Prisoners of Hope

Message for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (7/9/23)

Zechariah 9:9-12

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30



You might recognize the prophecy in our first reading today from another occasion on the church calendar: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! / Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! / Lo, your king comes to you; / triumphant and victorious is he, / humble and riding on a donkey, / on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The prophet Zechariah foretells the arrival of a king for the ages, the one who will bring an end to human hostility once and for all: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim / and the war-horse from Jerusalem; / and the battle bow shall be cut off, / and he shall command peace to the nations; / his dominion shall be from sea to sea, / and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

On Palm Sunday, we hear an echo of this prophecy at the decisive moment in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, his so-called triumphal entry into the city accompanied by crowds of cheering commoners. This is the king we’ve been waiting for, the Gospels insist, this is the one who will rule with humility and establish a true and lasting peace.

We don’t often hear, however, the verses that immediately follow: “As for you [Israel], because of the blood of my covenant with you, / I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. / Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; / today I declare that I will restore to you double.” Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope. This week, I was struck by that image in a way that I never have been before. Why does the prophet call the people of God “prisoners of hope,” I wonder?

Zechariah’s prophecy resembles that of other biblical prophets, but its precise historical context is elusive. It’s not clear exactly which trials the people of Israel are facing at the time of the prophet’s writing, but maybe that’s good news for us. The scope of the prophecy is expanded for Zechariah’s listeners, in his time and in ours. Any crisis might feel like a waterless pit; any difficulty might require God’s intervention; so, any of us might become “prisoners of hope,” waiting on a divine summons back to our “stronghold,” back to a place of refuge and peace.

In other words, this is a prophecy for all of us, like the invitation in today’s Gospel from Matthew: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The word of God is living and active,[1] reverberating down through the ages to reach anyone with a heart to receive it. So, who are “prisoners of hope”? They are all those whom the word of God will not let go, who are captive to God’s promise that conflict and hardship and loss are not all there is, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

And, if imprisonment to hope feels too constricting, consider how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel frames the same idea: “A religious [person] / is [one] who holds God and [humanity] / in one thought at one time, / at all times, / who suffers in [oneself] the harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, / whose greatest strength is love / and defiance of despair.”[2] Imprisonment to hope is defiance of despair. If we are captive to hope, in other words, we will be resistant to hopelessness; we will refuse to yield to the world as it is in fierce defense of the world as it should be. “We must accept finite disappointment,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “but never lose infinite hope.”[3]

Speaking of Kings, Barb King has been calling on my behalf to schedule home visits with some of you. If you’d like to be included on that list, please let her know. This past Wednesday, however, it was Barb’s turn for a visit, and what a joy to sit down with her.

Barb freely admits that she is frustrated with her limited mobility these days, and she frets about slowing her friends and neighbors down. Yet, they insist on keeping her around. And, those of you who’ve had the privilege of talking to Barb know why. Despite her difficulties, she has a way of lighting up a conversation with her good nature, her sense of humor, her natural gratitude. We all have troubles of one kind or another, she said to me, but when we can support each other, it’s good. Barb reminded me that hope goes hand in hand with faith and love in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”[4] So, the other two are possible, she said, “as long as there’s love.”

Barb, I think you’re the kind of person the prophet Zechariah would call a prisoner of hope. And, you’re not the only one. You’re joined by all those whose restless hearts finally find their rest in God,[5] and who, as a result, have a heart for others. To quote Joy J. Moore, you belong to “a people hoping beyond hope that God rescues the perishing, forgives the evildoer, and carries the burdens of the weak. A people [who though] traumatized… still have love… to give.”[6]

Friends, if you count yourself among that people, too, then return to your stronghold. Return to the word of God that won’t let you go, the word that lives in you and acts upon you in order to shape you as people of God. Return to the table where the humble king makes a place for you and for all people, giving us a glimpse of his peaceable kingdom come on Earth as in heaven. Then, go to all the places life leads as a prisoner of hope, that you might capture others, too.

[1] Hebrews 4:12.

[2] I Asked for Wonder, ed. Samuel H. Dresner, 69.

[3] In My Own Words.

[4] 13:13.

[5] Augustine, Confessions, Book 1, Ch. 1.


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