We asked people what they thought about Pope Francis.
During his visit to Bolivia in July, the Pope addressed an audience of farmers, trash-pickers, craftspeople, and un-unionized workers. He expressed his compassion for the poor and the marginalized and advocated passionately for them, but he did not stop there. As he did in his encyclical on climate change, the Pope identified and condemned the systemic and structural causes of their suffering: the global idolization of capital and the pursuit of wealth.
An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people's decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.
Faced with this "idolatrous system which excludes, debases and kills," the Pope called for "real change, structural change."
The book of Esther also reflects on a political and cultural system that venerates status and wealth, sets people against one another, and thwarts human flourishing. Even if the book does not explicitly call for change, the story's ironic reversals, which result in increasingly absurd levels of violence and destruction, reveal just how vulnerable every person in the empire is, including those with the ability to influence the king.
Set in the Persian court in Susa (the capital of the ancient Persian Empire), the book of Esther is a fictional farce brimming with political intrigue, sexual innuendo, and murderous plotting. However, for all its comic revelry, the book of Esther is concerned with the serious business of survival in a system driven by vanity, gluttony, and greed.
The story of Esther is punctuated by drinking parties, where revelers imbibe "by flagons, without restraint" (1:8), and hastily conceived, draconian edicts (e.g., 1:19-22). The book begins with a 180-day banquet, dictated by King Ahasuerus to display "the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty" (1:4). The queen, however, refuses to comply with her husband's desire to her show off before his courtiers. The king's legendary temper flares, and the party ends with a decree, which is written so "that it may not be altered" (1:19). The edict stipulates not only that the queen is "never again to come before" the king, but further that "all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike" (1:20). A single affront to the king results in the creation of an absurd law that applies to every adult in the empire.
When the Jew Mordecai refuses to bow down before Haman (3:2), the king's right hand man, Haman replicates the royal way. He feels personally insulted by one Jew, and so he plots "to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus" (3:6). In turn, Mordecai and Esther conspire together to save Mordecai from the gallows and the Jews from annihilation. By chapter 7, their plan to turn the tables on Haman by manipulating the vain and impulsive king is in full swing. At this point it is clear that Esther has utterly charmed the king; he has twice promised to grant her anything she wants "even to the half of [his] kingdom" (5:3; 7:3). With the groundwork laid, we are ready for the big reveal. Esther discloses two things she has been strategically hiding until just the right moment: her Jewish identity (7:3-4) and the identity of the villain (7:6). The impetuous king flies into a rage; and although he is incapable of coming up with a fitting punishment for the scoundrel who has offended his queen and her people, he quickly accepts a recommendation from a lurking sycophant to hang Haman on the very gallows he prepared for Mordecai. The promise of a violent death soothes the king's anger (7:10) and makes way for Mordecai to take over Haman's position in the court (8:1-2).
For many contemporary readers, the story raises the question: why does Haman have to die? Aren't the Jews are supposed to be the good guys in the story? In part, the farce revels in a turnabout that is at once improbable and deliciously satisfying. Haman ends up on the gallows he had built for Mordecai because that's what the villain deserves. However, the book also suggests that if the economic structures and political institutions that devalue human life remain intact, no one will be able to escape the violence such oppressive structures perpetuate. Whether it's Mordecai or Haman who ends up on the gallows, what remains inviolate is a "system which excludes, debases and kills" (Pope Francis). Although the players exchange roles, nothing really changes. The French epigram, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," describes the situation to a tee.
Although Esther and Mordecai gain the advantage over Haman, because of the ludicrous premise that an edict signed by the king cannot be revoked - even by the king himself - the Jews still face annihilation (8:5-8). In order to save their people, Mordecai and Esther write another decree authorizing the Jews to defend their lives and "to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods" (8:12). It is as if the more the court tries to create order through law and order, the more outrageous the chaos.
Even as the book seeks to elicit uproarious laughter, it shows us that in a system driven by gluttony and greed, any one person's hold power and privilege is tenuous. When Mordecai presses Esther to intervene with the king in order to save the Jews from annihilation, he says to his niece: "Do not think in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews" (4:13). In other words, if you think you are safe because you have learned to work the system, you are kidding yourself. When political and economic structures evolve to accommodate rulers who are frivolous, vain, and easily manipulated, violence becomes commonplace and human lives become expendable. On this point, Esther and Pope Francis would agree.
Bible Study Questions
1. Walk in your closet. How many pairs of shoes do you have? How many shirts, pants, purses? Close your eyes and imagine one of everything only. That's how most of the world's poor live. What can you do to curb your consumerism?
2. Go in your kitchen. Turn on the hot water at your kitchen sink. Now turn on the cold until it's the perfect temperature. Most of the world's poor walk miles for water and carry it home. How can you begin to conserve resources so there is enough for all in your community?
3. Get in your car. Turn it on and back out the driveway. Where are you going? Do you really need to burn the gas in your car to go where you're going? Are you going shopping? How could you change your daily patterns to burn less fuel and reduce your carbon footprint?
For Further Reading
Robert Alter, Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015).
Adele Berlin, JPS Torah Commentary: Esther (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2001).
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