Maybe you’ve heard of this brain-teaser: You have a fox, a chicken and a sack of grain. You must cross a river with only one of them at a time. If you leave the fox with the chicken he will eat it; if you leave the chicken with the grain he will eat it. How can you get all three across safely? Here’s the answer: Take the chicken over first. Go back and bring the grain next, but instead of leaving the chicken with the grain, come back with the chicken. Leave the chicken on the first side and take the fox with you. Leave it on the other side with the grain. Finally, go back over and get the chicken and bring it over.
Had you already figured that out?! The bottom line is this: foxes love to eat chickens! There’s a reason we don’t let foxes guard the henhouse, as the old saying goes. In our gospel reading, Jesus called Herod a fox, and then he described himself as a hen gathering baby chicks under her wing. Sounds like a dangerous set-up.
Some sympathetic Pharisees came to Jesus one day and warned him that Herod was on the prowl and planned to kill him. I’m pretty sure Jesus had a vivid memory of his cousin John being beheaded by Herod not very long before. Now he’s sniffing after Jesus. The fox was nearby and the fox was hungry.
This is a pretty remarkable passage in many ways, partly because Jesus uses intriguing images. Herod is a conniving fox, Jesus is a prophet, and then Jesus uses the feminine image of a hen to describe his love for those who would kill him. He says, “Jerusalem, how long I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
I’ve been in the Old City of Jerusalem three times over a span of about thirty years. It never changes. The thick, ancient walls surround a historic site that draws many thousands of visitors each day but is also a vibrant, living community. The city is carefully divided into distinct neighborhoods for Jews, for Muslims, and for Christians. Most of the residents sell food and souvenirs to tourists along the narrow pedestrian streets that wind through the city. It’s easy to get lost. There are children everywhere, and on my last visit I watched separate groups of children them playing ball in their segregated schoolyards. One afternoon, Leroy and I took the “Rampart Walk”, which is a trail along the top of the wall surrounding the city. There is a place where the trail leaves the wall, and we were quickly lost in the Muslim Quarter during the afternoon call to prayer. Two small boys approached us and practiced their English by asking if we were looking for the Rampart Walk. They led us through their neighborhood to a place where we could pick up the trail again. I wondered that day what it is like to grow up in a place that is known as the “Holy City” and is remarkable for its religious divisions and its frequent violence. It’s easy to imagine Jesus today wanted to gather the children of Jerusalem under his wings.
The author Harper Lee passed away this week. Her celebrated novel was a searing commentary on racial inequality and it contributed mightily to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I think what was most interesting about “To Kill a Mockingbird” is its description of adult attitudes from the perspective of small children. Children are the ones who have to live with our societal and political and environmental decisions. No wonder Jesus wanted to protect them under his wings. Jesus said in that context, “See, your house is left to you.” In other words, no matter how much God is willing to respond to us, we always have the power to reject God’s prophets, as those in Jerusalem did with Jesus.
Apparently Jesus wasn’t above name-calling. He is recorded as denouncing some Pharisees as whitewashed tombs that are pretty on the outside but rotting within. He essentially called a Samaritan woman a dog before changing his mind and healing her daughter, and here in this passage he calls Herod a fox. Not a sly fox to be admired, but a conniving, murderous animal who would corner a defenseless hen for an easy meal.
Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem, but he won’t be distracted and he won’t give in to fear. He’s not unrealistic though. He understands himself to be one in a long line of Jewish prophets. And he understands the danger of prophetic ministry in the face of power. His words have put his life in jeopardy, but that will not stop his movement toward Jerusalem which he calls “the city that kills prophets.”
I was thinking about Jesus calling Herod a fox when I heard that Pope Francis said that Donald Trump is not a Christian. Or at least that seems like what he said, though it’s hard to tell with all of the attempts by the Vatican and others to clarify what he really meant. I was reminded that many have insisted that President Obama is not a Christian. 29% of Americans think he is a Muslim. Others think he’s just a pretend Christian. While I don’t think that anyone can really know what is in someone else’s heart or how God regards them, the Pope’s words and the kerfuffle that followed did cause me to think about what makes someone a Christians. Is it a profession of faith? In other words, if we say we are a Christian, does that mean we are? Or is it a life that is lived in response to Jesus message? In other words, “By their fruits, you will know them.” I take it that the Pope was working with the latter definition when he referred to someone more concerned about building walls than building bridges. Richard Rohr wrote that “We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.” I’m convinced that how we treat others is the best indication of what we actually believe.
I don’t think that being a Christian should be a qualifier for being President of the United States, but protecting the vulnerable and seeking the best for all citizens, no matter how poor or disenfranchised, is pretty essential regardless of one’s religious affiliation. Herod was a crafty ruler who gained wealth and power by colluding with both Roman and Jewish authorities. He used the military and the temple to collect unfair taxes that were not used for the common good, and he had an uncontrollable lust to rule his world. No wonder Jesus called him a fox. And it’s no wonder that we continue with the same kinds of political struggles and debates today.
One of the political and religious dynamics in Jesus’ time was a profound distrust of the establishment, accompanied by the appearance of many potential messiahs who challenged the status quo that perpetuated a widening gap between the powerful and the powerless. Jesus was one who gained a quick following, but he also lost many who realized he would not deliver on their hopes for him. Jesus was not the political savior they wanted, but he was clearly a prophet who championed the poor. And as he said, Jerusalem kills its prophets. Jesus was on the way to his final destination.
I like the strong sense of self that comes through in this text. Jesus doesn’t give in to the anxiety that must have accompanied the announcement that a killer was on his trail. Instead he had a message for Herod that essentially said that he would continue his day-to-day work uninterrupted. There were still people to heal, and the selfish intentions of a threatening dictator were not going to stop him. Today we call that kind of person a “non-anxious leader” and we call his actions “speaking truth to power.” Those who are able to remain calm under pressure and to speak the truth boldly have a strong sense of who they are and what their purpose is.
The exercise of power can be used for good or evil. Herod was clearly stockpiling power so that he could destroy others. Jesus was using his power for good, even as he realized it may cost him his life. It’s remarkable that Jesus spoke words of compassion for those who had no compassion for him. The chicken metaphor follows his acknowledgment that prophets are killed in Jerusalem. A commentary by Timothy Shapiro examines Jesus’ self-identification with a mother hen whose love cannot be deterred by anything her little chick does or fails to do. He writes, “He’s the mother hen who folds the covers down on the bed and puffs up the pillow, at the same time saying, “Don’t let me ever catch you doing that again.” It’s a beautiful combination of accountability and mercy. Jesus loved the people who ultimately killed him, but he was not going to withhold his prophetic message. He kept believing they could change their ways.
I saw a fox close-up recently in Breckenridge. It was right downtown on path along the river. It didn’t seem too bothered by the crowds, and I followed it for a distance with my camera, taking several photos. It didn’t seem conniving or murderous to me, though if I was a chicken along that path I might have felt differently. I guess it’s a matter of perspective.
Jesus’ images of a fox and a hen remind me of God’s desire to gather us all under God’s wing. Life can be scary, and it’s useless to pretend there is never any danger. If we know that God is more like a mother hen than a devouring fox, we can feel safe to question, to be honest with God and each other, and to offer up everything inside of us that might cause us to hurt others.
Like Jesus, we are moving forward. We don’t really know what dangers might lie ahead, but we know that we travel with a whole community that cares about us and we know that however we understand God, we are not alone. Jesus’ prophetic message of radical love and radical justice guide us on the way.