“Of Foxes and Hens” / Luke 13:31-35 / 17 March 2019
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The city that stones the prophets and kills the ones who are sent to it. How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But you…were…not…willing.” This little monologue of Jesus offers a colorful glimpse into his imagination and his values. Herod, the wicked puppet king, who has just put John the Baptist to the sword—Herod is a fox, to Jesus’ way of thinking. Like a fox, Herod is a murderous sneak who commits his treachery under the cover of night. And if Herod is a fox, then how does Jesus characterize himself? As the Lion of Judah? As a noble steed? How about an eagle? Or even a faithful guardian dog, big, and strong, and direct, with no sneaking or hiding at all? No. In a real blow to his already meek public image, Jesus describes himself…as a mother hen. You know, we’re forever blaming the devotional painters of the Victorian age for depicting Jesus as a longhaired milquetoast, the sentimental Savior of the cocker spaniel eyes. But it looks like he kind of brought it on himself in some ways, doesn’t it? Much has been said about how physically strong Jesus must have been, to be a first century carpenter. And that’s surely the case. But when Herod gets to be a sleek, clever fox, and all you can come up with for yourself is a hen, then you’re kind of setting yourself up for some syrupy portraits by people who can only imagine what you looked like. And yet, a hen does something a fox would never do. A hen puts herself between her chicks and a predator. A hen may not seem like a manly thing to be. But it’s the hens in our lives that we love the most. A hen shelters, and guides, and defends, offering herself so her young can escape. Better to be a hen than a fox. Better to be defined more by the sacrifices we make than the appetites we indulge.
Well, if you’re not exactly satisfied with your two options—a fox or a hen—you could probably take an online quiz on Buzzfeed to see what kind of animal you are. You sometimes hear a person described as a shark. And by that we mean that they’re quick, decisive, skillful, and they have no pity. It’s all about what they want. You occasionally hear people described as sloths: slow-moving, unmotivated, lazy. If you’re “catty,” it means that you’re spiteful, petty, easily offended—though I don’t find that cats are any of those things, unless curling up on someone’s computer keyboard is done out of spite. A mousy person is timid and unassertive. You hear politicians characterized as “hawks” or “doves” depending on their tendency to promote war or peace. We used to call a person a dog if he was especially promiscuous. And a chicken? Well, a chicken is afraid of everything. But ironically, if you swagger around with too much self-confidence, they’ll call you cocky—which means that you’re like a rooster, which is just a kind of chicken. If you get called a snake or a rat, it means pretty much the same thing—even though rats are on the menu in all the snake restaurants. Mostly it’s an insult to be called an animal, like a worm, or a weasel, or an old goat, or a cow. No one wants to be called a pig.
Just to see what would come up, I went to Buzzfeed and took a personality quiz to see what kind of animal I was. I didn’t get a hen or a fox. Of all things, I got the honey badger. Until Buzzfeed called me a honey badger, I was only marginally aware that such creatures existed. And when I learned what they are, I lost all faith in online personality quizzes. At the end of my quiz, along with a nice photo of a honey badger, Buzzfeed offered these words: “You get your way, no matter what, because you’re the toughest animal out there. Other people might have feelings, but they don’t concern you in the slightest because you’re the HBIC (Head Badger in Charge).”
