Rebuking Haman – Sermon for the Week of Purim 2020

Esther 3:1-6

After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance. Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?”

When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.

Sermon Text

Esther is one of those books of those Bible that we do not give enough time or energy to. Usually, it lives in the realm of children’s storybooks and women’s Bible studies. It will soon be a musical at Sight and Sound theatre, but even then, I have a feeling they will make it sterile and feel good and not really dive deep into what this book can tell us. It is a book of secrets, of silence, of hidden identity and hidden motivations. From start to finish we see men and women, Jews and Gentiles, the powerful and the powerless, put into contrast with one another again and again and again. It is a book that asks us to make assumptions, and then makes clear how wrong we are in having made them.

In particular, we drill in today at the moment in which the stakes of the book become clear. While Ahasuerus’ search for a wife is what allows Esther to come into power, it is Mordechai’s confrontation with Haman that allows for the conflict of the book to begin. A confrontation between two city leaders that results in a demand for genocide and concludes in the massacre of thousands. The book of Esther, with all its reversals in fate and convoluted narratives of responsibility, chooses an inciting incident that does as much to confuse us as it does to establish us.

We are introduced immediately to the person of Haman. We are given no backstory about him and it is not explained whether or not he had worked in the city of Susa alongside Mordechai and the other servants of the King or if he appeared one day. His position before this moment is unknown, but we are told that he has become the highest official in the land, second only to the King. This humble Agagite has taken a position that allows him to rule over much of the Persian world. As powerful as a King, beloved by the true ruler of the nation, we are told that he is to be bowed to whenever he arrives – not by his own command, but by that of the King.

Yet, Mordechai, our hero in this story, refuses to do so. The story does not tell us why he will not bow. Many claim that because he was Jewish he could not bow down to the King, but there is no such instruction in the Torah. Others suggest he was simply too proud to bow to Haman, perhaps because Haman took a position that should have been his – he was a national hero for having saved the King after all. Whatever the reason for not bowing, Haman took note and Haman demanded to have his bruised pride be avenged. As a result, we are told that he sought out to kill not only Mordechai but all those like Mordechai, all his kin, the entire Jewish race.

The transition from anger toward a single person to an entire race of people. That is not a small step for a person to take. Certainly, Haman would have been better off just punishing Mordechai. He had the power to do so. He had all the money needed to finance such a disgusting mission. Yet, he was not content to just eliminate an enemy, his pride was too great for him to consider it an option to simply take out the person he considered to have offended him. No, he decides the only route to remove his shame is to remove every trace of the people his offender belongs to.

Hatred, as much as we do not like to admit it, is rooted deep within our hearts. One of the things that define our initial gut response to a situation is how we demarcate things as a threat and not a threat. The thing we decide is a threat we then decide whether or not we would like it to stay and be tolerated or be removed and be done with. This desire to remove a thing we see as a threat. This is hatred. It is an emotion born out of demarcating someone as other than ourselves and then finding that otherness to be a danger. The attribution of whatever we do not like or find strange about a thing with its essential qualities rather than with its anecdotal occurrence.

Separating out people based on their traits, their place of origin, the culture that they were raised in, is something that our mind does automatically. When we meet someone who has a different dialect of English to us, who dresses differently than us, and of course who is of a different race than us the mind has a tendency to create a distinct category in itself to place these things. Categorizing allows the brain to pull up everything it knows about something and bring it to mind instantaneously. It is this that allows us to look at a loved one and instantly feel better, to look at a food we dislike and know that it is bad, and unfortunately to look at someone of a certain culture or race and decide whether we have deemed them good or bad.

Some of us will say at this point – “Well, when it comes to people its person by person. There is never a time where I make an assumption, I let people stand or fall based on their own merit.” Maybe so, but if we just assume, we can meet and look at people without making assumption we’ll never know if we actually do. So, let’s test if we’re good at processing two pieces of information at once.

