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JULY 6, 2008: Fourteenth Sunday of the Year


Zechariah 9:9-10
Romans 8:9, 11-13
Matthew 11:25-30

A popular saying of the 70s stated, "When you're up to your waste in alligators, it's hard to remember your original plan was to drain the swamp."

Often it's difficult to keep our original plan in front of our eyes. We often give in to the immediate problem, even when the solution to that particular need runs counter to our original plan. We start working on alligator eradication and forget about swamp draining. This happens even with our faith.

There's a good theological reason the four evangelists quote today's Zechariah passage when they describe Jesus' triumphant Holy Week entrance into Jerusalem. Nowhere else do they mention Jesus' mode of transportation.

But in those narratives they deliberately tell us he's riding a donkey as he comes down from the Mount of Olives and enters the Holy City. Each writer quotes at least some of Zechariah's oracle: "Your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass."

If the gospel authors had included the prophet's next line or two, the "donkey thing" would have been easier for us to understand. "He shall banish the chariot from Ephriam, and the horse from Jerusalem; the warrior's bow shall be banished, and he shall problem peace to the nations."

The concept of Messiah constantly changes throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Each Jewish generation expected the Messiah to possess the leadership characteristics they most needed during their day and age.  During Jesus' earthly ministry his people wanted a Messiah who would throw out the occupying Romans. They expected him to arrive triumphantly one day in Jerusalem riding a horse, a weapon of war.

By coming astride a donkey, Jesus is agreeing with his 6th century BCE prophetic predecessor who puts his Messiah on an animal of peace. In other words, no matter how many alligators are in the swamp, the swamp is still going to be drained. Only by being a Messiah of peace will Jesus definitely give his people the non-war tools to rid themselves of any occupation, even after the Roman Empire has disappeared.

Perhaps only a dedicated few are actually able to direct their lives and actions by Jesus' long-term faith. Paul refers to such individuals as being "in the spirit." He reminds the Roman church, "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life also through his Spirit dwelling in you." The Apostle, from his own experience, knows how difficult it is for Christians not to give in to their immediate needs, and by so doing, destroy the long term faith which guided Jesus' own life and ministry.

Matthew's Jesus presents this same concept in somewhat different terms. "Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever, you have revealed to the merest children." Only Jesus' long range solution to our everyday difficulties will definitely get rid of those difficulties. "Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. And you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light."

Those "merest children" have doggedly continued to exist throughout church history, even after "the learned and clever" developed our current norms for a just war. Those few "radical Christians" are the remnant in our midst who witness to what Jesus originally meant for us to do with the swamp.