August 8, 2004

Esther: On Using Your Influence for Others
Esther 3:7-11; 4:1-17; 9:24-25

My daughter, Julie, was born at Macha Hospital in Zambia in August, 1992. We were scheduled to fly from Lusaka to Jerusalem within one week of her birth, so we didn’t have a great deal of time to obtain her American passport as well as her papers for U.S. citizenship. Before securing those documents, however, we first had to have a copy of her Zambian birth certificate, and the locals informed us that that could take up to one month to obtain. “It is very difficult to hurry them along,” the people said.

Enoch Shamapani, the bishop of the Brethren in Christ in Zambia at that time and our primary host during our stay, realized our predicament and traveled to Lusaka with us. Bishop Shamapani was rather well known and deeply respected, and he pretty much took matters into his own hands. While I watched, Enoch entered an office door or two, and within a few hours I had a copy of the birth certificate in my hand. Bishop Shamapani used his influence to help me.

The book of Esther is a short story or historical novel set among the Jews living in Persia in the early 5th century B.C. The story is full of twists and turns, reversals, and fascinating character developments. Two particular characters, Haman and Esther herself, find themselves in positions of influence, and they serve to illustrate for us the use and misuse of influence.

Haman is an aspiring court official in Susa whom King Ahashuerus selects to be his prime minister. As a result of this promotion, Haman is clearly in a position to wield considerable influence. And in the initial scene following his promotion, Haman does precisely that. As Haman moves about the palace, the other servants of the king bow down before him. All of the servants there except one -- a Jew named Mordecai. Haman, we read, was infuriated, and it didn’t take long for him to put in motion the influence that came with his position. During a conversation with the king, Haman fabricated a story in which he accused, not just Mordecai, but all of the Jews in Persia of failing to honor the king’s laws. Mordecai’s personal refusal to bow before Haman had now become the Jews’ corporate refusal to honor king Ahashuerus. And with this fabricated story, Haman developed a scheme through which he might destroy, not only Mordecai, but the entire Jewish population in the Persian empire.

It is readily apparent -- even a cursory reading of Esther makes it plain -- that Haman is a rather self-centered person. He is easily annoyed, prone to anger, and quick to seek his own personal advancement, even at the expense of those for whom he is responsible. Haman uses his ready access to King Ahashuerus to enact this deadly scheme against the Jews that he himself has devised, and he later erects a gallows in his own back yard upon which he plans to personally hang Mordecai for refusing to bow down before him. Haman is an influential man in Persia, but he unfortunately uses his influence in all of the wrong ways.

Set up beside Haman, then, is Esther, the leading character of the tale. Esther, too, finds herself in an extremely influential position, but it is a position that she neither sought nor imagined. Through a rather bizarre process initiated by King Ahasuerus, Esther became the queen of Persia. During an earlier feast of some sort, Ahasuerus commanded his then queen, Vashti, to parade in front of his invited guests and flaunt her obvious physical endowments. When she refused -- a no-no in those days -- the king deposed her and set in motion a search that eventually led to Esther’s selection as the new queen.

Soon after her coronation, Esther faced an overwhelming predicament brought about by Haman’s wicked and self-serving scheme. Esther, though no one in the royal court knew it at the time—least of all Haman—was herself a Jew, and she now faced the prospect of watching the entire Jewish community exterminated. Mordecai, her cousin and chief caregiver, exhorted Esther to confront the king and encourage him to right the wrong and to save her people.

Here, however, arises an overwhelming problem that serves to heighten the tension surrounding Esther’s impending decision as to how to use her influence. Recall, for just a moment, two related legal tidbits that the writer makes clear earlier in the story. The first arises when the selection process for the new queen is described. When Esther was initially rounded up to be a candidate to replace Vashti as the queen, she entered what might be called the house of women -- a harem (2:9). There, she, like all the other candidates, waited for at least a year, undergoing an involved beautification process. You talk about standing in front of the mirror for two or three hours in the morning! One year of cosmetic treatments and perfumed baths. Finally, one by one, each woman’s number would be called and she would go into the king’s palace for a single night. Each woman entered with her virginity, the writer is careful to point out (2:19), but left without it. After that single evening with the king, and there is adequate evidence outside of the Bible to support the general veracity of this depiction, the woman was assigned to a second house for women, the so-called house of concubines, where she remained for the remainder of her days. She could marry no other man, for she belonged to the king, and she could not even enter again into the king’s presence “unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name (2:14).”

