The First Extreme: Conformity
The First Extreme: Conformity
We have already met Jonah, a scowling, spiteful little man in a chronic state of bellyache. The meaning of his name—"dove"—just doesn't fit. He's a vulture. He's merely a consumer—a man who measures a good day or a bad day by what's in it for him. He seeks God's blessing but avoids God's presence and call. He begs God to rescue him and then turns around and begs God to burn his enemies to the ground. He couldn't care less for the fate of thousands but is bitter over the disruption of his own comfort. He is a man angry enough to die when things don't go his way.
Jonah represents the people of God when they've lost the heart of God. He represents a church that's made comfort and isolation the mission instead of God's kingdom. In many ways, he is a picture of what the church in North America is in danger of becoming—insular, surly, and self-absorbed.
Jonah is one way to not be peculiar. We now turn to another Old Testament story to examine another way to not be peculiar. It's the story of Esther and a people who have become so of the world—so immersed and blended into the surrounding culture—that they're virtually indistinguishable from it.
A wounded king, his new queen, and his insecure assistant
The story takes place around 470 BC, in a palace in Susa, the capital of ancient Persia. It begins with King Xerxes throwing a raucous, riotous party for the leading men of his nation. On a drunken whim, the king orders his wife, Queen Vashti, to come and parade herself before all his besotted guests. She refuses, causing Persia's men to ask: What if all the women followed the queen's example, defying male demands?
Terrified at the prospects of such a thing, they convince the king to dispose of Queen Vashti, making an example of her. Soon after, though, the king gets lonely. He's hurting, too. History books tell us the king had undertaken a disastrous military campaign against Greece. He lost his entire naval fleet and much of his army.
Seeing his sullenness, the king's advisors devise a plan. They will host a beauty pageant, gathering the most dazzling women from the four corners of the kingdom, so the king can have "the pick of the litter."
Esther, the hero of our story, wins; she becomes the new queen. But Esther has a secret—she's a Jew.
She's one of the chosen people of God—part of the royal priesthood and holy nation. She's a child of the covenant. She's one of those peculiar people, but under strict orders of Mordecai, she hides her identity. Mordecai knows something, you see. He knows that if the king and his advisors find out Esther's a Jew, they'll reject her without giving her a second look. If she wants to win a pagan king's favor, it will come at the price of hiding who she really is. She'll have to act just like everyone else—only more so.
Something happens, though, to throw all of this into jeopardy. Ironically enough, it happens because of Mordecai's resolve to be peculiar.
There is a man in the kingdom named Haman. Haman is second in command to King Xerxes. That's a lot of power, but it's never enough for men like Haman. Haman is one of those people who can't stop talking about themselves—telling you all they know, all they do, and all they have. Their speech is an unending litany of accomplishments they deserve full credit for and mistakes they had no hand in making. Haman not only wants to acquire power; he wants others to fawn on him, kowtow to him, flatter him, and inflate his already oversized ego.
That's Haman—powerful, insecure, and a huge menace.
Haman works out an arrangement; whenever he passes by, everyone must bow down to him in an elaborate tribute. He gloats in this practice, relishing it. Most do it not out of genuine reverence, but for sheer political expediency—the law's the law. In other words, people go along with Haman's publicity stunts because they're afraid. Nobody wants to stand out and pay the price for doing so.
There's one man—Mordecai.
Mordecai—so insistent that Esther conceals her true identity—decides this business with Haman has gone on long enough. It was time to stand up and be counted. It was time to be peculiar.
The oppression of the Jews
Mordecai refuses to bow down. As you would expect, Haman is furious with his actions. When he discovers Mordecai is a Jew, he bides his time, hatching a plot. Haman goes to King Xerxes and informs him of a people—God's people—who are nonconformists, even insurrectionists. Haman insists they are bound to subvert order. He convinces the king that it's in the king's best interests to completely annihilate them by genocide. Haman even offers to finance the project! Without blinking, the king gives a nod of approval. Posters are soon plastered all over the kingdom, saying: Kill all the Jews—young and old, women and children—on the 13th day of the 12th month (March 7, 473 BC).
When Mordecai hears the news, he does what any good Jew would do—he repents. He puts on sackcloth and ash, the clothing and gestures of repentance, and goes through the city, weeping and wailing.
Why offer repentance? Hasn't the wrong been done to Mordecai and his people? Mordecai repents because he knows he has wronged God by trying to hide. To borrow the words of John, Mordecai realizes that "friendship with the world is hatred toward God."
