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Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17–4:1; Luke 13:31-35

The fox and the hen

This is the story
of a fox and a hen.
A common enough farmyard sight,
when hapless farmers forget
to close the henhouse for the night.

And in the farmyard
the sly old fox – ever the opportunist – waits
for the unguarded moment,
to pounce with power
and pin down the hen.

So, the sly old fox appeared momentarily 
to trap the hen,
and playfully tease and then,
deprive the hen of life.

Death did not come swiftly for this hen, 
not as swift as the rising.
The rising and the gathering 
of chicks beneath her wings.

And still the chicks seek shelter
and are gathering under wings
now stretched wide,
wide enough to cover a vast brood –
one might almost say, a kingdom.

And the fox?
Dead and buried,
A mere postscript
On a faded page of history.
(c) Rose Westwood

If Herod was the fox loose in Israel’s henhouse (Luke 13:32), then by contrast, Jesus is likened to the hen who gently cares for her young (Luke 13:24).  Everybody in the whole area seemed to have heard about this strange Galilean – even the local politician, Herod.  A small-time ruler of a provincial back water, so was described as a fox;  only truly powerful leaders were described as lions; nevertheless, his threats were real.

Prophetic Vocation

Here Jesus asserted his own prophetic vocation; for him, the way of the cross was paramount.  (No, ruler on earth has never stood against it and prevailed.) And he stood in a long line of prophets in Israel who proclaimed both God’s mercy and God’s judgment.  And like the ancient Hebrew  prophets, Jesus chose an imagery of tender compassion: check out Isaiah (60:4) and Zechariah (10:6-10); and Deuteronomy. 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Psalms. 57:1; 61:4; 91:4).

Intelligence update

Usually, we are used to giving the Pharisees bad press, but on this occasion they have come to give Jesus some important intelligence: get out of the area because Herod is issuing death threats.  His reply to the Pharisees with a message for Herod, mirrors one earlier sent back to  John the Baptist:

Go report to John what you have seen and heard. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled now walk. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. And good news is preached to the poor.  (Luke 7:22).

Later on, Jesus will meet with Herod when he stands as the accused in his court; Herod was keen to meet this charismatic personality and to bring him under his own control, but Jesus would not acquiesce and perform mere tricks for amusement.

When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign.  (23:8, NRSV).

Andrew Lloyd Webber had it absolutely correct when the foxy Herod invites Jesus to show signs and proof of his amazing abilities: see King Herod’s Song

Jesus’ longing

Yet Jesus is on the journey towards Jerusalem, that historic seat of Jewish power where both kings and priests have their home. Prophetic ministry in the face of power is always a dangerous activity, which jeopardises the lives of those who would speak the truth of God’s kingdom to the powers that be.  And Jesus was no exception.  However, notice his reaction, which  was quite astonishing: he knew that prophets and apostles are not respected here, and that death comes to many; yet at the same time, he responded with motherly compassion. Jesus longed to gather Jerusalem under his wings (v. 34). 

To put this in context, just how often have you felt comfortable in longing to comfort those who reject you?  

Yet Jesus could see the vulnerability of the people of Jerusalem for what it is, and offered protection-salvation to the very place where he will be put to death.  The people of Jerusalem – just like independence-seeking offspring – want neither protection or nor comfort. Since the beginning of his ministry with that manifesto delivered in the Synagogue in Luke 4, every day, (which is described poetically as ‘today and tomorrow’) Jesus had been about the work of healing and deliverance. 

Deliverances in a synagogue (4:33), among the tombs (Luke 8:27-39), and generally among the crowds who came to see him (4:41).  Jesus also gave power to his disciples enact deliverance (9:1; 10:17) and explained that deliverance is a sign of God’s kingdom breaking into this world (12:20).  Jesus has healed many people (4:40) – sometimes without regard for the appropriate time and place. He healed in the synagogues and on the Sabbath, and received criticism from the religious authorities (6:7).  The disciples were sent out to heal (9:2). 

I must be on my way

Jesus went about his daily work of healing and deliverance, with a keen awareness of his destination. There is of course the literal geographic sense of heading to Jerusalem, but more poignantly, we recognise that Jesus also knew that he was actively facing his own death.

Herod may be curious about Jesus, want to control this prophet in the same way he had tried to control John the Baptist, but Jesus knew that he must follow God’s way and complete the task before him, no matter what.

Whilst humanly speaking, it would seem as though Jesus had made a serious error of judgment in travelling towards Jerusalem, Christ’s life and ministry is of one part with his suffering and death; and the whole is made perfect and complete through the resurrection. 

Cry of anguish

This is no new sight; having taught and healed and lived among the people, Jesus’ cry of anguish in this passage would have been wrenchingly familiar to the ears of those who could hear them, and who knew the prophet’s message from long ago. Yet Barbara Brown Taylor reckons that this is also a message of deep empathy: 

If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed –but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. …

… Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first; which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. 

She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart . . . but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.

Barbara Brown Taylor Christian Century 02/25/86

Pilate may have believe himself Kings of the jungle and Herod certainly proved to be a fox, but ‘Jesus drew deeply on his faith in deciding how to act.  His conduct was not determined either by what the Pharisees thought or by the power exercised by Herod or Pilate.  He took everyone on relying on God. [Francois Bovon, Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51-19:27 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013),  325]

Jesus will work today and tomorrow and then his work will be accomplished: although for us it carries the reminder of death and resurrection, it is really a saying rather than a description of time. Christ on the cross was no failure of his life’s work, wasted and thrown away, it was a death marked by his signature of life: the mark of servant love (22:27), a gift on behalf of others.

Imagine what it felt like to those first hearing this passage: Christians who felt threatened or persecuted must have found real comfort in it.  Dare they run away from martyrdom and persecution?  No of course not: for here is an example of ‘supreme serenity’, a reminder to repent, remember and be faithful to the ancient promises.

For every action, there is a consequence: Jerusalem’s refusal to be gathered by Jesus, finds itself ultimately abandoned in 70CE. Jerusalem was the location of Jesus death, and those who rejected Jesus’ compassionate offer of salvation, deliverance, and healing, find their city rejected, abandoned, and left to its own devices.

Fifty years before St Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, the Mediterranean world hailed Augustus as ‘saviour’ and ‘Lord’: he had brought the famous ‘Pax Romana’ to the known world; when this world was under threat, their saviour-lord would come from Rome to their defence.  It was no surprise then, that by the time of St Paul, Caesar was worshipped as a god.

This is the world into which Christ came and invited us, not to look to some passing glory, or some tyrannical power but to look to him who reflects the very compassion of God.  (See Philippians 3:20) Christians were being encouraged to look, not to the Roman Empire, but to Christ, in whom they would find their identity, their peace and security.  Whatever goes on around us today, Christ’s words encourage us to look to him who is our peace and salvation.

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