Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Zechariah 9:9-17) transports me to the heart of the largest empire in ancient history, the Achaemenid, aka Persian Empire. The Persian King, Cyrus the Great, had allowed 50,000 Jews to return to the Promised Land from exile. They were a chastised lot, returning to rubble and ruin. As the pitiable people tried to find their way in the midst of the most grandiose display of power the world had ever known, the prophet spoke a word of hope. He envisioned a coming king who would not only restore the fortunes of the promised land, but would extend his peaceable kingdom to all the world, from sea to shining sea, from the the great river to the ends of the earth.
Had it ever reached earshot of the castle, such a prophecy would have been preposterous to Cyrus, enthroned there on a majestic Persian rug with a Persian cat purring in his lap. But he didn’t know the half of it. The prophet was not simply dreaming of a day when the tides of world power would shift with a Hebrew general rising to power and engineering a coup d’état. The vision of Zechariah involved as much an overthrow of expectations as it did an overthrow of an administration. The people expected God to send a conquering messianic hero, a new David, one day. But Zechariah saw the new conqueror coming not in David’s military glory, but as a humble servant, gentle, lowly, mounted on a donkey instead of a steed.
We might be tempted to see Zechariah employing a familiar literary device here, the incognito king, the ruler in disguise. It’s a theme found throughout folktales and dramas from Homer to Shakespeare to Kipling to Tolstoy to Twain. The king goes away and trades the royal robe for the rags of a beggar, to get a truer look at what the kingdom is all about and what his subjects are up to. But I think Zechariah is doing something different, something far more radical, in his prophecy. He is not showing the king in peasant disguise; he is showing the king as he truly is. He is showing where real power lies, and where false power lies. This peasant king comes in on the donkey and heads straight for the national guard armory, where he proceeds to vandalize and destroy all the instruments of false power the faith community has stockpiled. It’s like the Berrigan brothers breaking into the Naval shipyard and smashing the navigational equipment for nuclear bombs.
This donkey-riding king destroys the tools of war and then proceeds to conquer the world. With what? With a spiritual power that far exceeds the power of the chariot and horse and bow and bomb. The gospel writers named that radical power – agape – sacrificial love. It is a power that counters all the grandiosity of world power. The prophet is placing all his hope in the power of this humble, bottom-up work of transformation. He is captivated by this hope – he says he is a prisoner of hope, reminding us of the line of the old hymn, Oh love, that will not let me go. . . In spite of all the evidence that the Achaemenid Empire was unconquerable, he hoped.
If we immerse ourselves in the prophetic vision, we, too will be imprisoned by hope. Against all the logic that says we must arm ourselves against the current threat of Achaemenid terror – (flowing out of Ahmadinejad’s Iran, today’s Persia) – the hope of a different weaponry will not let us go. Contrary to all the cultural cries for a strong defense, the hope of a different defense strategy will not let us go. Interestingly enough, we are living in a day and age when this hope might become part of the realpolitik, the political realism of strategic thinkers in the Pentagon as well as in the pulpits. Jonathon Schell, in his book The Unconquerable World, argues forcefully that the day of fighting fire with fire is over. Military leaders cannot expect to defeat modern day perpetrators of violence with violence; to try to do so only fuels the fire. Violence, which has always been a mark of human failure, has now also become dysfunctional as a political instrument. Schell also illustrates quite clearly the power of the prophet’s hope, the dream of nonviolent revolution, which has in fact conquered and toppled many a tyrant and overthrown many a repressive regime in recent decades without spilling blood or firing a shot.
It’s not an easy hope. As a more contemporary Cyrus the Great reminds us, it’s gonna be an uphill battle. . . keep moving, keep climbing, keep the faith. And the vision ends by giving us a glimpse at what’s on the other side of that mountain we’re climbing – grain will make the young men thrive, and wine the young women. Oh love that will not let me go. . . L’chaim!