When some Pharisees came to tell Jesus that he should get outta Dodge because Herod wanted to kill him, Jesus made it clear that he wasn’t going to let the Pharisees or Herod disrupt his mission. “Go and tell that fox for me,” said Jesus, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Then I’ll be on my way.” I wonder if those Pharisees were brave enough to actually go back to Herod with what Jesus had said.
Calling someone a fox was not a compliment. Today if you call someone a fox you usually mean they’re pretty good looking, but it meant something very different in those days. A fox, in both Greek and rabbinic literature, was what you called someone who was crafty, sinister, dishonest. Herod would not like being called a fox, and we should remember here that Herod was dangerous. He had already killed Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist. The Pharisees were saying that he wanted to kill Jesus, too. So maybe calling him unflattering names wasn’t the safest thing to do.
But Jesus had even more to say in his message for Herod. “Tell that fox I’m casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. On the third day I’ll be on my way to Jerusalem because it’s unthinkable for a prophet to be killed anywhere else.”
Maybe it’s just me, but I hear Jesus being a little bit snide here. Just a little. Getting in a dig. “Hey Herod, come see me, buddy. Those demons that have been making you act like such a putz? I can get rid of those for you and heal your shrunken heart at the same time. But don’t think about it too long. I’ll only around for a couple of days, then I’m on my way to Jerusalem because that’s where prophets go to be killed. Sorry, I know you wanted to murder me here, but that job has been reserved for someone higher up the food chain.”
Well, maybe that’s not the tone of voice Jesus was using, but he was making it clear that he was not afraid of Herod, the man who had killed his cousin. He wasn’t going to let a threat from Herod stop him from healing people and freeing them from whatever was bedeviling them.
So, Jesus sent the Pharisees back with a message. And because he had mentioned Jerusalem, it got him thinking about where he was headed and what was waiting for him there. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem. The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I wanted to gather your children together like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. And you were not willing.”
I hear such sadness in these words. A lament. It’s heartbreaking to hear the yearning in the heart of God expressed this way. It’s painful to think of all the times God has reached out in love to gather and guide and protect, but like rebellious adolescents (which is a pretty apt description of humanity on the whole) we have turned away.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, The city that kills the prophets. The city that stones the messenger. Jesus calls out Jerusalem, but his words apply to any place, every place where people refuse to hear plain-spoken truth if it isn’t the “truth” they want to hear. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Long Beach, Long Beach. America, America. Russia, Russia. Humanity, Humanity. How many times have I wanted to pull you all together in one protective and loving embrace, but you would not let me.”
Like a hen gathering her chicks when danger threatens, when a hawk is circling overhead, when a fox or weasel is slinking around nearby—this is how God has yearned to protect us from all the craziness that we throw at each other in this world.
Like a mother hen.
When we talk about God helping and protecting us, I don’t think the go-to animal image for most of us would be a chicken. When the prophet Hosea was telling the people how angry God was with them, he said God was going to come at them like a lion or a leopard. God, he said, was going to come down on them like an enraged mother bear who’s been robbed of her cubs. (Hosea 13:7-8) Yeah! Hosea is talking about Angry God, here, but I think that’s what most of us want Protective God to be like, too. When we feel threatened, I think most of us want Angry Bear God to show up. But no, says Jesus. That’s not how God does things. God will not be a predator on our behalf. But God, Jesus, will put himself between us and whatever predatory trouble is coming at us. God, Jesus, will take the first and hardest hit.
Barbara Brown Taylor said, “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 ripping 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.”
Mother Hen God is no chicken. When the fangs and claws come after her defenseless brood, she doesn’t run away. She puts her whole self between the danger and her babies. That, said Jesus, is what I’ve wanted to do for you always and everywhere.
But we won’t let him.
The longer I live, the more I am convinced that there are really only two essential forces at work in this world: fear and love. That’s it. They come in a lot of different guises, but it’s really only the two. Fear, forever resisting the full, transformative power of love. Love, forever trying to mitigate the destructive power of fear.
Greed, lust, rage, hate, violence, blind ambition, exclusion, a thirst for power—those things are all born in fear. Grace, forgiveness, courage, generosity, helping, healing, peacemaking, goodness—those things are all rooted in love.
The militant Jesus imagined by Christian Nationalism, the Jesus who looks like Rambo, is an expression of fear. But that’s not the Jesus of the gospels.
We will never be done with fighting and war until we conquer our fear. We won’t be able to get on with the practical work of building a sustainable and peaceful humanity until we rid ourselves of the fear that spawns violence. “Violence,” said Martin Luther King, “is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win their understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” he said. “Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Fear cannot drive out fear. Only love can do that, too.
“There is no fear in love,” says 1 John 18, “but perfect love casts out fear.”
When fear starts to stalk us like a fox, when pain or disruption seem to be aimed right at us, Jesus wants us to know that there is a safe place under the shelter of God’s wings where we can catch our breath and be still while we wait for trouble to pass.
“In you my soul takes refuge;” said the Psalmist. “In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge until the storms pass by.” May we all learn to be willing to place ourselves under the protecting wings of Christ. May we all learn to embody Christ’s love that lifts us up and out of fear. And just as we have found shelter under metaphorical wings of Jesus, when trouble threatens may we be loving enough and brave enough to spread out our wings to shelter others. May we all be as brave as a mother hen.