Carlos Wilton, September 30, 2012; 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Revelation 19:11-20:5
“Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have won your favor, O king,
and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me —
that is my petition — and the lives of my people — that is my request.’”
– Esther 7:3
I’d like to share with you two words today. What I’d like you to do, as I say them, is to pay close attention to your reactions — in particular, your emotional reactions.
Ready? Here goes…
The first word is: “tattletale.”
I think I can imagine what reaction you’re having to that word. Now, hold that thought. Remember it, as I say the next word.
The second word is: “whistleblower.”
Well, that one’s quite a bit different, isn’t it? Unless I miss my guess, the reaction you had to the word “tattletale” was negative. But “whistleblower” — that’s another story. A whistleblower is upright, principled and courageous. A whistleblower stands up in the face of evil or corruption in a corporation or government, and brings the righteous wrath of the law down upon the evildoers.
A tattletale is a kid on the playground running and telling the teacher he saw some other kids smoking cigarettes.
A whistleblower is Frank Serpico, shining an honest police officer’s flashlight on rampant corruption in the New York City Police Department… or Karen Silkwood, exposing careless handling of plutonium in the nuclear plant where she worked… or Sherron Watkins, former vice-president of Enron, who first broke the story of deceptive accounting practices at that company, by which Ken Lay and other executives bled company assets dry for their own personal gain.
To be a whistleblower can be a dangerous occupation. Karen Silkwood is a case in point. She lost her life, in mysterious circumstances, as she was on her way to tell her story to a New York Times reporter.
But, here’s a curiosity. Those two words — tattletale and whistleblower — describe exactly the same thing.
It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? The kid who runs and tells a teacher about the classmates smoking on the playground may be branded a tattletale by those other kids. Yet, I’ll bet if you asked the parents of those aspiring lung-cancer victims what they thought of the so-called “tattletale’s” actions, they would incline more to “whistleblower.” (And they would be very grateful.)
This morning’s lesson from the Hebrew scriptures is the tale of one of the most famous whistleblowers of all time. She is the Queen of Persia. Her name is Esther.
Now, it may seem strange at first that a queen could be called a whistleblower. Ordinarily you’d think of a queen as one of the movers and shakers: the sort of person a whistleblower may seek out, in order to set things right.
In Queen Esther’s case, you’ve got to take into account that she is a woman, married to an old-school absolute ruler. You wouldn’t describe Esther and the king as especially close, in terms of their personal relationship. In fact, it was just the opposite. The king chose Esther for her personal beauty, and no other reason. She’d have looked mighty good on a postage stamp (if they’d had postage stamps back then). Her role in the king’s household can be summed up in the rather colorful modern expression, “arm candy.”
Esther, in fact, is not even allowed to approach the king of her own volition. That’s against the palace regulations. She can’t speak to him unless he initiates the conversation. To do otherwise — to be so bold as to come up to her royal husband and ask for something — is to risk the ultimate royal sanction: the death penalty.
Esther happens to be an Israelite: and her own people are in a rather delicate, vulnerable position within the Persian court. The Israelites had been little more than slaves in the Babylonian Empire: and, when the Persians came along and overthrew the Babylonians, most of the exiles returned home. But, not all. Some stayed. They had houses and businesses. Some had intermarried with the local population, but still retained their Jewish identity. Some of them even left Babylon and journeyed in the opposite direction from Jerusalem. They traveled east instead of west: all the way to the Persian capital, where they sought to be useful to their new lords and masters.
Queen Esther’s people have this pedigree. Some have done very well in the employ of the Persians. Yet, none have done so well as Esther, daughter of Mordecai. The eye of the king himself has fallen upon her. The king liked what he saw, so he married her.
The bad guy in the story is a Persian by the name of Haman, who has worked his way up the power structure to become the king’s right-hand man. Haman has a hatred for the Jews, and has convinced the king to sign a royal edict calling for the death of every Jew living within his kingdom.
Having heard of the imminent slaughter of his people, Esther’s father Mordecai comes to her, asking her to intercede with the king on behalf of their people. In a famous phrase, he tells her that perhaps the Lord has placed her in the royal court “for such a time as this.”
Esther steps across the boundary of social convention when she ventures into the king’s presence on her own, unbidden. To her surprise, he receives her warmly. She exposes the lies Haman told the king, and so the king orders him executed, on the very same gallows he had intended for Mordecai. As for Mordecai, the king puts him in Haman’s place, as his own closest advisor.
It’s a curious story, this tale of Queen Esther — the whistleblower. It’s beloved to the Jewish people, especially Jewish women. Another name for Esther is Hadassah: and that’s become the name of the leading Jewish women’s organization. Hadassah, or Esther, used the resources available to her to bring to justice a man who was about to get away with murder: literally.
That phrase, “get away with murder,” is, of course, more often used figuratively. It’s become a catch-all description of all manner of offenders who perform some dastardly deed — even a whole series of dastardly deeds — and somehow manage to escape punishment.
People like that are all around us. You don’t have to look very far to find them. We used to have campaign-contribution laws in this country, but we all know the role super-pacs are playing in this election. Empowered by a Supreme Court ruling, corporations as well as very wealthy individuals are now free to use super-pacs to try to buy elections. They can do so in secret, protected from public scrutiny. In the long run, they expect their generosity to be repaid tenfold: as elected officials steer some special tax deductions their way, or give their companies exemptions from environmental regulations.
The blatant bribery they’re practicing is winked at. It’s as though they’re getting away with murder: at least, the murder of free elections. It’s an equal-opportunity, bipartisan problem: because both parties are now racing one another to the super-pac feeding-trough.
Yet, this is nothing new. As long as there have been governments, there have been people of power and wealth lining up to try to influence them. As long as there’s been power and wealth, even, those people who have it have tried to work the system, spreading their dirty money around like so much fertilizer.
Will they ever get their comeuppance?
It’s the very same question asked by the author of numerous Psalms from the Bible. How long, O Lord, will the wicked prosper? How long before justice is done?
Psalm 73 is but one of many examples. Here’s a little bit of it:
“For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.”
You could that the Psalm of the super-pacs, I think. Or, maybe the Psalm of the Wall Street tycoons: the ones who take the position that, in a bad economy, they deserve heavy government subsidies, but in a good economy, every penny of their wealth they earned on their own.
The fact that Psalm 73 sounds so shockingly contemporary, so many centuries later, is ample evidence that this complaint about the wicked prospering is as old as the hills. Every once in a while, for brief periods, good does seem to triumph over evil — as when Esther sees to it that the scheming Haman doesn’t get away with murder. Yet, for all the times God does seem to intervene, there are plenty more when God seems to sit by and do nothing.
I don’t know how it is for you, but there are plenty of people who look at that state of affairs and despair that things will ever be any different. The prophet Amos says, in that famous line that graces our bulletin cover: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” More often than not, it looks like someone has thrown a dam across that river, reducing its mighty flow to a trickle. Like those rivers out West whose water-rights become the object of bidding wars, there are many who fear the same is true of God’s justice.
Yet, we have to remember that God’s perspective is much bigger than our own. As the prophet Isaiah gives voice to the Lord, in chapter 40
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales…”
Surely you’ve heard the phrase, “just a drop in the bucket.” This is where it comes from. What it’s referring to is the vantage-point from which God views the world.
This past week, heads of state from more than an hundred countries were gathered in New York for the opening session of the United Nations. How many of their entourages filled the city’s best hotels? How many of their limousines, sporting diplomatic plates, clogged the streets? How many of them managed to wangle an invitation to speak before the UN General Assembly, or any one of the smaller diplomatic gatherings that have been going on in these days?
There’s not much in our world that seems more powerful than a nation-state: especially a large and wealthy nation-state. Who can rise up and stand against such an institution? Who can challenge its prestige and influence?
There’s only one, says the Bible, who is able to do so: and that is the Lord God. The fact that the Lord holds back, more often than not, in meting out punishment to oppressors, is no evidence that God has somehow walked off the scene, or has become so weak that even a super-pac can overcome the effects of divine rule.
You see, the God who regards the nations as but a drop in the bucket can do so because the Lord’s perspective is not that of time as we know it, but rather of eternity. Did you ever consider that a God of eternity simultaneously dwells in every unit of time? If that’s the case, then what appears to be a lack of response to evil in our own time — or, at least, a long and lackadaisical delay cleaning up the town — may actually be lived out at some time in the future. Scripture does provide us with the assurance that there will be a divine judgment someday, a great and fearsome reckoning, when the souls of good and evil alike will be arrayed before the throne of God.
I read those thrilling (and frightening) words from Revelation a short time ago, that depict the returning Messiah coming back to earth on the back of a white horse. His eyes are flames of fire. The armies of heaven are arrayed behind him. And from his mouth, the visionary mystic tells us, is a surreal image that defies imagination:
“From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”
In case you’re wondering, this is where the famous line from The Battle Hymn of the Republic comes from: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” A great deal of the imagery of that hymn comes from the Book of Revelation. In writing it during the Civil War era, Julia Ward Howe was viewing the terrible conflagration of the battle over slavery as the great moral struggle of her age. She was taking comfort in the thought that each Union victory brought the nation just a little closer to the time when the abomination of one person holding another person as a slave would be no more.
More than that, it brought the nation a little closer to the day when justice would be meted out not by bayonet and cannonball, but by the hand of Christ himself, coming on the clouds of heaven to announce God’s final judgment. For, no matter how mighty the human army, no matter how powerful the nation state, the power of the divine ruler of heaven and earth is greater. And only his power will prevail in the end.
As another Hebrew prophet, Habakkuk, reminds us — from the perspective of his lonely watchtower, where he has sequestered himself to look for some sign of the Lord’s activity in this world: “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” [Habbakkuk 2:3]
The pursuit of divine justice is a waiting game: always has been, always will be. That’s because it only comes according to God’s time, which is fundamentally different from our own. It’s not just that God’s time-line is considerably longer than ours; I don’t think it even makes sense for us to think of God’s time-line at all. For God, there is no clock time, no calendar time. God’s time transcends the two dimensions of a time-line; it’s a living, three-dimensional thing, allowing the Lord to slip into and out of our linear time at will. To God, “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night,” as Psalm 90, verse 4 puts it. What seems to us to be a long and frustrating delay, as evildoers appear to be getting away with murder, is but the blink of an eye to the Lord. One day, the scriptures promise, Christ will return, God will judge the earth, and all will be made right.
So, “fret not for those who do wrong things,” as the words of our next hymn put it:
“Commit your journey to the Lord;
Trust God, it will be done:
Your righteousness will then shine forth
As clear as noonday sun.”
The tune’s not so familiar to us, but it’s a simple one. Listen as our accompanist plays it through once, then let’s all join in.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.