Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
In this passage from Luke, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. Jerusalem. Where he will speak truth to power and then lay down his life for his flock. It is how shepherds to this day protect their flock – having moved them into the sheepfold, a sort of U-shaped affair, the shepherd lies down across the entrance to sleep for the night. No one gets in, no one gets out without going through the shepherd.
As he makes his way to Jerusalem, the often castigated Pharisees warn him that Herod is out to get him. Anyone familiar with the four gospels will recognize that Herod has been out to get Jesus since the Magi came looking for the babe in the manger. By the time of this episode we know that Herod slaughtered thousands of innocent children in an effort to kill Jesus. After a family sojourn back in Egypt – of all places – Jesus is still hanging around, making life for that “old fox” Herod, Caesar’s appointed “King of the Jews,” a challenge. Since foxes were considered lesser adversaries than lions, “old fox” is not meant as a compliment! Jesus knows there are greater powers than Herod and says so.
Jesus allows as to how there is still work to be done – casting out demons and performing cures – and then it is to Jerusalem: “that city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” Jerusalem – literally “city of peace – city of shalom” – has been a problem for some time. The cultic center of the universe for ancient Israel, the appointed altar for all appointed sacrifices to the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus, had long been under the political and religious control of the priestly caste and upper classes. God’s own opinion writers like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel and others had long issued the warning that too much attention was being paid to what amounted to expensive sacrifices for most of God’s people, and not enough attention paid to the heart of the covenant – making sure that those without resources like the poor, widows, orphans and resident (undocumented) aliens are taken care of by the community.
A covenant that hearkens back to the 15th chapter of Genesis where we find God in God’s mercy attempting to give Abram the hope he has already lost. Abram has left home, and at his advanced age still has no male heir. “Do not be afraid,” are the first words God speaks to Abram in a vision. “Just look at the stars in the heavens and count them if you are able! So shall your descendants be! And, I shall make you and your descendants a blessing for all the peoples of the Earth!”
“O Lord, how am I to know?” says Abram. How indeed! This is perhaps the central question of faith for all of us. How are we to know? When the heavens are darkened, when we cannot see the light, when we cannot count the stars, how are we to know? When political authorities are threatening to get us, or abrogating responsibility for all citizens, how are we to know? When we know that if we are to proceed in the way in which we are traveling it will lead to certain confrontation and even death, how are we to know?
“Bring me a heifer, a goat, a ram a turtledove, and a young pigeon and I shall show you,” says the Lord. Which strikes us as odd, but Abram knows what to do, sacrificing the animals and laying out one half of each across from the other half, driving away the birds of prey. This is an offering for the Lord, and sets the stage for the Lord’s covenant ceremony. This is how it was done in those days. The parties would walk between the laid out animal parts with the understanding that this will happen to me should I break the terms of the covenant. Note how God passes through on Abram’s behalf while Abram is in a deep darkness and sleep.
This passing through can be likened to Moses and the people passing through the Red Sea on dry land. Or, like Jesus passing through the cross and what the world counts as death into new life. Covenants are sealed by someone having passed through something somewhere. Just like we pass through the waters of Baptism to be in covenant with God in Christ.
Once you have passed through there is a degree of ultimate safety guaranteed.
Abram knows this. Jesus knows this. Knowing that Jesus, like God does for Abram, passes through for us while we are in deep darkness, we are those people who know this as well.The Herods and Pilates of this world never do get it and so trust only their own forcefulness.
But we digress. Jesus then says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” After centuries of debate about the role of women in the church and in society, few have even noticed the metaphor Jesus - the logos, the Word, the Word which was with God before creation, the Word that is God, through whom all things were made (see John 1: 1-5) - employs. Jesus likens himself to a woman – a mother hen really - but a woman none the less. [Making E.J. Dionne Jr’s recent suggestion that the next pope be a nun make a lot of sense!]
Jesus likens being in a covenant relationship with God as being like chicks under the wings of a mother hen. Under those wings is warmth, and safety, and love, and care that is unbounded, which may be the root characteristic of the very mercy we pray for so often.
God as a mother hen. That would be God as female protector. As opposed to Herod the “old fox.” If we have ever seen baby chicks we would know that just as soon as the mother hen gets five of them under her wings another three pop out. They just squirt out like they are greased! People in an agrarian society would know just how true and comical this really looks. No doubt whoever is listening is laughing despite the tone of prophetic judgment.
Note how easily Jesus turns to judge the living and the dead as we say. Those in charge in Jerusalem would not find this so funny. The peasants who usually live their lives in abject fear of the Romans and Ruling Class in Jerusalem are seeing the kind of hope Abram would see when he counts the stars in the sky.
Whether we find this figure of God the mother hen fetching or fearsome depends on whether we count ourselves among the chicks under her wings, or among those who are busy squirting out and away from the protection of her wings. As always, it is a matter of perspective. The irony of living in God’s kingdom is that it is safer to be with the hen than the fox. Go figure. The least and last shall be first and so on.
Many people never even stop to think about this at all. We, on the other hand, are those people who take time during Lent to look and see where we find ourselves: under her wings? Or, playing with the foxes of this world?
We often pray, “O God, whose property is always to have mercy….,” recalling that at the heart of God’s glory is mercy. Kurt Vonnegut once observed that being merciful is the one good idea we have been given so far. For when we are merciful we are close to the heart of God’s glory. God’s mercy in Jesus invites us to squirm back under “her wings” before it’s too late. Amen.