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Esther. A story that is near and dear to my heart. What can we learn from Esther this week?
Most people know the basic story of Esther. She was a Jew who became the Persian queen. The Persian king was tricked into ordering a genocide against the Jews. Esther was brave and stood before the king (at the peril of her life) and pleaded on behalf of the Jews. He acquiesced, and the Jews were saved.
One of the things that stuck out to me during this particular reading is the amount of times that the book of Esther talks about their clothes. It mentions clothing, adornments, and apparel multiple times. There were times of royal clothing and times of simpler clothing, but it gets mentioned quite frequently and holds a lot of symbolism.
One of the clothing incidents occurred with Mordecai, Esther’s uncle who placed her in a position where she could save the Jews.
Mordecai and ashes
After the king’s royal decree regarding the genocide of the Jews, Mordecai switched up his wardrobe for a bit.
1 When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry;
2 And came even before the king’s gate: for none might enter into the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.
3 And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
Sackcloth and ashes were a meaningful ritual that Jews sometimes used. Essentially, Mordecai ripped his clothing and put on sackcloth. Sackcloth is a material that could be used for sacks (how appropriate); it was very similar to burlap. Sometimes it was made of goat hair. It was very uncomfortable. The Jew wearing the sackcloth would then sprinkle ashes (or dust) over their heads. This ritual was used to signal deep mourning on the part of the wearer. Mordecai was obviously mourning because there was a decree of death sentenced over him and all his people.
Interestingly enough, sackcloth and ashes doesn’t just represent mourning; it also represents repentance.
Sackcloth and repentance
Sackcloth was also something worn during a time of repentance. For example, King David wore it after the incident with Bathsheba. Sackcloth not only helped bring about some extra humility, but sackcloth also had some symbolic meaning.
Sackcloth is uncomfortable. The wearer would usually put it on themselves. Sackcloth was usually worn temporarily, and afterwards you could put on more comfortable clothes.
As far as we know, the bible does not indicate that Mordecai had anything to repent of when he chose to put on sackcloth. His specific purpose for sackcloth was mourning. However, could it be that Mordecai was repenting all the same? Though I believe the trend is slowly changing, we have been bred to believe that repentance is saying sorry, making up for what you did wrong, and not sinning again. Repentance is so much more than that. Repentance steps beyond recompense; repentance is getting better even when you’re not bad.
There comes a moment when Mordecai pleads with Esther to step up and reveal that she is a Jew. Mordecai tells Esther that deliverance will come to the Jews with or without her, but he asks her to be the method of deliverance even if it puts her life at risk.
Mordecai had raised Esther as his daughter. Perhaps Mordecai never faltered in his decision to encourage Esther to step forward, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a hard decision anyway. Regardless of whether Mordecai had his mind made up from the very beginning, there was growth to be had. Mordecai was not repenting of some great sin, but he was taking a huge step in faith. He had a belief in God, but he had most likely never seen God. Encouraging his “daughter” to step forward at the peril of her life required his faith in a God that he believed in. Mordecai repented, changed, stepped up. Mordecai grew when he took that step of faith.
A refusal to change
Let’s keep this idea of Mordecai’s growth and repentance in mind.
So in the story, Mordecai rents his clothes and puts on a sackcloth. If you keep reading, you learn that Esther is troubled when she hears that Mordecai has put himself in this discomfort, and she sends him clothes. Considering the fact that she’s queen, I would imagine that they were comfortable and nice. Interestingly enough, Mordecai refuses the clothing from Esther. He chooses to stay in uncomfortable clothing.
Repentance is uncomfortable. Whether you’re attempting to overcome a sin or working your way through a trial and growing, it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes there are ways out of this discomfort (or in some cases, real suffering). It would be so much easier to just give in to an old habit. It would be so much easier if Mordecai had bowed to Haman. It would be so much easier to surround ourselves with worldly things so that we don’t have to look in the mirror or feel the emptiness of it all. It would be so much easier to skip the sackcloth all together.
But the sackcloth is crucial. The sackcloth and discomfort and pain were always part of the plan, and they were always necessary. The discomfort is a prod. You have to dig down and really feel the discomfort to the extent that you are able to change.
Please do not take this principle to the extreme. Do not beat yourself up. Do not berate yourself in an attempt to scare yourself into never sinning again. It does not work. It does the opposite actually. There is still more symbolism in this story.
After Mordecai wears the sackcloth and passes through the trial, he is given royal apparel to wear two times (that we know of). The first time, Mordecai is honored for his role in saving the king’s life from an assassination attempt. The second time he was given royal apparel was when he left the presence of the king after Esther saved the Jews. He wore blue, white, and purple, and he even wore a crown.
The royal apparel is also an important part of repentance. Yes. You read that right. The good stuff is also an important part of the process of changing. It’s not just the reward at the end of repenting; it is part of repenting.
Mordecai did not stay in sackcloth forever. He donned beautiful clothing and had his great moments. It’s really easy to point out how Mordecai must have grown through this great trial and leap of faith, but did he not also grow (and repent!) afterwards as well? I can imagine that as he placed those clothes on his body, he must have felt a deep gratitude towards our Savior for sparing his people. That happy moment of gratitude was not just the reward; it was part of the repentance. It was the seal that would encourage Mordecai to endure and be faithful again.
It would be so much harder to repent or act in faith if it was a terrible experience all the way through. Why on earth would we want to do it again? Let yourself feel forgiven or proud of the way you endured. Let yourself feel gratitude. Enjoy and cherish the moments at the end of the repentance and growth period because that is the moment that will make you want to keep repenting.
I am grateful for a Savior who allows the process of repentance to play out for me. I’m glad that He commands me to repent, and I’m grateful that He has taught me that repentance is not just penance. It includes feelings of awe, humility, gratitude, and healing. At the end of this story, Mordecai stands next to the king. He not only wears the royal apparel, but he acts as a royal. He has power and influence, and he uses it for peace. I’m grateful for a Heavenly Father who will not only give me a nice place to live but also a life worth living. I’m grateful that my Savior enabled my Heavenly Father to give me those gifts.