Scripture (Luke 13:31-35) can be found here.
Our passage opens with this sentence: ‘At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you”’ (Luke 13:31).
Before we talk about Herod, let’s talk about Pharisees. If you happened to grow up in a Christian church, there’s a good chance you were led to believe that Pharisees are among the bad guys in the gospels. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were a religious group within Judaism that advocated for a particular approach to Jewish faith and practice. There is a story about the Rabbi Hillel, who was a well-known leader of the Pharisees, whose teachings would have been known by Jesus and other Jews of his era. One time a gentile approached him and challenged him to teach him the Torah, the whole of Jewish law, while standing on one foot. (This wasn’t the first time this guy had made this request. The last Rabbi threw him out of his house.) But Rabbi Hillel accepted the challenge. Standing on one foot, he said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation – now go and study.”[i] This story has been used to summarize the approach of Pharisees, in a nutshell.
For myself, as a young teenager, I danced around my bedroom singing, “Alas, alas for you, O lawyers and Pharisees,” a song Jesus sings in Godspell. So, I thought they were the bad guys. And it’s true that the gospels often present Pharisees in conflict with Jesus. But that, interestingly enough, probably signals that Jesus is part of their group—for the Pharisees, debate between people with different viewpoints was considered the greatest way to approach the truth together.
And here, in our passage, some Pharisees warn Jesus that he is in danger; they want him to flee to safety. Whatever Jesus’ differences with them, they’re not his enemies.
Now, let’s talk about Herod, since that is the name of the danger the Pharisees are warning about. The latest in a family of pretty despicable kings, there’s not a lot to redeem Herod’s character; for one thing, he’s a collaborator with the Romans, a puppet king; which means he’s enriching himself off the backs of the people whom he is supposed to care for. For another thing, he has already shown his hand against the prophets of God: earlier in this chapter, you can listen in on Herod musing: Is this Jesus actually John the Baptist, raised from the dead? Because, Herod has already beheaded the prophet.
Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ warning by asking them to convey a message to Herod:
“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.’”
Interesting choice of word for Herod: “fox.” Herod’s actual title is “tetrarch,” kind of a co-king, with some of his siblings. Herod is tetrarch of Judea (Judea or Judah is the region in which we find Jerusalem). In Jewish writings, Judah is symbolized by a lion. Like many cultures, Judaism considers the lion to be the king of beasts, and thus, a royal symbol of power and strength.
On the other hand, as commentator Lindsey Paris-Lopez said,
“Fox” is not a term of endearment. It’s not even a sarcastic utterance, as in, “He thinks he’s so clever, but you can tell him…” No. “Fox” is a term of contempt… Foxes sneak, steal, and cower in the face of something larger.[ii]
The fox is not a lion.[iii]
The fox was often mistaken for a lion, but wasn’t king of anything. The fox was an imposter, a poser, a lion wannabe.[iv]
Jesus calling Herod “fox” speaks volumes. Herod preys on his own people, crushes them, keeps them poor and struggling by exacting taxes from them that break them. In return, he gets to be, tetrarch, live in a palace, and, occasionally, uses his power to annihilate someone who threatens him, like a prophet. Like John. Maybe, like Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t seem scared. In fact, Jesus speaks and acts with determination. You might even say, determined passion.
Jesus says, it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem, and that’s why he must get going. For fully half of this week, I was confused. I thought—I assumed—that Jesus was going to be on his way, to get out of Jerusalem, so as to continue his ministry and, for a while at least, to be safe.
I had it exactly backwards. Jesus is going to get going—while at the same time continuing his work of healing and bringing hope—so that he can go to Jerusalem. Because he has an appointment there with something orders of magnitude bigger than that fox.
And then, we hear Jesus do something unexpected. He laments.
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! ~Luke 13:34
Jerusalem is the holy city for God’s covenant people going back at least a thousand years before Jesus. The temple was there, the holiest place in Judaism… at least, for another forty years or so, following these words of Jesus.
Jesus uses a mother hen to describe the way in which he longs to care for Jerusalem and its people—he wants to gather them under his wings, to protect them. The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney shared these words from her own sermon for today with a group of preachers online. She wrote,
Jesus’s response to the threat from Herod and murderous history of Jerusalem was not to resort to a toxic masculinity, call for force of arms, or even call down fire and brimstone. Instead he portrayed himself as the most ridiculous of animals, the very image of protective motherly devotion, almost mindlessly so. I imagine mother hen Jesus wanting to gather all of the disparate chicks of his, her, Jerusalem under her, his, wings: Not just Israelites, but Greeks and Romans, and Syrians and Libyans, and everyone else from everywhere else. Jesus wasn’t distinguishing citizens from immigrants and refugees; he wasn’t even distinguishing between the oppressed and their oppressors. He just wanted to hold them all to his heart, and like a mama hen, sit on then when they looked to get out and get up to trouble. Some will see in this image a call for mass conversion, certainly that is how the church has operated, often to its shame. But I want to point out that Jesus didn’t lay any requirements on those he wanted to embrace…
Imagine a hen doing this, to hide its chicks from a fox… the odds would not, in fact, be in the hen’s (or chicks’) favor. But this is the path Jesus is on, now, and it turns everything Herod imagines to be important on its head. Jesus doesn’t plan to fight powers like Herod’s or Rome’s. He plans to submit to them. He plans to allow them to martyr him.
And on the third day, he will finish his work.
We are in the midst of Jesus envisioning where he’s going. He has set his face to Jerusalem, and now, we’re in the midst of a passion prediction. And then, the image of the Mother Hen’s wings remind us of another place of holy darkness and protection—and life. They remind us of the womb. Paris-Lopez writes,
In the shelter of his wings, Jesus wants to introduce us to a whole new life, where we can live without fear of enemies, because we have no enemies. He wants to nurture and tend to us in a loving embrace, in which we feel warmth and assurance. He wants to sooth our fears and incubate a new humanity within us.[v]
Jesus will finish his work on the third day, all right. In the holy darkness of the tomb God will gestate the resurrection of the one who, Paul reminds us, “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (Phil. 3:21). And on the third day, the day of resurrection, the structures that hold up the empire will begin to crumble, because the power wielded by an insecure, maybe even pathetic someone like Herod or even Caesar will pale in comparison to the one who holds the power over sin and death.
But Jesus is not there yet—at least, not in our telling of his story. He is still very much in the midst of it, and his passion is part of who he is in his desire to hold the whole world within the protective embrace of his wings. It is also ahead of him, something to which he walks, eyes open, heart aflame.
We are also those chicks. We are also the small and vulnerable ones whom Jesus wants to protect, the ones he will lay down his life for, and for whom he will rise again breathing forgiveness. But we are not the only ones. To try to close off and limit and contain who is within Jesus’ saving embrace, is just so much shouting into the sacred and unstoppable wind that is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the one who set Jesus on this path to begin with; she’s the one who appeared at his baptism, who led him into the wilderness, and who brought him back again, ready to bring the good news, healing to the hurting, bread to the hungry, and the jubilee year, all at once. It is the Spirit who leads him along this path to Jerusalem, and we will be his witnesses. We will sing together, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[ii] Lindsey Paris-Lopez, “The Fox, the Hen, and the End of Sacrifice—Lent 2, Year C—Girardian Virtual Bible Study,” The Raven Review, March 15, 2019, https://www.ravenfoundation.org/the-fox-the-hen-and-the-end-of-sacrifice-year-2-lent-c-girardian-virtual-bible-study/.
[iv] Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2008), 121.
[v] Lindsey Paris-Lopez, op. cit.