Though Christianity can't exist unless embodied in a culture, our faith must still stand in judgment on whatever culture gives it flesh and blood. History is filled with examples of Christianity changing the culture which embodies it.

For instance, we originally were content just to apply the teachings of Jesus to the cultural institutions of slavery and segregation. But, eventually, we used our faith to eradicate both. Followers of God always ask when and what to tolerate, and when and what to change.

The prophet Zechariah applies this process to Judaism and its culture. Though the first reading (Zec 9:9-10) is part of a collection of sixth-century B.C.E. prophecies, most commentators date this particular oracle to a period after the conquests of Alexander the Great, 200 years after the preceding chapters.

Who is king?

The prophet addresses a major problem confronting Israelites after the Babylonian Exile: the restoration of the monarchy. Babylonians not only destroyed Jerusalem in 586, but also wiped out the Davidic line of kings. Attempts were made to set up a royal succession after the Exile, but none took hold.

The author of our passage adds a unique twist to the topic. He informs his community, "I have good news, and I have bad news." The good news: We're going to have a king. "He comes to you victorious and triumphant!" The bad news: "He's riding in on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey!" Horses were weapons of war in those days. Non-combatants rode donkeys.

In other words, you're going to have a new, "counter-cultural" king. "He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will he banish. He will proclaim peace for the nations."

That fact that the new leader will be a king and not a democratically elected president springs from culture; that he renounces war comes from faith -- a faith which gradually changes the culture in which it flourishes.

In a similar way, early followers of Jesus realized that at times they also clashed with the culture which gave body to their faith. The authors of the Christian Scriptures often encourage their communities to maintain the distinction between the two.

Paul deals with this issue in the second reading (Rom 8:9,11-13). Contrasting the "spiritual and unspiritual," he urges his readers to give themselves over the "Jesus' Spirit living in you." It's the only way to "give life to your mortal bodies." If we don't live differently from those around us, we'll never achieve the reward Jesus achieved.

Cultural insight

Matthew reflects on the same reality from a different perspective (Mt 11:25-30). "I thank you, Father Lord of heaven and earth," Jesus exclaims, "for hiding these things from the learned and the clever, and revealing them to mere children."

Matthew believes we have an insight into our culture which those without faith haven't attained, an insight which eventually leads Christians to a peace and rest no culture can provide. Yet this insight comes only to those who freely put on Jesus' yoke, those who become totally one with Him.

Like our faith-ancestors, many who are yoked to Jesus today are uncomfortable with some aspects of our modern "Christian" culture. We know we tolerate and participate in practices completely counter to the mind and heart of Jesus. We're fearful, for instance, that, at the turn of the next century, our faith-descendants will look back and wonder why so many of us 20th-century Christians sponsored and took part in competitive events.

Our four Gospel images of Jesus depict a person passionately encouraging His followers to relate to everyone in a loving, cooperative, non-competitive way. Somehow, I suspect Jesus also is quite uncomfortable knowing a college football team bearing His mother's name often is ranked in the nation's top ten.

Competition is from our culture; cooperation and love, from our faith.