When Esther hears about her uncle's behavior, she is mortified. Mordecai is going to give their secret away! She doesn't care what's going on; she just wants him to stop it. She desperately wants to fit in like everyone else, but Mordecai refuses to turn away from his repentance. Finally, at the end of her rope, she sends her attendant to find out what ails the man.
After explaining the situation and the reasons for his actions, Mordecai sends the aid back to Esther with a request: Please go to the king and beg for mercy for your people.
When Esther gets the news, she flinches, thinking, I can't do that. Even I, the queen, can't just sashay in to see the king without his bidding me. And he's been in a funk. A whole month has gone by. He never calls, he never writes—if I go in unbidden, he will kill me. Does my uncle want me to die?
When her concerns are later shared with Mordecai, he delivers one of the great speeches of history: "Do not think that because you are in the king's house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?"
Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: "Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish."
At the risk of racing through this amazing story, let me sum it up quickly and then draw a few conclusions. Esther invites both Haman and the king to a very special banquet. Haman is delighted—proud and puffed up to know he is the only person chosen to attend the gathering alongside the king. His spirits are quickly cooled, however:
Haman went out that day happy and in high spirits. But when he saw Mordecai at the king's gate and observed that he neither rose nor showed fear in his presence, he was filled with rage against Mordecai. Nevertheless, Haman restrained himself and went home.
Calling together his friends and Zeresh, his wife, Haman boasted to them about his vast wealth, his many sons, and all the ways the king had honored him and how he had elevated him above the other nobles and officials. "And that's not all," Haman added. "I'm the only person Queen Esther invited to accompany the king to the banquet she gave. And she has invited me along with the king tomorrow. But all this gives me no satisfaction as long as I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the king's gate."
His wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, "Have a gallows built, seventy-five feet high, and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai hanged on it. Then go with the king to the dinner and be happy."
This suggestion delighted Haman, and he had the gallows built.
That very night, however, the king cannot sleep. To pass the time, he orders his servants to read to him from the historical records of his reign as king. As he listens, he hears a story about a Jew named Mordecai. It's a story of Mordecai's heroism—one that I have not yet discussed. You see, just after Esther was made queen, an assassination plot against the Xerxes was put together by two of his servants. Having overheard their plans, Mordecai warned Esther, who then warned the king. The king's life was spared!
When King Xerxes discovers Mordecai's unrewarded heroism, he decides to honor him. In fact, the king asks Haman how best to honor someone. Haman, thinking it's him the king is seeking to honor, holds nothing back: Dress him in royal robes and the kingly crest; give him a parade through the streets!
And in a humiliating moment, the king asks Haman to do just that—for Mordecai.
The next day, at the banquet, the king asks Esther if there are any requests he can grant. Hers is a simple one: Spare my people!
The queen then goes on to reveal Haman's plot against the Jews. The king is furious and goes outside to cool down. Meanwhile, Haman falls on the queen, pleading for mercy. As he begs, the king comes in, gets the wrong idea, and orders Haman hung—on the very gallows he constructed for Mordecai! The king then issues a new decree: Jews can fight back. When the day of slaughter arrives, the Jews survive.
The people of God do not succeed in a pagan world by hiding their true identity.
Let's draw out a few lessons for here and now.
The first lesson is the people of God do not succeed in a pagan world by hiding their true identity. There have been many recent studies of the growing influence of the evangelical church in North America—that once we were country bumpkins far from the corridors of power, but now we have high-ranking professors, politicians, medical professionals, lawyers, and rock stars. We count. We rank. We matter. But there tends to be a distinct trend—we attain power mostly by careful image spinning. We don't want to seem too peculiar. We'll trade power for witness. We fall prey to the temptation to keep our Christian convictions and identity muted.
It is interesting to note that in the story of Esther, the people of God become more influential as they step out of hiding and into their true identity. I think that's also true of the church. We have greater influence on our culture when we live out our true identity as a peculiar people. The church has always made the greatest impact when it has been willing to walk in its true identity before God. If you doubt that, look at the church in the persecuted countries today. Though you burn their churches and imprison their deacons and torture their pastors, they keep getting stronger.
You can win a pagan king's heart by conforming to the beauty standards of the age, but it may take you further away from having a heart after God.
The second lesson is that you can win a pagan king's heart by conforming to the beauty standards of the age, but it may take you further away from having a heart after God. Esther submits to a full year of beauty treatments in the king's care. She wants to fit in. She wants to win the king's affections. So she dresses herself up just like every other young girl. She beats them at their own game.
