An essential part of biblical exegesis revolves around putting oneself in the place of the sacred author's original readers. We must remember that we're "reading someone else's mail."

This is especially true when we hear Sunday's three readings, in particular, the Gospel.

Almost everyone longs for peace. Only the most demented want war, and the insecurity and suffering it brings. Presuming this, our sacred authors have just one question: "How do we achieve peace?"

Seeking peace

Though scholars can't pinpoint the exact period in which the prophet Zechariah is active, it's clear he and his people have recently come out of a time of pain and turmoil. He wants to make certain they'll never have such an experience again (Zech 9: 9-10).

The prophet's only hope is that Yahweh will send an ideal king: someone who will ride not a horse (a weapon of war), but a harmless donkey; a person who will actually "banish the chariot from Ephraim,...the horse from Jerusalem, (and even) the warrior's bow." This special leader will finally be the one who will "proclaim peace to the nations."

Great sentiments! But there's one problem: Zechariah isn't clear about when this king and his peace are going to arrive. The people simply are to pray, trusting that Yahweh will send him soon.

Here He is

On that point, Zechariah's audience differs greatly from Paul and Matthew's. As followers of Jesus, they believe the ideal leader not only has arrived, but that He's already set in motion a process by which peace can be achieved.

According to Paul, the first step in accomplishing peace is for individuals to become one with the risen Jesus (Rom 8: 9, 11-13). As he writes to the Christian community in Rome, "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 you."

Of course, everyone presumes this new "life" will be a peaceful life.

Yet, Paul and all Jesus' early followers are convinced this ideal state isn't going to happen without our participation. We're not just spectators, sitting in the stands and cheering for our hero. We're the ones actually creating peace around us -- by no longer living "according to the flesh."

"If you live according to the flesh," Paul writes, "you will die; but if by the spirit you put to death the evil deeds of the body, you will live."

In Paul's letter to the Galatians, those who are one with Jesus are one with the risen, not the historical Jesus. They're a completely "new creation." Just as the risen Jesus isn't slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, so the Christian -- the other Christ -- isn't held back by the limits of the "old creation." We're even liberated from the fleshy tactics of revenge, conflict and war.

Just war?

Through the centuries, Christians compromised the faith of Jesus. Giving into the "demands" of the flesh, they actually developed a list of conditions which permitted them to wage a "just" war.

The community for which Matthew writes knows nothing of this compromise. They really believe they're to be people of total peace (Mt 11: 25-30).

Whenever I teach about the early Church's pacifist position, some always object. "It can't be lived," they claim. "A community that won;t take revenge won't exist for long."

Yet it's precisely for Christian pacifists that Matthew quotes Jesus' consoling words, "Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me."

Maybe we modern Christians just don't have the same frame of mind as those to whom they were originally directed.