Today’s gospel lesson is about a fox let loose in the henhouse. And if you have ever owned hens, then you know how much damage a loose fox can do. The fox is the tetrarch of Galilee and son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas. At several points throughout this Gospel, Luke inserts reminders of the political powers at work in Judea. This brooding darkness hangs over every scene, like a lightning bolt ready to strike. And by the time we get to today’s story, this fox has struck at least once. Herod has already left the stain of blood on the page with the shocking beheading of John the Baptist.
Yet, up to this point, Herod has shown no disdain or enmity towards Jesus. In fact, Herod has seemed genuinely curious about this new prophet on the scene. Elsewhere in Luke, we have been told that Herod longed to meet Jesus for he hoped that this prophet would perform a sign for him. In other words, he hoped to lure Jesus over to his side, to see if Jesus might become another of his henchmen. It must have taken Herod some time to understand the threat of Jesus. For now something has changed. The fox, having murdered Jesus’ predecessor is looking for new prey. His fangs are now fixated on Jesus’ flesh.
In Luke 13, we are told that the Pharisees have come to Jesus to warn him that Herod’s wrath was about to befall him. That’s interesting right? These Pharisees seem to want what is good for Jesus. They respect his ministry and want him to survive. Some may even consider Jesus to be a friend, an ally in their ministry. However, it is also clear that they belong on the side of power. These Pharisees are connected. They have ears to hear the secrets of the powerful, the rumors about Herod’s plans. They have their finger on the pulse of power, and Jesus does not. Jesus depends on the Pharisees for news about Herod. The Pharisees pass on their information to Jesus, and then Jesus treats the Pharisees as if they were the messengers of Herod: “Go,” Jesus says, “and tell that fox for me …”
Here Jesus seems to almost taunt his pursuer. “Go tell that fox, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Prophets are always killed in Jerusalem, he tells the astonished crowd. What more is to be expected for me?
But why a fox? Why did Jesus use this animal to describe Herod’s reign? And what did Jesus mean? Several writings from around the same time as Luke’s Gospel give us a better idea. Epictetus’ (eh-PICK-tay-tos) Discourse contains this description of the various animals that occupy ancient Roman society: “some of us incline to become like wolves, faithless and treacherous and mischievous: some become like lions, savage and untamed; but the greater part of us become foxes and other worse animals. For what else is a slanderer and a malignant man than a fox, or some other more wretched and meaner animal?”
But perhaps the story that best informs us of Herod’s character is one that comes from the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish stories and teachings that cropped up around Jesus’ day. In this story two rabbis are discussing a recent governmental ban on gathering to study the Torah. One of the rabbis, rabbi Akiva, defied the edict and continued to study the Torah in public. The other rabbi was shocked to see his friend doing such a dangerous thing. In amazement he asked: “Aren’t you afraid of the Roman Government?” Rabbi Akiva responded with this parable:
Once, a fox was walking alongside a river. He could see fish swimming in schools in the water. It appeared to him that they were swimming to and fro, as if trying to escape something or someone. The fox was very hungry and thought that a nice, fat fish would surely make a delicious lunch for a hungry fox. So the fox called out to the fish, “What are you fleeing from?” The fish replied, “We are trying to avoid the nets that fishermen cast out to catch us.” Slyly, the fox said, “Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you will be safe from the fishermen’s nets?” The fish were not fooled by the sly fox. They replied, “Are you the one that is known as the cleverest of all the animals? You are not clever! You are foolish. If we are in danger here in the water, which is our home, how much more would be in danger on land!”
Rabbi Akiva explains that, like the fish, we can live with the threats of the government, even the threat of death. But true death, death of the soul, is to let go of the God who we cling to like a child.
There is no doubt that Herod knew these characterizations of the fox. Being labeled a fox would no doubt send him into a rage. Herod, a Roman ruler, would want to be compared to an eagle, the symbol of Rome. Instead he is lumped in with a malicious fox, who tries to jockey for power but is ultimately revealed as impotent and reviled. Instead of power and influence, what the fox brings is destruction – destruction of the workers in God’s vineyard. John Darr calls Herod the fox “a would-be disrupter of God’s divine economy.” Herod is a predator in the worse way, the kind that is deadly yet not a worthy opponent.
Reckless Destroyer. Marauder. Deceiver. Do those descriptions sound familiar? As I take in more and more about Herod the Fox, I am reminded of another assailant Jesus faced at the beginning of his ministry. Satan. Last week, we heard the Gospel reading from Luke that recounted the temptations of Jesus. And at the end of the story, Luke insists that Satan departed, leaving him until an opportune time. However, Satan doesn’t make another appearance until the end of Luke’s gospel when he enters into Judas. Between those bookends, we are left to look more closely for the places where Satan tempts Jesus. I wonder if here Luke sees Satan’s temptation coming to Jesus in different forms. Like Satan, Herod wants Jesus to operate within his sphere of influence. “Accept my terms,” he says. “Treat me like the worthy adversary that I am.” Herod wants to have Jesus in his pocket much like he has the Pharisees. We may expect Jesus’ response to be fear, to turn and run. Or we may expect him to regroup, examine his options, try to stay alive. Or maybe we expect an eagle, talons bared, ready to fight. But what we get is none of these options. Instead we get a hen.
