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‘One who Serves’

Queen Vashti had been summoned to appear before the King; he didn’t wish to talk to her, he just wanted to show her off. He’d been giving a banquet, full of splendour; he wished Vashti to appear before him, wearing her crown, so that he could show her beauty to all the men who were present. Vashti, giving a banquet of her own for the women, refused to come. Given that the banquet had continued over 7 days, and that the wine was liberal, no doubt at least a few of the people there were drunk, possibly including the King himself. I suspect that most of us, nowadays, would have every sympathy with Vashti not wishing to be treated as an object. For what was happening was that the King wished to display Vashti as another of his possessions, as he had already displayed his wealth and splendour. Predictably, the King was extremely angry at Vashti’s refusal, and consulted his advisors. They, too, were concerned. This didn’t just affect Vashti, but them all. Soon, word of Vashti’s refusal would spread. If the Queen could defy the King, then other women would treat their husbands the same way. A decree was issued: Vashti was not to come into the King’s presence ever again, and her position would be given to someone more worthy.

Now this all happened as an introduction to the book of Esther; Esther becomes the next Queen, and is therefore in position to save her people when they are threatened. Moreover, while the King (Ahasuerus/Xerxes) is known to history, Vashti nor Esther are not. But I don’t want to focus on the book’s core message, nor on the story of Esther, but on Vashti’s story, and its implications for us today. This story was written in a very patriarchal culture; women had very different roles from today, and were, no doubt, expected to obey their husbands. But women then, as women now, were still intelligent human beings, with thoughts and feelings of their own. Whatever the specific picture, it is clear from the first chapter of Esther that the King had no doubt that Vashti would – and should – obey his summons. Her refusal, as the King’s advisors make clear, had far reaching implications, reaching to the heart of their own households – especially if their wives were present at the Queen’s banquet and had seen all this happening. In order to keep women where they thought they should be (under the control of their husbands), the decree was issued, punishing Vashti. There’s no sense in the text of what happened to her, but I assume she may well have been kept in the palace, with her role gone, simply one among a number of women, watching the beauty parade of those come to take her place.

The King was angry when Vashti disobeyed him, but he doesn’t seem to have taken any time to understand what had happened, or why he was angry. What may have been occurring underneath that anger? Vashti had shamed the king, embarrassed him, not only in front of his close advisors, but in front of many more minor officials. He was the ruler of the kingdom; I think, reading behind the lines, that this banquet was in part to show off his splendour, and assert his authority. In disobeying him, Vashti smacked in the face of all that; he couldn’t rule his own household, how could he rule the kingdom? That was a serious possibility; what his advisors don’t say, but may have thought, is what the reaction would be if women all over the country started disobeying their husbands; what would that do to the King’s authority – and their own positions? The punishment is based on serious cultural problems that may result, and puts the King firmly back in charge.

Yet, how does all this relate to us today? In the UK, our government is very different, as is our culture, at least in its’ expectations as to how women should be treated, if not always in practice. There are other vulnerable groups who may also be at risk of marginalisation. How aware are we of these issues, and how do we respond to them? How do we look at other people? Do we see them as themselves, or do we treat them as ‘things’, as objects for our own greater glory, however much we may say we love or care for them? This can be fairly subtle, and it can happen only occasionally. But we can be so aware of our own thoughts and needs that we do not always take account of others, or how we use them to attain those needs. We can also look at certain groups in society, maybe groups that we don’t come into contact with, and have our views of them influenced by others, and what we see in the media. People crossing the channel in boats, for example; are they refugees, illegal immigrants – or people in desperate need? Moreover, how do we use the power that we have over others? How do we treat those in a more vulnerable position to ourselves? Do we, like the King, focus on our own authority and glory – or are we, like Jesus, among them as ‘one who serves’? How do we react when our power is challenged – and what does this say about ourselves? What do our answers say about how we relate to God? I cannot answer these questions, only invite you to ponder them for yourself.

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