Women are wise, and brave, and tough, and anyone who doesn’t believe that has never read the book of Esther. The book of Esther stands next to Ezra and Nehemiah and tells a parallel story at the same time. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the Jews who went back to the Holy Land and rebuilt it, but Esther tells the story of those Jews who stayed in Babylon, now part of Persia, and stayed faithful among an unbelieving culture. It’s a story that really serves as inspiration for committed Christians today, who live as, I would argue, a religious minority in American culture. It’s a story about how to live when you aren’t in power, and that’s why I think it’s not a coincidence that a woman is the heroine of this story. Women are good at making change without wielding power, at working behind the scenes; it’s what we’ve always done. Men have written most of the great books of world history; but, I submit to you, it’s women who do most of the behind-the-scenes teaching of children. It’s our mothers, grandmothers, and aunts who taught us the practical wisdom we use on a daily basis, like “eat your vegetables” and “treat others the way you want to be treated.”
We’re going to look at some of those pearls of wisdom from the example of Esther. Just as the nation of Israel felt orphaned by God during Exile, Esther is herself an orphan. She had been adopted by her cousin Mordecai, who worked at the palace, and she is selected to be part of the harem of King Xerxes. It’s difficult for us to understand the compromises Esther and Mordecai make. At times, they hide their religion; they take on Persian dress and customs; Esther submits to a polygamous relationship with a Persian king. But part of being a wise woman is discernment.
Did your mother ever tell you: “There’s a time and a place for everything?” Discernment is a fancy word for figuring out what to do when. Throughout history, women have to discern and make compromises, because we were powerless to do otherwise. The story of Hagar is a great example. Remember back in Genesis, Hagar was Sarah’s slave, and she ran away because Sarah was so cruel to her, but God urged her to go back into slavery, because without Abraham’s protection her child would die. I think of Moses’s mother surrendering her baby to the river, Bathsheba writing to the King, “I am pregnant.” Women do what it takes for the survival of themselves and their children, even when it means working within a broken system. In the same way, Esther learned to survive. While Vashti, Xerxes’s prior wife, fought against Xerxes’ commands and lost her crown, Esther learned to work within a less-than-ideal system. She kept her religion behind-the-scenes. But when she knew God was calling her to speak up, she stepped forward courageously.
Did your mother ever tell you: “Do what is right, not what is easy?” It’s this attitude of courage that I think of when I think of the bravery of women. We often think of courage as a masculine virtue, but women have a quiet courage of their own. Anyone who has witnessed childbirth would testify that women behind our smaller, weaker shells, women can be extraordinarily brave. Women are especially courageous when someone vulnerable is in danger. As a young girl, I used to go out on the paddleboat with my grandfather on the little lake behind his house. We came up to an island and I got off the paddleboat to explore, but as soon as I stepped foot on the island, I heard the most horrible honking sound, like a bullhorn straight in my ear. It was the biggest, scariest Canadian goose I had ever seen, atop her nest of eggs, and she told me in no uncertain terms to step off. We christened the island “Goose Island” and never dared to venture there again. Another pastor described a similar experience as “getting shut down by Mother Goose.” Women know to protect the most vulnerable among us. Esther is not a biological mother, but she is a mother to her people. She risks herself to save them. Haman, one of the king’s officials, is angry that Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, would not bow down to him. Mordecai, as a faithful Jew, would bow down to God alone. Haman angrily calls for the slaughter of all the Jewish people. Mordecai approaches Esther, and tells her it is time now to work the system for the good of her people. She is afraid, since it’s been a month that the king has even called for her, but Mordecai knows that God, like Esther, often works behind the scenes, and perhaps Esther has been placed in a position of power “for such a time as this.” Esther 4:14. Esther then bravely declares that she will speak out for her people, “And if I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16. Like Mother Goose honking on her nest, Esther speaks up when the most vulnerable are threatened.