Here's my definition of fashion: a form of peer pressure where everybody simultaneously wants to stand out and at the same time, conform. It's where you want to look like everyone else, but uniquely. Esther wants to look like all the other glamour queens, only better. When Mordecai shows up dressed in the clothing of the repentant Jew, she's mortified. His dress gives him away; it's not "in vogue." This is not what GQ has set as the leading edge of male fashion.
Ladies, if you want to win the pagan hearts of men—that part of us that is far from God—dress like Britney Spears. It works! But I fear the cost for all of us. It doesn't help women or men get closer to the heart of the true King. In fact, the more we conform to the fickle and sensual whims of fashion, the more embarrassed we are by anything that might make us look peculiar.
A clear teaching of Scripture is that we're to clothe ourselves in Jesus Christ and his virtues. The beauty of character should catch the eye of those around us—not our physical adornment. A slavish devotion to the fashion only obscures those deeper beauties. First Peter 3:3-5 puts it this way: "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful."
Loveliness shines brightest in the garb of modesty. Manliness walks tallest in the garb of simplicity. Can we resolve to help each other get closer to the King of King's heart by refusing to conform to the fashions that are designed to win the pagan king's heart?
We have an enemy who is out to destroy us, and no amount of hiding will save us.
The final lesson is that we have an enemy who is out to destroy us, and no amount of hiding will save us. A day comes when we've got to stand, be counted, and fight to defend what we've been entrusted with.
Consider the moment when Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman. This is the point when Mordecai must become peculiar. Some preachers compare Mordecai's actions to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego's refusal to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar's 90-foot golden idol in the Book of Daniel. They claim Mordecai realizes his compromises have led him to the edge of idolatry, but he wakes up. I don't think that's the issue, though. The problem isn't idolatry. To understand Mordecai's refusal, we need a bit of a history lesson.
A thousand years prior to the events of Esther, Moses was leading the people of Israel through Rephidim. Amalekite warriors were waiting for them, crouching among the gaunt landscape, slipping amidst its stark shadows. As Israel came near, they struck.
Moses appointed Joshua to lead the army of God, and then he climbed a mountain where he stood, simply holding his hands in the air. When Moses' hands were aloft, the battle was Israel's to win; whenever his strength failed, causing his hands to drop, the battle swung in the Amalekite's favor. Finally, Aaron and Hur stood alongside Moses, holding up his arms. Though the battle was long, bloody, and gruelling, Joshua and the army of Israel prevailed:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven."
Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. He said, "For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation."
The Amalekites attacked Israel without cause. They attacked them when they were exposed and vulnerable. They attacked them when they posed no threat. They attacked them for the sheer sport of it. Because of this, the Amalekites became the bane of Israel. They represent all those who hate and oppose the people and purposes of God. They were a human embodiment of the Evil One himself. God declared perpetual war on them.
Jump to 1 Samuel 15 and the story of Israel's first king, Saul. God ordered Saul to destroy everyone and everything that belonged to the enemy, but Saul disobeyed. He and his army kept some of the spoils for themselves. They even let Agag live, the enemies' king. For Saul's failure to heed divine decree, God stripped him of his royal authority.
Saul appears to be humane and fair-minded, while God seems to be a barbaric, ruthless deity. However, the picture shifts dramatically the moment you hear the name of the enemy—the Amalekites, Israel's perpetual enemy and the people God has declared war against.
Now move ahead to our story in Esther. There is one tiny but significant detail given to us as readers when we're introduced to Haman. Here is his full title: Haman, son of Hamedatha, the Agagite. He is a descendant of King Agag, the ancient king of the Amalekites! Haman embodies all that God has declared war against. God has declared war for good cause. Remember what the text said:
When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai's people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai's people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.
Haman was an Amalekite—someone who hates God and God's people without cause. Haman is an enemy, but even more so, he embodies the enemy. No amount of concealing ourselves and conforming ourselves will protect us in the end.
We have an enemy that seeks to destroy us, and we need to be on our guard. Peter warns us that the devil roams around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. He further counsels: "Resist him, and he will flee." Paul likewise writes how "our fight is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers," and the only defense is to put on the armor of God and take our stand.
We should know we will never win a pagan culture by mimicking it and all it values. The strongest influence we can bring in these God-desperate times is to simply be peculiar—to be, with neither pride nor apology, Christ-followers.
Maybe you've come to the kingdom for such a time as this.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.