An Episcopal priest and a Baptist pastor—both from the local churches—are standing by the side of a heavily traveled road pounding a sign into the ground, which reads in large, bold letters “The End Is Near! Turn Yourself Around Now!” “Leave us alone, you crazy fanatics!” a driver yelled as he sped past. From the curve ahead, came the screeching of tires and a huge splash. The priest turned to the pastor and asked, “Do you think maybe the sign should just say ‘Bridge Washed Out’?” Prophetic voices—voices that are meant to wake us up, shake us up, to tell the deeper meaning behind what is going on around us. Prophets tell the truth no matter how badly it hurts for others to hear it. Jesus was such a prophetic voice as were the prophets of the Old Testament before him. In the Gospel story today we find him casting out demons, healing, and teaching when some Pharisees come to him and warn him that King Herod wants to kill him. This is the first of two parts in this somber Gospel. Jesus responds by insulting Herod, calling him a sly crafty fox and instructing the messengers to go tell him about the work Jesus is doing. This conversation took place while Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and his final days before his arrest and crucifixion. The Pharisees motives are not entirely clear. The Herods were installed in power by the Romans to usurp the influence of the Hebrews so there was no love lost between Herod and the Pharisees. Yet Luke always portrayed the Pharisees as opponents of Jesus who seek to entrap him? Is this another attempt at that? If it is, it is not making any impression on Jesus.
The Pharisees were absolutely sure that God’s door would always be open to them. They were privileged, important, better than the common sinner. They fully expected to be at the head of the table in the kingdom and were certain that their seats were already reserved for them. They had no doubts about that, but they did have doubts about Jesus, and thought that they could intimidate him with Herod’s threat. Jesus responds by calling Herod a sly fox—a cunning predator.
Animal imagery is among some of the most striking in the Bible. You’ll find lions, leopards, and bears along with nearly 100 other animals, insects, and creatures. God’s Word showcases numerous members of the animal kingdom. But the touching nature of the second reference in the Gospel gives us an appreciation of the vulnerability of all life and the recognition of God’s nurturing love as manifested in Jesus.
Here we find one of the strongest feminine Christological images in Scripture: a tender expression of Jesus’ desire to be able to gather God’s people as a hen gathers her chicks for protection and warmth. What a beautiful maternal image of a God that loves humanity so deeply that She would gather us up and tuck us under her wings, a mother that would do anything and give anything for them, even her own life.
Hens are not known for their craftiness or speed. When a fox is on the loose, the mother hen is extremely vulnerable. At night, one by one, new broods of downy chicks climb under their mother’s breast and you see nothing but the hen on her guard, her babies lost somewhere under her feathers. When a fox attacks at night, she does not run away. She bares her breast, and the fox takes her, and in the morning, there is nothing but clusters of feathers here and there and little chicks running around on their own.
In the mother hen—in the image of God that Jesus gives us today—we find a new way of power and leadership, the servant leader, the one whose unconditional, bountiful love considers the safety of her children and who does not survive the fox’s attack by violence and force but by gathering those who belong to her into a community protected by the love of the mother hen, giving her life for them, loving them to the bitter end—even from a cross.
We chicks are very vulnerable. We can be easily wounded. Our lives often prove to be very fragile. As self-sufficient as we’d like to believe we are, we are a needy lot. John Stanford, author of The Kingdom Within, writes that “It is those who have recognized that they have been injured or hurt in some way in life who are most able to come into the kingdom of God.”
God’s promise for the New Jerusalem is one of healing and salvation for the world. And it is our community identity and our community mandate to proclaim that promise of salvation—of healing and wholeness—for all of God’s chickens—no matter who they are or where they may find themselves on their faith journey.
Author and Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we think of church as a “big fluffed up brooding hen, offering warmth and shelter to all kinds of chicks, including orphans, runts, and maybe even a couple of ducks.” “It is where we come to stand firm, “she says, “with those who need the same things from us. It is where we grow from chicks to chickens, by giving what we have received, by teaching what we have learned, and by loving the way we ourselves have been loved—by a mother hen who would give his life to gather us under his wings.”