We’ve all been asked that classic question in job interviews: If you could be any kind of animal, what would it be, and why? I think it would guarantee a visit to the unemployment office if you told the interviewer that you would like to be the Head Badger in Charge. I always
answered that question a little self-importantly, “I’d like to be a cormorant.” This answer always drew a smile, which was surely a part of why I said it. But my logic went like this: A cormorant can go anywhere. If it wants to stroll in a grassy meadow, it can walk. If it wants to soar high above the fray, it can fly. If it wants to swim beneath the water to see the wonders of the deep, it can swim underwater. If it wants to swim on the surface of the water, like a boat, it can swim. There’s nothing off limits to a cormorant. It’s able to go just about anywhere, and it’s only limited by its habits and desires. I mean, you don’t often see one taking a stroll down a sun-dappled lane…but it could. That’s the way it is for us, too. There’s so much we could do, if only our customs and habits did not bind us to the things we always do. But I digress. When you take one of these “what animal are you?” quizzes online, it almost always gives you some fun or flattering sort of answer. It tells you you’re a horse because you’re strong and reliable, or a sea turtle because you endure, or a wolf because you’re independent. Do you know what it will never tell you? It will never say that you’re a fox…or a hen. No one wants to be either of those. A fox is too much a sneak thief. And a hen? A hen is just plain weak. Pathetic. Helpless. If you had to be one or the other, you’d probably pick the fox. And maybe that’s part of Jesus’ point, when he goes labeling people as undesirable animals. Maybe we’re all either foxes or hens, takers or givers, obedient to our appetites, like a fox, or else obedient to our sense of duty, and selflessness, and love, like a hen. In the book of John, Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” In Luke, Jesus gives us a less popular image: The mother hen lays down her life for her chicks. Divine power is not about force—though there was a time when we liked believing that it was. God’s is not the power of force, but the good influence of self-giving, self-sacrifice.
Luke is a fascinating book. After its long, poetic preamble with all the angels, and shepherds, and the everyone breaking out into eloquent song like a first century musical—Zechariah’s song, Mary’s song, the angels’ song, Simeon’s song—Luke then becomes a travel book. After roaming around the region of Galilee, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem for, he says, that is where a prophet must go to die. That’s the setting for this wonderful imagery of foxes and hens. The common folk in Galilee love Jesus, but the powerful do not. Herod has just executed Jesus’ early mentor, John the Baptist, and now he sends some religious folks to warn Jesus away. “Get away from here,” they say, “for Herod wants to kill you, too.” Presumably the Pharisees aren’t really interested in Jesus’ safety. They just have their quiet religious life, their systems and their habits, and they don’t want a noisy, popular upstart like Jesus messing with all of that. They may not want him dead; they just want him to go away. But Jesus unmasks their little show of concern for his safety. When he says, “Go and tell that fox that I am leaving, for a prophet has to die in Jerusalem,” he’s basically saying, “I know King Herod sent you. Take him a message from me…” And then he gives us his lyrical lament for the holy city: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that stones the prophets and kills the ones 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!” You…were…not…willing! Couldn’t Jesus have forced Jerusalem to do the right thing? Couldn’t he have gathered them like a mother cat gathers her kittens?
No, no. Force defeats the whole purpose, for you can never love the thing that’s forced on you. Force is a fox’s way. Self-giving is a hen’s way, for instead of running, abandoning her young like a mother deer or like a father of most species, a mother hen will actually place herself between her babies and the predator. She does this in hopes that the fox, or coyote, or possum will take her life, fill its belly, then be too full and satisfied to kill her chicks. There are things to unpack here! First of all, when Jesus calls himself a chicken, it becomes obvious that the fox who demands the death of Jesus is not God the Father, but the evil powers of this world. Many of us have been told that God wanted Jesus to die in our place because God needed someone to suffer for human sin. But this image of the mother hen suggests that it’s not God who wanted Jesus to die; it’s the broken powers of darkness and greed, the powers of this word, the powers of force, the fox. When Jesus puts himself in between the snarling fox and the helpless chicks, he models for us the behaviors that he demands of all privileged people. It is the calling of all who enjoy power and status in this world to use it for the sake of the helpless. God the Father does not demand the death of Christ. Herod and Rome demand the death of any who unmask their cunning evil. Theirs is the power of violence, and manipulation, and control. But force cannot win the real love of any, and so it rules by fear. The powers of Herod and Rome, the powers of self-interest and insatiable appetite are still very much enthroned in this world, this nation, this community. And the calling to anyone who would be a follower of Jesus is to surrender our own privilege for the sake of those who have none, to stand between the fox and the chicks.
