Lectionary blog for July 9
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:8-14;
Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope …” (Zechariah 9:12)

I admit to being a sucker for a well-turned phrase, and there aren’t many phrases in the Bible that are turned better than “prisoners of hope.” It has a wonderfully evocative oxymoronic quality about it. We know what it means to be a prisoner. We know what it means to have hope. We can even imagine what it means to be a prisoner who has hope of being vindicated and released, of being set free of the ties that bind. But what does it mean to be, not a prisoner WITH hope, but a prisoner OF hope?

We remember this text from Palm Sunday. We can’t hear the bit about riding on the foal of a donkey without thinking about Jesus entering Jerusalem and about Holy Week and the spreading of palms in the road and shouts of “Alleluia! Alleluia!” And it’s a little confusing to figure out how to listen to this text here at the beginning of Ordinary Time, when the focus of the other readings is on discipleship and Christian living. Romans talks about the very familiar problem of good intentions and failed outcomes—the normal human struggle between our desire to be saints and our too-often sinful actions. Jesus in the Gospel lesson invites us to a life of service, of taking up the yoke of the kingdom of God, encouraging us by telling us that “his yoke is easy.” But Zechariah seems to be about something else altogether, pushing us back to the coming of the king and calling God’s people “prisoners of hope.”

But what does it mean to be, not a prisoner WITH hope, but a prisoner OF hope?

The word translated “hope” is “tiqveh” in Hebrew. It was seldom used in the prophets. It is occasionally used in wisdom literature, like Proverbs, where it comes across more like “wish” or “longing”—a focus on a desired outcome that is more about us than it is about God. In this view, a “prisoner of hope” is a person so focused on what they want that they are totally incapable of receiving what God wants to give them. (This paragraph influenced by Margaret Odell in Working Preacher.)

The people to whom Zechariah is preaching have been prisoners, living in exile in Babylon. They have, in the last couple of years, returned to Israel. They are not happy; things have not worked out as well as they thought they would. The prophet is warning them not to be limited by the “dreamed for” outcomes they created in the years of waiting to be freed and sent back to the promised land. He is reminding them that God holds the future, and for them to receive what God has in store for them, they must let go of preconceived notions and limiting visions of what they want.

When I was about 4 or 5 years old, there was a big family gathering at my Uncle George’s house. One of my older cousins was getting married, I think. Aunt Dora had outdone herself fixing dinner. The dining room table was covered with a vast array of fine Southern food: fried chicken, baked ham, creamed potatoes, green beans, field peas, greens, tomatoes, cornbread, biscuits, bread, cakes and pies of all descriptions. Just as Uncle George got everyone’s attention and asked the pastor to say grace, I stood on tip-toe, surveyed that cornucopia of succulent delights, and turned to my mother and said, “Mama, I don’t see anything I like!”

As Mama turned red and everyone else laughed, Aunt Dora kindly took me into her pantry and found me a can of pork ’n’ beans and some crackers, and I was happy. I was also a “prisoner of hope.” Instead of opening myself up to what God had to offer me, I kept looking for what I wanted, what I desired, what I hoped for.

This often happens to us in the church. We busy ourselves casting a vision, preparing long-range plans, thinking about what it is WE want OUR church to be. WE want more members. WE want different music. WE want a better preacher. We want and want and want. Before long we will have become “prisoners of hope,” and not in a good way. We will be so enamored of our vision that we will be incapable of seeing the goodness God is putting before us. We will be so loud in talking about what we want that the still, small voice of God will have been drowned out in our midst, and we will no longer hear it or even remember what it sounds like. And all God will hear from us will be various versions of “Mama, I don’t see anything I like!”

But the good news is—God never shuts up. God never stops acting to get our attention. God never goes away. God never leaves us locked up in the prison of our own desires. God stands present to receive us when we come to our senses. God in Christ stands ever before us, with open arms and an open heart, inviting us forward into God’s hope-filled future:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matheww 11:28)

 Amen and amen.

Delmer Chilton
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

Read more about: