Fourteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Hunter preaches on the prophecy of Zechariah of a king riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Most of us prefer to surround ourselves with people who agree with us and who tell us that what we’re doing is right and good. We recognise that it would be better for us to have around us someone who would tell the truth about us, challenge us, help us to face our faults and mistakes, but most of us are not brave enough for that.
And it was ever thus. The rulers of the Jewish people prefered the false prophets, who told them what they wanted to hear, to the true prophets who told them what was uncomfortable and disturbing and, unfortunately for them, true. They preferred flattery to the hard sayings of prophets which might actually have helped them.
The true prophets were often persecuted, at least until people realised they were telling the truth. I expect that, humanly speaking, the reason the true prophets’ writings ended up being preserved was because events proved them true.
Today’s first reading from the prophecy of Zechariah, though, is not so much bad news as strange news. It might, indeed, look like good news, but not at all the sort of good news that would make any ruler feel comfortable.
Earthly rulers, with a few notable exceptions, believe in symbols of power. They might expect a king who is victorious, triumphant, to enter on a war horse, with a great retinue. The king in the prophecy comes riding on a donkey, on the colt, the foal of a donkey.
Most earthly rulers trust for their security in strength of arms. The king in the prophecy banishes chariots from Ephraim, horses from Jerusalem, banishes the bow of war. Most think that they must defend their borders, not thinking realistic a rule that stretches to earth’s bounds; even if that is what they desire, they think it will come through conquest and war, not through ‘peace for the nations’.
Why did people preserve such a prophecy? Certainly not because they could understand how such a world could come about. The situation it speaks of was so foreign to the situation Israel found itself in that it could hardly be taken seriously as a realistic prospect.
Our situation is not so very different; it is not possible humanly to see how this prophecy could begin to come true. Every hope that humanity could somehow lift itself out of the mire, that nations could be friends, truly at peace, has shown itself to be the most naieve sort of optimism.
Yet, the world spoken of in the prophecy chimed in with Israel’s own self-understanding.
Some boast of chariots and horses, [wrote the Psalmist,] but we in the name of the Lord.
That was because the Israelites knew, again from their Psalms, that
The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
Conventional wisdom said that security came with a mountain fastness. But Israel knew that citadels and strongholds were not the ultimate way to safety, and that Israel’s safety would be assured rather when every mountain was laid low. Israel was a small nation amongst mighty nations, but the Israelites knew their strength was not in numbers.
At its best, Israel hung onto the knowledge that the plan of God was not like the plans of the nations. God’s plan hardly looked like a plan at all. From a human point of view, God’s way of going about things often seemed foolishness, the very opposite of what people ordinarily think will bring success.
But time and time again, Israel saw that its hope lay in this strange god, not a god made in their own image but rather a God who confronted them with what it was possible for human beings to be.
Today’s Gospel is no different. Jesus brings freedom. We might expect that will involve that he will ‘break every yoke’, as God tells us through Isaiah to do. Human wisdom tells us that freedom is a solitary thing, me against the world, refusing to submit to those who would control me. As in so many things, it takes the foolishness of God to teach us that true freedom is to be had through being yoked to Christ.