The Hidden Self – Rev. David M Bryce
Some years ago while working as a chaplain at a hospital I shared with the other chaplains that I had a history of drug use. Later one of them praised my courage in sharing this information about past. But I had worked as a substance abuse counselor for well over a decade; being open about one’s history of use was standard; I thought nothing of it. So we have different interpretations of what it means to share.
And we have different tolerances for self-revelation.
Have you ever met someone who, on your first social meeting with them, blurted out all kinds of things about themselves that you would prefer not to know?
There is a phrase used quite commonly these days that goes: “That’s a little too much information.”. And there are people who give too much information too quickly.
Though I am open about parts of my history, there are things about myself that I hide from other people. There are some things about myself that I hide from other people at least temporarily, until such time that I know it is safe to reveal them.
And I both expect and want other people to act in the same way, though our social rules on that are not terribly clear. What is too little and what is too much?
On the other hand, we know that it is damaging for the soul to be forced to keep parts of one’s self secret; that there is sometimes a loss of wholeness that comes when we have to hide who we are.
Is it ever right to hide one’s true self, or an important part of one’s true identity?
The book of Esther speaks to that question.
Around 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered Judah and carried off its people, “the Jews” into the Babylonian Captivity or the Babylonian Exile.
About fifty years later, in 539 BCE, thePersian Empireconquered the Babylonians, and so the Jews were now living under Persian rule.
Artaxerxes I (called Ahasueras in the story) ruledPersiafrom 465 to 424 BCE. That is the time of the story told in the book of Esther.
Now the Book of Esther has two versions. There was an ancient ten chapter Hebrew version then, later, a translation of the Hebrew into Greek. That Greek translation has sixteen chapters; there is additional material that was added.
If you grew up reading the Jewish writings or the Protestant Bible, you probably read the ten chapter version. If you grew up reading the Catholic Bible, you read the sixteen chapter version.
I will be talking about the original ten chapter story.
King Ahasueras gave a banquet for his court and called for his queen, Vashti, to come present herself to his guests because he desires to show off her beauty. There is some thought among scholars that this presentation implied a disrobing.
Vashti refused to do the kings bidding. She was indignant and said no.
Now this greatly displeased the king—this guy had life and death power over anyone and here was a woman defying him. And his advisors said to him, “This is not just about you and the Queen”. They were concerned that if the Queen was able to get away with this, then throughout the empire every woman would defy her husband—and that, of course, would be terrible. So they suggested to Ahasueras that he banish Vashti from ever being in the royal presence again.
So now Ahasueras needed a new queen. His advisors suggested that he gather together all of the young virgins of the empire and that each one of them spend a night with him, that each have an audition, as it were.
Now the king allowed as how this was a good idea, and so all of the young virgins of the Empire were gathered together and among them was a young woman named Esther. Esther was the cousin of Mordechai, who had raised her because her parents were dead. And she was a good child and obeyed him in everything he told her to do.
When she was called into the harem, Mordecai told her not to reveal that she was Jewish and so she did not. Now, we all know that it is damaging to the soul to hide things about yourself, we know that it hurts and that it is difficult to live “in the closet”, but Esther did so.
Esther was pleasing to the king and was chosen to be his new Queen.
Haman was the chief advisor to the king and he developed a hatred for the Jews and so he planned the extermination of the Jews.
Mordechai found out about Haman’s plot and sent word to Esther saying, “Now is time, you must act to save your people”.
InPersiain those days it was tradition in the court that if you walked in on the king uninvited, there was an immediate death sentence unless the king raised his scepter towards you indicating that you were welcome. So when Mordechai told Esther to act, she sent back word saying, “You don’t understand, I cannot simply walk in on the king”. Mordechai responded by saying to Esther, “Don’t think that if they kill the Jews you will be safe”. He then goes on to say that if she does not act, help may come from elsewhere, but that it may be for just this time that she was put in her position as queen.
Esther then tells Mordechai to gather the Jews of Susa, the capital ofPersia, to fast and pray. She says that she will do what she can and, “If I die, I die”.
Esther walks in on the king and he raises his scepter towards her. She then invites both the King and Haman to come to a banquet the following night. At the banquet she invites them to come to yet another banquet on the next night.
At this second banquet the king asks her what she wants and she tells him that someone is out to kill her and her people. He asks who is doing this, and she says it is Haman; by saying this she reveals herself to be a Jew. The king becomes outraged at Haman, the Jews are saved, and Haman is punished instead.
This story contains both a “hidden self”, (Esther hiding that she is Jewish) and a hidden God. God is never named in the ten chapter version of this book. There is only the vague reference to him that help may come and that Esther may be in her current position for this reason. Other than that vague reference, this is a book of human action, not God’s action.