For the woman who ultimately won the contest and became the queen, the situation improved somewhat. Yet one factor remained unchanged, and here is the second legal factor. Not only were women who went through the search process for a new queen banished to the house of concubines and could not reappear without being summoned by the king, but no one, not even the queen, could enter the king’s inner court uninvited. “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law -- all alike are to be put to death (4:11).”

So Esther’s dilemma -- her quandary -- is a weighty one indeed. Her people, the Jewish population of Persia, are at grave risk, waiting for a just-introduced death-edict to be enacted. Of all the Jews, she is clearly the only one in the story who is in any position at all to intervene and perhaps abort the crisis. Her only course of action, however, brings with it a death sentence of its own, for no one can go before the king uninvited. “Who knows?” her cousin Mordecai asks. “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” “Go,” she responds, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish. And without further hesitation, and fully aware of the risks, Esther initiates a process of her own that ultimately protects the welfare of her people.

Two people, Haman and Esther, use their influence in such drastically different ways. Haman, as insecure, angry and self-serving as he was, used his influence to bring about his own advancement, even at the considerable expense of many of the people around him. The name Haman, at least for many, has come to stand for or symbolize the misuse of power, the misuse of position, the misuse of resources, the misuse of influence. But Esther, she acts so differently here. She doesn’t always get it right, by the way. She will, for example, fail to show mercy later in the story to Haman once his plot is uncovered, and she also allows her nationalistic zeal to get the best of her when she encourages the king to extend the period of time during which her Jewish kin root out and destroy those people who bought into Haman’s scheme. The book if full of tension, and we ourselves know very well how difficult it can be to exert our own influence in consistently helpful ways. But on this occasion—on this occasion—Esther models for us a healthy and godly use of influence. At great risk to herself and against considerable odds, she sees an opportunity and uses her influence to shape the lives of others for the better. “Perhaps,” Mordecai had suggested to her, “you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Perhaps God has put you in this place to be a blessing to others.

The entire matter of casting our influence is fascinating to think about, isn’t it? Few of us are in positions of power even remotely similar to those of Haman and Esther, and yet we all influence others and are influenced by others, often in profound and lasting ways. Think, for a moment, of people who have influenced you, either for the good or the bad. Some have no doubt left scars on you that you would very much like to be without. Some perhaps had the resources you needed at the time, but withheld them. But others -- where would you be without them? People who have shared their time, experience, connections, or money in ways that have genuinely helped you along the way.

And how do you use the influence that God has entrusted with you? What marks do you leave? One of the greatest blessings of life, I am increasingly convinced, is the privilege that God gives us, in both great and small ways, to influence others for him. Perhaps we have come to our current situations, our current positions, for just such a time as this. Yesterday, when I was reflecting again on this matter, I hit what seemed to me to be a wall. I asked God for help, and within a few moments an e-mail fell into my mailbox. Mike Mazzye was one of the finalists in our recent search for a youth minister, and I came to deeply appreciate him and his wife, Doreen. It was painful, I can assure you, not to be able to offer him a position. Here is the e-mail I received:

Pastor, brother, and friend,
It was a long eight months. God made us different people during and in the
end. I am excited to report that I am in my first week as pastor of the First
Baptist Church of Wolcott, NY (between Syracuse and Rochester). You may
wonder how in the world we ended up here. Well, some wise words Doreen and
I heard a couple of months ago rang in our ears as we were deciding. As we sat
and ate Thai food with a pastoral family in Pennsylvania, we heard their love and
care for those less fortunate, those outside of the upper middle class American
suburbs. We heard of their love for people who lived in a nearby trailor park.
Those words proved pivotal in our decision between here, a small rural town trapped in the fifties, and a large, growing suburb of Boston.

Thanks so much Pastor Terry for your godliness. You and your wife were so pivotal in our search process. Please stay in touch beyond this e-mail. May God give YOU peace knowing that you influenced greatly a major decision in a brother’s life. On the other side, we are convinced of God’s leading.

In essence, when we use our influence to help others, as did Bishop Shamapani and Esther centuries before, we are living like Christ. Jesus, I remind you, uses all of his influence -- all of the benefits of his position -- to love and care for people like you and me.