That was the message of the prophets. The Old Testament is full of the witness and testimony of prophet after prophet speaking the truth and wisdom of God to a people wandering in the wilderness of uncertainty, struggle, war, violence, political upheaval, division, and unrest. Sound like any situation or time in history you know of?
Prophets in the ancient world, were called to deliver messages from God, tradition marked them as preeminent bearers of the divine word. Hebrew prophets rarely, if ever, merely warned or gave advice; they spoke the divine word with authority. Some biblical authorities state that the phrase “the word of the God spoke / came to…” occurs some 2,000 times in the Old Testament alone. It was the way God revealed God’s self, rule, law, way, and expectations to God’s people. They weren’t magicians or fortune tellers. They were ones identified by God and others to have a special connection, depth, and intercession with God and had authority to speak divine messages to the people of God. You probably know or are familiar with the big guns of the Old Testament prophets. Those known as the major prophets - guys like: Isiah, Jerimiah, Ezekial, and Daniel. Lesser known are some of the minor prophets - folks like: Obadiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Zechariah, and Malachi.
Zechariah was a prophet in Jerusalem around the time of 520 - 518 B.C. He lived and ministered during one of the lowest points in the experience of the Hebrew people throughout the whole biblical period. Some 66 years earlier, the city of Jerusalem had been defeated by the armies of Babylon and its temple had been destroyed, desecrated. Large numbers of Jerusalem’s population were exiled to live in the labour camps, others escaped and settled in foreign countries. Only a few remained in the promised land; devoid of any leadership, they survived, but they had neither the vision nor the will to retain the vitality of faith which used to be celebrated. By the time Zechariah comes on the scene, the Persian Empire has taken control, defeating the Babylon armies. Cyrus, the Persian Emperor, made it possible for Jewish exiles to return. Of those who returned home, a few seemed to have set about the task of restoring the temple which had been destroyed. The problem was, there was no money to rebuild. The economy was bad, supplies were low, and a lot of believers thought it better to just let it crumble and forget about rebuilding (Craigie 133-34).
When the people had given up on rebuilding the place of worship they began to cling to the practices, rituals, and rules of the church. So much so that they began to hold the practices (fasting, prayer) in higher esteem than the One who gave them. They focussed so much on looking and sounding like a church - going through the motions to make themselves look and feel like church, that they lost sight of what made them church in the first place (Craigie 189-91).
Zechariah steps in and boldly reminds them as so many of the prophets did for generations before him. Zechariah challenges the people of God just a few verses earlier by asking, “Do you do this (fasting) for yourselves or for God?” It isn’t the rules and practices that make a people a church. It’s the presence of God’s love in the hearts of the people and how that love is made manifest through acts of compassion - compassion to see the suffering of others and take action as Jesus modeled later in the New Testament. It’s the ability to empathize with the “other” and feel compelled to reduce their suffering as Jesus did. It is different from mercy. Mercy is a gift given or offered out of compassion - Compassion is a tangible expression of God’s love to the suffering. It wasn’t that what they were doing was wrong but they were doing it for the wrong reason.
One of the powerful things about Zechariah’s message is that it did not remain in the Old Testament. It is quoted seventy one times in the New Testament (tabulation from the appendices to The Greek New Testament, ed. Kurt Aland et al, Third Edition (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1983). Primarily in the gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John speak of God’s message through Jesus. What is that message? It is this: “Treat one another justly. Love your neighbors. Be compassionate with each other. Don’t take advantage of widows, orphans, visitors, and the poor. Don’t plot and scheme against one another.”
Zechariah reminds us that we are not commanded to like or agree with what someone is doing, how they live, or the choices they make but we are commanded to be love in the midst of even our differences. We are not commanded to have all the answers before we “go and make disciples,” or understand the complexities of every situation but we are commanded to be love wherever we are with all that we are with all that we have. Who are the widow / widowers among us? Are they included, remembered, and cared for? Who are the orphans (those without loving, safe, or healthy families - those with no place to call home)? Are they seen? Are they safe and provided for? Who are the strangers (visitors, outsiders, aliens in a strange land)? Are they welcome? Are they heard and accepted?
Without a solid understanding of compassion, we can’t be the church. Without fully committing ourselves to being love, we do not and cannot have the compassion of God, who is love. Be love church. Don’t overthink it. Don’t over complicate it. Don’t conditionalize it. Don’t demand it in return. Be it - be love and trust the Holy Spirit will take care of the transforming, healing, unifying, renewing, and rebuilding that follows. Be love. In the name of Love himself, Jesus. Amen
Pastor Jenothy Irvine
New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VII