I think of other women who risked themselves to help the powerless. When you read the book of Esther, you cannot help but think of how history repeats itself; during the Holocaust, people like Haman tried to wipe out the Jewish people, and very nearly succeeded. A Christian woman, Corrie Ten Boom, hid many Jews in her own during the Holocaust, becoming imprisoned in a concentration camp for her work. Of her own choice to endanger herself to help others, ten Boom wrote, “Don’t bother to give God instructions. Just report for duty.” I think also of Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the back of the bus, and became a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement. When thrown into prison, she said, “My feet are tired, but my soul is rested.” Women were at the center of the anti-slavery movement; women have worked to end abuse from human trafficking to drunk driving to child abuse prevention to animal welfare. Most of these women don’t have millions of dollars or thousands of armies at their command. But their quiet bravery changes the world. They teach us to look out for the little ones, like Mother Goose. Esther, too, stands up for what is right; but she’s also smart about it.
Women’s wisdom is practical. Did your mother ever tell you: “Always wear clean underwear?” And why? “You never know when you could end up in the hospital.” “Chew with your mouth shut.” “Don’t swim for half an hour after eating.” This is the kind of practicality mothers teach. Esther has practical wisdom. Esther knows what her strength is; Xerxes doesn’t want to hear her talk, he’s not interested in her take on Persian politics or her religious musings. He wants her to look pretty and submit to his desires. That’s how she got her position in the first place, working behind the scenes to find out what Xerxes likes, making friends with the people who run the harem. So Esther does what is right, but she also looks good doing it. She puts on her royal robes. Esther 5:1. Not only did she look regal and lovely, but by wearing her royal robes, she was also subtly reminding Xerxes that he named her the queen, and it won’t look good if he goes back on his word. So the king lets Esther touch his royal scepter, and she makes a request of him. But it isn’t the big request we’re waiting for; she doesn’t ask him to withdraw the decree. Instead, she just asks for a banquet. Esther 5:4. Xerxes must have thought, how sweet, the little wife wants to throw a tea party. Why did she hold off on her real request? Because she knows that if the king has a tasty side of beef and a good glass of wine, if she can spend some sitting next to him and pique his interest, she can get what she wants. It’s not even until the second day of the banquet that she finally brings up her request. She’s practical.
When I was looking for my first call, I had a lot of success when the churches looked at my resume and heard me on the phone interview, but not in person. My mother-in-law had a theory, and she sent me to the makeup counter at Somerset Mall. I hadn’t really worn much makeup before. She said to them, “make this girl look older.” She spent $300 on makeup for my next interview. I got the job. I think God was calling me; but she still swears it was the makeup. Women are practical; we have faith in God, we do what is right, but we also put on our makeup.
And finally, women are wise because we do trust God. Did your mother teach you your first prayer? I’ve wondered a lot why churches are mostly filled with women, seventy to eighty percent by most counts. I think it’s because women have always known we are not in power. Even though women have made a lot of steps toward equality, we’re still not there yet, even in this country, where I think women have greater freedom than anywhere in the world. Since we know we’re not in charge, and have never suffered under that delusion, we learn that God is in charge, and we learn to trust Him. Esther asks for all the Jews to fast and pray, not just for the customary one day fast, but for three days; and she directs her maids to pray with her, too. Esther 4:16. She puts the matter to God before she puts the matter to man. Women pass on the faith; fathers are extremely important in children’s religious upbringing; but in most cases, it’s mothers who teach us first about who God is. The other day, I was praying with Diana Mae, and we prayed our nighttime prayer, the traditional “now I lay me down to sleep.” She said, “Mommy, I know where you learned that prayer. It’s the one your mother prayed with you. I know because I saw it on a pillow at her house.” My mother taught me to trust God, and to see God at work; not always in dramatic, miraculous ways, but sometimes God works quietly, behind the scenes; guiding us, teaching us, helping us; like our mothers. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.