Christians and Jews alike love the story of Esther, her unlikely path to be queen of Persia at a time when King Ahasuerus ruled the known world, and her brave defense of her people when challenged by Mordecai. Not only do we love the story, but we take Mordecai’s wisdom to heart personally, and sometimes consider it to be our own: “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14b NIV)
What if I am called to this ministry/role/position/job/relationship… for such a time as this? I’ve thought that at various points in my life. Perhaps you have too. But what is the context of this story? What if it does actually apply to us today, but differently than we think?
If we reexamine the historical context, the Jews had been in exile, forcibly displaced migrants across borders (modern day stateless refugees and asylees). In the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, many returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and resume their national identity. But not all did. For many reasons, some remained displaced. Migration is arduous. Still today we see people trudging by foot for weeks in search of safety. Some are simply unable to make the journey and the known risks of staying are preferred over the unknown risks of running or even returning. Certainly the situation in Esther’s time was similar, if not worse.
So we find a sizeable population of immigrant Jews still in the land of Persia when Ahasuerus (Xerxes in some translations) is King. They are sojourners, temporary residents, foreigners or aliens without the rights of citizens. And Esther is introduced additionally as an orphan in the care of her older cousin Mordecai.
We know the story: The King is holding days and days of feast-filled celebrations and Queen Vashti refuses his request to come to the party. She is stripped of her title, and a search for a new queen is underway. Esther gets swept up in this and finally emerges as the ideal candidate. But Esther had a secret: she was not a citizen. “Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known.” (Esther 2:10) She was advised to keep her immigrant status hidden. This isn’t stated just once, but reinforced again after she is Queen (Esther 2:20).
The plot thickens, when Haman is promoted as the second highest authority in the land. Haman loved the title, prestige and attention this demanded. But when Mordecai would not bow down to him as had been commanded by the king (thereby breaking a law), Haman was infuriated. When he discovered Mordecai was an immigrant, this fueled his nationalistic pride and Haman devised a plan to not only punish Mordecai but all the Jewish immigrants inside the land. We see Haman lobbying for genocide, and the king doesn’t think twice about the horrific counsel. He entrusts the decisions to Haman, offering his ring (Esther 3).
Imagine the fear among the immigrant community as they heard rumors about what would happen, rumors about being asked their status, imagining the racial profiling that would have to take place to determine if a person was an immigrant Jew or looked like a Jew?
We find Mordecai sending word to Esther, telling her why there was so much fear and anguish, and he asks her to please speak up, to please reveal her identity as an immigrant and to plead with the King for her people. But her first response is fear, of being unwilling to take that risk because what might happen to her (Esther 4:11).
When Mordecai hears this, he urges her to reconsider:
Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? Esther 4:13-14 (ESV)
Esther listened. And she understood God had given her royal position and responsibility to act. So she gave instructions to pray and fast. She educated her inner circle of influence, her court, about the realities for the immigrant community, instructed them to pray and fast as well, and then she took steps to advocate on their behalf.
We know the rest of the story. The King heard her counsel and softened, sentenced Haman, but rather than changing the law, he allowed the immigrants to defend themselves when it came time to arresting them and exterminating them. She had served her immigrant community. And while we see no mention of God anywhere in this book, we know that citizens were so moved by the prayer, fasting and bravery of the immigrant Jews that “many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them.” (Esther 8:12b). She evangelized, making her God and her faith known.
Fast-forward to modern times, and as a Christian I believe I have a different type of royal position. I read Romans 8:15-17 and 1 John 3:1 and see myself as having unbelievable worth and identity as a child of God. But I also see great responsibility with that identity, as indicated in 1 John 3:16-18 and Proverbs 31:8-9. I must speak up and I must also put love in action.
When I look at the book of Esther I see too many parallels to today: I see refugees globally seeking refuge, running from oppression but bearing further suffering as they remain stateless while the world watches. I see fear among people in my community being racially profiled for the color of their skin and asked to reveal their immigrant status. I see politicians at every level listening to nationalistic, fear-filled counsel. I see a Christian and faith community not taking time to listen to vulnerable immigrants, not taking time to learn why they have fled for their lives and risked crossing borders in order to survive. I see us post things on social media like “take the doors or walls down at your house and see what that feels like,” as if anyone who shows compassion to the most vulnerable immigrants is uncaring about national security.
Simultaneously I see Jesus taking all the instruction of the Old Testament regarding welcoming, loving, caring for, and not oppressing the poor, widow, orphan and foreigner/sojourner, and bringing it into the light of Who He was revealing God to be.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:34-40
Jesus doesn’t qualify how anyone became hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison. He doesn’t elevate one position of brokenness and need over another. He is reminding us that as His children, we have royal position to collectively comfort all of these who are longing for His compassion and mercy. And He says we will meet Him when we love the least of these, we will actually serve Him in the process.
There is one other place that quickly comes to mind when I see someone knocking, and it is Jesus, just as pictured above in Matthew 25. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Just verses earlier he warns the church of being neither cold nor hot, but sitting on the fence of indifference.
I challenge my brothers and sisters of royal position to understand we cannot be lukewarm. We cannot sit in perceived comfort when God has called us to something different. There is a time to speak up – in our families, in our friendships, in our churches, in our government – and that time is now. Join us.
Karen Spencer is the Church & Community Engagement Manager for World Relief Memphis. An immigrant, a student of the Bible, a world-traveler, a wife and mother, she connects the dots between the beautiful people she has met the world over and the Biblical call to love them. Contact Karen at email@example.com.