those who took control while they were gone.
Many, like Mordecai, decided to find their fortunes in the more affluent parts of the empire. Mordecai himself seemed successful enough to find a job in the royal court of the emperor. The royal court was an enormous political community of thousands of people from throughout the empire.
We would imagine that most likely the most religious, the most devout and sincere Jews made their way back go Jerusalem, while the nominal, who while maintaining some of their identity tried to fashion a good life for themselves in locations where the economy flourished.
Mordecai was raising his younger cousin who was an orphan. Her name was Hadassah but would be known as Esther. The only characteristic of note here is her beauty. She isn’t known for being wise, or pious, or godly, just hot.
Mordecai gives he a key piece of advice, keep your Jewish identity a secret. It’s a liability. Blend in with the rest of the empire. Assimilate and maybe you’ll have a chance at fortune.
She joins the imperial beauty pageant and becomes the favorite of Hegai who is probably the eunuch in charger of the harem. He preps her and helps her prepare for her big night with King Headache. If we compare her entry into the pagan court with Daniel’s we note that unlike Daniel and his three friends, who were circumspect about contamination from the pagan culture, she eats whatever is placed before her and follows all their advice. She seems to have no religious scruples and will do whatever it takes to please Mordecai, Hegai and eventually Xerxes. She’s not only used, but seems to like it.
Finally the big night arrives and she doesn’t disappoint. Xerxes likes her best. She’s won the golden ticket. She’s reached the inner circle. She’s the new queen.
What’s the Message?
Karen Jobes, who wrote an excellent commentary on the book of Esther recommends that pastors NOT preach through the book sequentially. Why not? Well maybe you see by where we’ve arrived here in chapter 2. The story is all wrong.
This is a tale of empire and what it takes to get on top. Xerxes uses money, power, and women to get what he wants. He uses the world to fashion his self, his mood, his identity even though it costs everyone else plenty. He is the most successful employers of “my well-being at your expense” in his day.
We also learn that even if you can’t be top dog, you can go far by hitching your wagon to the top dogs. Mordecai did not take the journey of faith back to Jerusalem in hopes that Yhwh would restore their fortunes as he promised. Instead he plied his trade at the center of empire living not in the court of the LORD but in the court of the pagan king. He is making his way as best he can.
Similarly Hadassah, with her Jewish identity hidden, her covenant relationship concealed, has made it to the top by being a willing toy of men. She’s hotter and better in bed than any of the other sweet young things of the empire. She’s not queen because she’s smart or wise of good, but because she looks good in and out of a dress, satisfies the king’s sexual needs, and is completely compliant in all these ways. She is not a witness to Yhwh’s way, she’s a witness to empire.
Katy Perry (formerly Katy Hudson) can’t even hold a candle to Esther in terms of assimilation and complicity. She’s like her but she’s not yet risen to the heights that Esther reached.
What kind of a message is this for our young people? Or for our old people? We are surrounded by Mordecais and Esthers who have succumbed to the seduction of the empire. In fact, if we have any honest left, we all can find ourselves here. Ways that we have simply complied with the ways of empire to try to make our way in this world, to secure the things we need and want.
Advent Declares the Bankruptcy of the Inner Ring
The advent song “O Come O Come Immanuel” asks the Lord to come and end our lonely exile here.
When Esther and Mordecai secured their place in the inner ring I’m sure it didn’t feel much like exile as it did as arriving. What they would soon learn, as does everyone else who arrives within “the inner ring” is that all rings begin exilic.
Katy Perry would reach the heights only to have her one year marriage to comedian Russell Brand fall apart. She picks herself up, not in a way dissimilar to King Xerxes.
CS Lewis, however had another take on the inner ring.
I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. IN the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.
My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man…
The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.
How can you Break it?
For most of us the breaking of it will come through our misery. Either we will fail or we will have some success and in the process it will begin to dawn on us that there is no good destination to this.
In a few chapters when the moment of crisis arrives Esther will have to admit even though she’s queen, she’s not a man, and she’s not the king. There will be another ring.
Rings beget rings and the only truly inner ring of power, of beauty, of glory is the source of these things, God himself. We like Esther have an ontological barrier that we cannot cross. We strive our whole lives to be god, only to discover that the position is already filled. God himself becomes our enemy. He doesn’t need to crush us, his beauty and the knowledge of our wanting is sufficient to destroy us.
Then a new story emerges, one of one from the most inner circle taking on our flesh, taking on our pain, taking our place.
Philippians 2:5–11 (NIV)
5In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The one in the most inner ring left the ring, to be excluded from the ring, to be one of us. On the cross the Father turns his back on him. He is cast out, with us, for us, so that we can be restored.
The irony of the inner rings of this world are that they produce little joy, and often little gratitude. The irony of Jesus’ painful journey is that they produce great joy even as they are found outside of the exclusive rings of this world.
If you’ve been given access to the greatest ring, all other rings begin to lose their luster. This can then make you free.
The childlike hope of getting, gets reversed into the adult joy of giving. We grow up to be like our true Older Brother, and our Father who is perfect in his generosity.