The problem is…we’ve been told all our lives that God rules by means of force. Our hymns sing the majesty and the might of a kingly God with angelic armies and thrones and all the trappings of kingly power—which is the power of force. Great portions of the Bible speak of a God of battle and of vengeance, of judgment and of wrath. And honestly, we kind of like a forceful God, as long as we don’t get on that God’s bad side. We like a God who punishes the wicked and rewards the virtuous. We take comfort in a God who will cut down the foxes of our world and protect the hens. The notion of a torturous hell, a place of everlasting pain and hopelessness, reserved for the wicked, is never more comforting than it is today. When a band of white supremacist shooters enter two mosques, wounding and traumatizing hundreds, and murdering forty-nine innocent worshipers, you and I just might take comfort in the belief that the killers will burn for all eternity for such a thing. It’s chilling to listen to the high praise that those murderers have for the current state of American politics, too. Here in the western world, all the killings in sacred places have been perpetrated by white racists, many of whom claim to be Christian: Christchurch mosques, Tree of Life Synagogue, Mother Emanuel AME, Oak Creek Sikh Temple. Notice that none of these travesties has been visited on white Christians here in the West—with one exception that occurred in France a few years ago, where a Catholic priest was murdered. White racists have always said, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” This is clearly not the case. Muslims are murdered in Palestine, in Myanmar, in India, in the Central African Republic, and the media makes not a peep about it. China is using the technology of facial recognition to surveil its peaceful Muslim minorities, sometimes herding them off to concentration camps, and never allowing them to leave their home province. We do not hear about these things. But when the powerful foxes of this world use force on the innocent…it makes the innocent do desperate things, guilty things.
Yes, let us admit that we like the forceful God who will come in a cloud of fiery judgment and break some heads. The old traditional folk song, released posthumously by Johnny Cash, said, “God’s gonna cut you down.” The lyrics of that old Appalachian song mirror our reading from the Gospel of Luke quite nicely. The song says, “Go tell that long tongue liar, that midnight rider, the rambler, the gambler, the back biter, tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut ‘em down.” Except Jesus says, “Go tell that fox not to worry…that the powers of this world are going to cut me down.” Jesus subverts the notion of an angry, vengeful God. Why? Because Jesus knows that force only alienates and causes fear. The violent powers of force create terrorists, and criminals, and desperate folks. True power is to surrender one’s own privilege for the sake of the powerless—like the noble mother hen, who could easily fly away, but who
chooses to stand between the helpless and the predator. Chickens don’t fly well, but they fly better than foxes. And yet, she stands there to die in her children’s stead. She can fly…but she can’t. Just as a cormorant can take strolls but doesn’t—because of instinct—so the hen is obedient to something in her nature that bids her to stand and protect.
When we surrender our privilege and our earthly power, when we give up the power of force, we begin to wield a kind of power far greater. It’s the power that wins hearts and minds, imaginations and loyalties. It’s the power of love, and it can only be had through self-giving. Have you ever tried to force someone to like you? Have you ever tried to make someone want to be with you? Have you ever tried to coerce someone into loving you above all others? If so, then you know that the only power that wins hearts is the self-giving power of a hen.
Do you know what I wish we had seen on the news? I wish we’d seen the images of Muslim men and women standing and holding hands around Coptic Christian churches in Egypt to protect their Christian neighbors from marauding terrorists. Like hens, these Muslim neighbors could easily fly away, and it wouldn’t be their problem if a church is attacked. But there they stood. The privileged of every time and place are called to stand for the oppressed—not to oppress them further. Better to be defined more by the sacrifices we make than the appetites we indulge. Ask yourself this question in all seriousness: How can your privilege be put to work for the sake of the powerless? And what kind of animal will you be? A chameleon? A lemming? A fox? A hen? Amen.