Esther and Work
The Book of Esther begins with King Ahasuerus (known to history outside the Bible as Xerxes) throwing a lavish party to display his glory (Es. 1:1-8). Having consumed ample amounts of wine, Ahasuerus commanded his servants to bring Queen Vashti before him in order that he might show her off to the other partygoers (Es. 1:10-11). But Vashti, sensing the indignity of the request, refused (Es. 1:12). Her refusal disturbed the men in attendance, who feared that her example would encourage other women in the kingdom to stand up to their husbands (Es. 1:13-18). Thus Vashti was “fired,” if you will, and a process was begun to find Ahasuerus a new queen (Es. 1:21-2:4). To be sure, this episode depicts a family matter. But every royal family is also a political workplace. So Vashti’s situation is also a workplace issue, in which the boss seeks to exploit a woman because of her gender and then terminates her when she fails to live up to his fantasies.
The king seeks to replace Vashti, and a young Jewish woman named Esther ends up in the harem being extensively prepared to be tried out by the king for one night (Es. 2:8-14). From our point of view, she is caught in an oppressive, sexist system and is soon to lose her virginity at the hands of a selfish tyrant. But she is not a passive victim. She plays the system to her own advantage, sleeping with the king, keeping silent about the oppression of Vashti, deceiving the king about her ethnicity (Es. 2:20). Because of Esther’s exceeding beauty, she wins the king’s favor and is crowned as the new queen (Es. 2:17). Esther’s willingness to join a royal harem and become the wife of a pagan king is even more striking, given the emphasis in both Ezra and Nehemiah on the wrongness of intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles (Ezra 9:1-4; Neh. 13:23-27). After reading Ezra’s grief-filled prayer of confession following his learning that some Jews had married Gentiles (Ezra 9:13-15), we can only wonder what he might have thought about Esther’s marriage to Ahasuerus.
The contrast between Ezra and Nehemiah’s faithful adherence to Jewish law and Esther’s religious and moral compromises could not be more starkly drawn. Esther is willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead. She is eager to take advantage of another woman’s misfortune and more than willing to submit herself to exploitation. Moral compromise – whether or not to Esther’s extent — is familiar to almost all workplace Christians. Who has never taken morally dubious action in the course of their work? Who has never kept silent when the mistreatment of another has rebounded to our own advantage — failing to stand up when the boss hides his or her own incompetence by firing a subordinate, or watching the dirtiest, most dangerous job fall once again to the ethnic outsider? Who has never shaded the truth to gain what we wanted — implying greater responsibility than we really had for a past success or pretending to know more then we really do in class or on the job?
Esther enters the palace with its access to high power and influence. She does not seem interested in whether God has any plan or purpose for her there. In fact, God is not even mentioned in the book of Esther. But that doesn’t mean that God has no plan or purpose for her in Ahasuerus’ court. As it happens, her cousin Mordecai is more scrupulous in keeping Jewish law, which after some time puts him in conflict with Ahasuerus’ highest official, Haman (Es. 3:1-6). Haman responds by plotting to kill not only Mordecai, but the whole Jewish people (Es. 3:7-15). Mordecai learns of the plot and sends word of the plot to Esther. Although her entire people are about to be destroyed, she seems unmoved.
Esther’s excuse is that getting involved could jeopardize her position, and even her life (Es. 4:11). Already she seems to be losing the king’s interest, having not been called into his presence for the past 30 days. It is inconceivable that the king is sleeping alone, therefore some other woman or women have been “called to come in to the king” (Es. 4:11). To intervene on behalf of her people would be too risky. Mordecai responds with two arguments. First, her life is at risk, whether or not she intervenes. “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews” (Es. 4:13). And second, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Es. 4:14). Together, these arguments lead to a remarkable about-face by Esther. “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Es. 4:16). The social climber interested in no one’s good but her own suddenly offers to risk her neck for the good of others.
Notice that Mordecai’s two arguments appeal to different instincts. The first argument appeals to self-preservation. You, Esther, are a Jew, and if all the Jews are ordered killed, you will be found out and slain eventually. The second argument appeals to destiny, with its hint of divine service. If you wonder, Esther, why you of all young women ended up the king’s wife, perhaps it is because there is a larger purpose to your life. The first argument seems base, while the second seems noble. Which argument produced the change in Esther?