I find it shocking, even disturbing for Jesus to be described here as a mother hen, despite the fact that the previous verses prepares us for such an analogy: “Indeed some who are first will be last, and some last will be first.” Instead of being tempted by the Pharisees’ desire for Jesus to flee, instead of accepting Herod’s terms, Jesus does what he has done so often in the Gospels – he turns things on their head. Jesus refuses to change paths. Jesus will travel on, but not to escape Herod, and not to escape death. Jesus knows exactly how his story will end. There is still work to be done, and after that work death, and death like a prophet, the horrible kind. Jesus knows the road he must take to Jerusalem. No temptation. No offer of security. No warning to escape, will cause him to swerve from that path, from the leading of the Holy Spirit.
A fox and a hen. It really doesn’t seem like a fair fight, which is why there’s something disconcerting about Jesus’ response. If Herod isn’t a true adversary, a power-drunk underlord, prone to vicious rage, why is it that Jesus allows himself to stay on the path of destruction? To make matters worse, we find out that the hen is not alone. There are chicks with her, chicks that need to be protected. And in the face of a fox, the last thing I’d want to protect me is a hen. I may not need God to be an eagle with powerful wings that can beat back, intimidate, and force into submission. But come on God can’t you be a rooster? At least a rooster can defend himself. He has sharp spikes on the back of his feet that work like little stilettos on anyone who bothers him. A rooster can also peck pretty hard, and he does not wait for you to peck first. I don’t know much about farm life, but I do know that you never want to get eggs from a hen house with a rooster on the loose.
And yet, Jesus did not liken himself to a rooster. He likened himself to a brooding hen, whose chief purpose in life is to protect her young, with nothing much in the way of a beak and nothing at all in the way of talons. About all she can do is fluff herself up and sit on her chicks. About all she can do is put herself between her chicks and the fox, as ill-equipped as she is and dare to hope that she satisfies the fox’s appetite so that he leaves her babies alone.
How do you like that image of God? If you are like me, it is fine in terms of comfort, but in terms of protection it leaves something to be desired. When the foxes of this world start prowling close to home, when you can hear them snuffling right outside the door, then it sure would be nice to have something other than a hen protecting the door, something that could at least non-violently defend itself from the fox seeking to devour you and your chicks. However, Jesus tells us that there is only one way to deal with a fox. The hen will die for its babies, even when the chicks are chasing after the fox, beguiled by his lies.
There are many foxes in the world. Sometimes they whisper, sometimes they shout – my terms! My kingdom! My power! My rules! But instead, Jesus beckons to us. He is the one who tells the world what it is. He calls the fox by name. Instead of playing by the rules he continues his relentless march to death, to do the work he has been given to do. And when Herod and his bullies come after Jesus and his brood, he does not seek any action which might stop them in their tracks. He just puts himself between them and the chicks, all fluffed up and hunkered down like a mother hen.
It may have looked like a minor skirmish to those who were there, but that contest between the hen and the fox turned out to be the cosmic battle of all time, in which the power of tooth and fang was put up against the power of a mother’s love for her chicks. And God bet the farm on the hen.
Depending on whom you believe, she won. Of course, it looked and felt like failure at first, with feathers all over the place and chicks running for cover. But as time went on, it became clear what she had done. She had refused to run from the foxes. And she had refused to become one of them. She succumbed to neither temptation. No, having loved her own who were in the world, she loved them to the end. She died a mother hen and afterwards she came back to them with teeth marks on her body to make sure they got the point: that the power of foxes could not kill her love for them, nor could it steal them away from her. They might have to go through what she went through in order to overcome the foxes, but she would be waiting for them on the other side, with a love stronger than death.
If there is a self-emptying of God perhaps this is it – God rids God’s self of the ability to stand above the fray, to be free of the pain we inflict in our fleeing from God’s presence. So it is that in these chapters about wrath and judgment, between exhaustion and the psychological terror that death awaits, that we encounter this moment of Jesus at his most vulnerable. This is the God who loves so intensely that he will put his own body between the teeth and the claws. He is the hen who plants herself between the foxes of this world and the fragile-boned chicks, offering herself up to be eaten before she will sacrifice one of her brood.
The church as a mother hen … maybe this is why the early church often called itself mater ecclesia or mother church, to remind herself that we are called to see ourselves as big fluffed up brooding hens who offer warmth and shelter to every kind of chick, including orphans, runts, and maybe even a couple of ducks. We are called to give ourselves to the task of gathering and protecting all forms of life. We are called to put ourselves, our bodies and feathers, between the fox and those the fox hunts, as ill-equipped as we are, in order to satisfy his appetite and aid those being devoured. We live in the way of Jesus, the mother hen, a way that finds life as we give ourselves for the sake of others.
May we stay true to whose body we are. May we be like Christ, the hen, who refuses to run away from the foxes and refuses to become one of them. Let us love the way we ourselves have been loved. Let us all be mother hens and follow the example of the one who gave his life to gather us under his wings.
* This sermon is heavily influenced by two sermons: Melissa Florer-Bixler’s “Fox and the Hen” preached February 24, 2013 and Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon “Chicken and Foxes” in Bread of Angels.