Esther has courage. She does say to Mordechai that she could die, and she seems to hesitate to bring the subject before the king, having two banquets before she does so. But when the time comes, she is willing to give her life. So she has courage.
But she uses discernment. She does not challenge the authority of the king as does Vashti. Instead, she awaits the right time and circumstance to seek what she wants. This challenges the thinking of those of us–like me–who sometimes believe that confrontation now is always the right step. In the case of Esther, it is her cunning and careful consideration that wins the day.
She chooses the moment to reveal who she is and in doing so makes the revelation powerful.
A Few years ago, Maureen Dowd wrote a column about the struggle for gay rights titled, “The number is one”. She was saying that it is sometimes easy for people to deny rights to “them” over there. It is easy to deny rights to “Gays and Lesbians”—or anyone else–if they are a nameless, formless, faceless mass of people “over there”; just some “them”. But it is not as easy when “them” has a single face. It is not as easy when one is talking about Aunt Joan or Cousin Charlie or good friend Francis. Should gays have rights? To that question many people can say, “No”. Should Aunt Joan have rights? That puts a different twist on it; it puts a face to it.
We can also ask questions like: should we use profiling to catch terrorists? Many people will find it easy to answer that question affirmatively. But it is much more difficult when the question is, “Should my friend Rashid be pulled out of line and strip searched every time he boards a plane”, or “Should my son-in-law Alim be stopped by the police and questioned every time he walks downtown”. Putting a name and a face to the question affects the answer.
Ahasueras was perfectly willing to let the Jews be slaughtered until he recognized that “the Jews” included his beloved wife Esther.
But in order for that to happen, in order for people to be swayed in that way, individuals must sometimes know when to reveal the truth about themselves. They must sometimes know when to use the quiet voice of truth to say, “I am a Jew” or, “I am gay” or “I am a Muslim” or “I am whatever category of people you are now disparaging”. That requires that there be a relationship and that may mean waiting to reveal one’s identity.
The story says that there is other hidden power as well, that unexpected help can come from unlikely sources.
A few years ago I was reading stories about the movement for civil rights for African Americans. There was a story by one young man— he was young when the events happened over forty years ago—who took part in a sit-in at a lunch counter in the south. Now the people who engaged in these sit-ins were spat upon, hit, punched, and often arrested. At one point this young man looked up and saw what he described as “an old white woman” coming towards him. He thought, “Oh, here comes another slap or insult”. Instead, she put a cup of coffee in front of him, and said “I’m proud of you boys; this should have happened years ago”. He described that as the most uplifting thing he experienced during the entire civil rights movement.
She put herself in jeopardy in taking that act; she aligned herself with the civil rights workers. She didn’t yell and scream; she didn’t jump up and down; she just did a simple act of kindness. And in that moment she said to all of the other people in that luncheonette, “They’re right; I’m with them; hate them, hate me, that’s fine”; and she also gave courage to those engaged in the sit-in. What power in that small act!
Esther begins this story as a young virgin. Now I’m speculating here, but at that time, and in that culture, women were married at age 13 or so. So Esther is 13 to 16 at the latest, probably closer to 13. She is a child by our standards. And she begins as a child; she obeys everything Mordechai says, as a good child should.
But she ends as the primary character. This thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old girl shows a depth of personal strength and courage. Whereas she began by obeying Mordecai, she ends by telling him what to do – gather the Jews together, fast and pray for me.
The story tells us that there is hidden strength within every person, and—remembering the time of the story—it says that even women and children have strength. It reminds us of the strength that exists in people whom we might dismiss.
For those of us who believe in divinity, the story implies that even when we cannot see its workings, the divine power is in fact guiding events.
More than that, it speaks to the hidden strength within our selves, within my heart and yours.
What courage lies within us? What depth of moral virtue and of spiritual strength lies within us? We may not know our own strength and power; we may not know the power of even the quiet words that we speak in our lives: “I support you”; “I am proud of you”; “I trust you”; “I welcome you”; “I love you”. Quiet words; powerful words
The lessons of this story, if we choose to listen to them, are:
Do not confuse conflict and confrontation with courage. It is not always the loud, brash voice that sways others; sometimes that has the opposite effect. It is often the quiet voice of revelation that convinces others, that opens the heart of others.
Do not confuse discernment with lack of courage; knowing when to act is important.
But do not confuse inaction with wisdom. Too often we rationalize our inaction and pretend that it is wisdom and discernment. There are times to wait, and there are times to act. Reading the signs of the times is not easy,
Whatever our path through life, when times of trouble come, may we find strength within ourselves, may we find strength flowing to us from others, may we open to kindness and support no matter its source. And when the time comes, may we be willing to give kindness and support no matter its cost.
So let it be.