Perhaps both of Mordecai’s arguments are steps towards Esther’s change of heart. The first step is identification. At long last, Esther identifies herself with her people. In this sense, she takes the same step Jesus was to take at his birth, identification of himself with humanity. And perhaps this step, selfishly taken as it may be in Esther’s case, is what opens her heart to God’s purposes.
The second step is service. Identifying now with her people’s mortal peril, Esther takes on the service of intervening with the king. She risks her position, her possessions, her life. Her high position now becomes a means of service, instead of self-service. Despite her initially faithless and unobservant history, God uses Esther, no less than he uses the morally exemplary Ezra and Nehemiah. Esther’s service corresponds to today’s workplace in several ways:
Many people — Christian or not — make ethical compromises in their quest for career success. Because we all stand in Esther’s shoes, we all have the opportunity — and responsibility — to let God use us anyway, despite our history of moral failure. Did you cut corners to get your job? Nonetheless, God will use you to call an end to the deceptive practices in your workplace. Have you made improper use of corporate assets? God may still use you to clean up the falsified records in your department. Past hypocrisy is no excuse for failing to heed what God needs from you now. Prior misuse of your God-given abilities is no reason to believe you cannot employ them for God’s good purposes today. Esther is the model for all of us who have fallen short of the glory of God. You cannot say, “If you knew how many ethical shortcomings I made to get here — I can’t be of any use to God now.”
God makes use of the actual circumstances of our lives. Esther’s position gives her unique opportunities to serve God. Mordecai’s position gives him different opportunities. We should embrace the particular opportunities we have. Rather than saying, “I would do something great for God, if only I had the opportunity,” we should say, “Perhaps I have come into this position for just such as time as this.”
Our positions are spiritually dangerous. We may come to equate our value and our very existence with our positions. The higher our positions, the greater the danger. Esther ceases to see herself as a young Jewish woman, but only as the queen of Persia. To do the same makes us slaves to factors beyond our control. If becoming CEO or getting tenure or keeping a good job becomes so important that we cut off the rest of ourselves, then we have lost ourselves already.
Serving God requires risking our positions. If you use your position to serve God, you might lose your position and your future prospects. This is doubly frightening if you have become self-identified with your job or career. Yet the truth is our positions are also at risk if we don’t serve God. Esther’s case is extreme. She may be killed if she risks her position by intervening, and she will be killed if she doesn’t intervene. Are our positions really any more secure than Esther’s? It is no foolishness to risk what you cannot keep in order to gain what you cannot lose. Work done in God’s service can never truly be lost.
For Esther and the Jews, the story has a happy ending. Esther risks approaching the king unbidden, yet receives his favor (Es. 5:1-2). She employs a clever scheme to butter him up over the course of two banquets (Es. 5:4-8; 7:1-5) and to manipulate Haman into exposing his own hypocrisy in seeking to have the Jews annihilated (Es. 7:6-10). The king revokes the judgment against the Jews (Es. 9:11-14) and rewards Mordecai and Esther with riches, honor and power (Es. 8:1-2; 10:1-3). They in turn improve the lot of Jews throughout the Persian Empire (Es. 10:3). Haman and the enemies of the Jews are slaughtered (Es. 7:9-10; 9:1-17). The dates of the Jews’ deliverance — Adar 14 and 15 — are marked thereafter as the festival of Purim (Es. 9:17-23).
Ideas in this section are drawn from the sermon, “If I Perish, I Perish,” by Tim Keller, preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York on April 22, 2007, available for download at: http://www.gospelinlife.com/if-i-perish-i-perish-5610.html.
As noted earlier, God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther. Yet it is a book of the Bible. Commentators therefore look for the veiled presence of God in Esther and generally point to the crucial verse: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this?” (Es. 4:14). The implication is that she has come to her position not by luck, or fate, or by her own wiles, but by the will of an unseen actor. We can see the divine handwriting on the wall here. Esther has come to her royal position because the “good hand of God was upon [her],” as Ezra and Nehemiah might have said (Ezra 8:18, Nehemiah 2:18).
This challenges us to ponder how God might be at work in ways we don’t recognize. When a secular company eliminates bias in promotions and pay scales, is God at work there? When a Christian is able to end deceptive record-keeping practices, does she have to announce that she did so because she’s a Christian? If Christians have a chance to join with Jews and Muslims to make a case for reasonable religious accommodations in a corporation, should they see it as a work of God? If you can do good by taking a job in a compromised political administration, could God be calling you to accept the offer? If you teach in a school that pushes you to the limits of your conscience, should you seek to leave, or should you redouble your commitment to staying?