Here are some words printed in different colors. Read the color and ignore the word. XMAS. POTATO. WASHBIN. COLLISION. SODA. That was easy. Now, if we do this again color and not word remember. BLUE. RED. ORANGE. PURPLE. GREEN. Again, say the color of the text, not the word. RED PURPLE RED GREEN BLUE. Not as easy.[1] Our brain struggles to process two things at any given time. That is why our brain is dangerous when the two things we are looking at is a person and the assumptions we have made about the group that they belong to. When we look at a person of another race do we seen them, or do we see what our brain has decided to think about them? A person who is wearing dirty or ripped clothes, someone obviously poorer than us, and decided something about their work ethic or place in life? At a woman grappling with several children in the cart and decided what she should have done to prevent such a situation?

Our scripture today shows us two pictures of hatred born within a person. On one hand we have Mordechai. Mordechai is a Jew descended from the tribe of Benjamin, of whom King Saul of Israel was a member. Saul, the most famous Benjaminite was removed from his throne because he failed to kill Agag the king of the Amalekites. Agag, despite later being killed by Samuel, had many children and their lineage became known as the Agagites – of whom we will remember Haman was a member. Haman, the new vizier of the Persian kingdom, was descended from an ancient enemy of Mordechai’s family, and Mordechai decided that because of this he could not bow down to him.[2] This is the most likely reason, given all that scripture has given us, that Mordechai caused all this trouble – because he looked at Haman and rather than seeing a person saw a bloodline, that rather than celebrating difference he decided upon defiance.

Despite the distasteful nature of his assumption, Mordechai is not acting blindly in his distrust of Haman. As a member of a group who suffered under constant oppression, whose people were killed again and again on trumped up charges of one kind or another, he was right to be warry when an ancient enemy reared its head. We would not expect a Jew in Nazi Germany to trust just anyone they met on the street, nor can we expect people of color who grew up in the Jim Crow south to assume that a few decades passing have automatically made the streets they walk to be any safer. For those who have suffered it is not as simple as turning on and off bias, when that bias may save your life.

Yes, Mordechai may have some excuse for his distrust that makes it reasonable but that does not mean it is our ideal. Ideally, we can live in a world where people never have to do as Mordechai did, assuming harm will come to him form someone in power descended from ancient enemies. However, the world we live in today is not a safe one for many people, and that is largely because Haman is still at large in the world.

Whereas Mordechai acted defensively out a very real threat to his existence, one that proved correct we will note, it was Haman who chose to act out of hatred. Haman found someone he did not know, decided he was a threat, and then when the additional information of his race was made known to him he decided to rope all Jews into the conflict rather than just this one person he was having problems with. Haman, with all power and privilege in the world, far removed from any real threat that Mordechai could ever bring against him, decided that he needed to eliminate not only Mordechai, but everyone like Mordechai. He was not experiencing implicit bias like we all might experience; he was actively choosing hatred.

If we wish to see a world without conflict, we must begin by removing hatred from within ourselves. Our minds will always work selfishly against us in this endeavor. Those mechanisms more ancient than we can ever understand that demand we categorize all groups of people as friend or foe, all cultures as good or bad, all races as above or below – those mechanisms of the mind are the enemy we all must combat with day after day after day. If we do begin to seek understanding, if we reject our assumptions and seek the truth of those different to us we will inevitably find ourselves in a better world.

When we enjoy the benefits that come from the experiences of all people of all races and all cultures and all creeds then we will see what loving our neighbors is really about. When we are active about pushing beyond the assumptions of our mind and begin seeking out the soul of those around us. We must also be aware of our failings in life, acknowledge all those moments when we knew better but still did what was worse. We must repent of our brokenness, we must repent of our hatred, and we must rebuke Haman whenever he manifests in our hearts. Then and only then, will we be free from our own misguided minds. – Amen.

[1] This exercise is adapted from Jerry Kang. “Immaculate Perception” Lecture. TedxSanDiego 2013. Available at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VGbwNI6Ssk&feature=youtu.be

[2] Linda Day. “Mordecai versus Haman” in Esther. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon 2005) 66-67

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