(Note: I am posting last Sunday’s lectionary reflection today because I have been without a functional computer for about ten days. What you are reading today is a typed version of the handwritten reflection I wrote a week ago.)
[Texts: Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35]
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Triune God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
What in the world is going on with this week’s Gospel reading?
Such a short passage, and yet, so much is going on. A group of Pharisees seems to be warning Jesus of impending trouble for him. That’s pretty unexpected, right? I mean, aren’t the Pharisees usually the ones trying to get Jesus into trouble? And then Jesus says a bunch of confusing things, and then the scene is over.
Did you notice what Jesus calls Herod? A fox, right? ἀλώπηξ (al-oh-PAYX) is the word in Greek. It’s literally the word for fox, as in, the animal– the only other time it’s used in the New Testament is when Jesus says, speaking of his call to travel light in his ministry, something to the effect of, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but I have no place to lay my head.” (Luke 9:58 and Matthew 8:20, paraphrase.) He could have said “jerk” or “pain in the rear” or something else that might be more direct than “fox”, but instead he chooses to compare Herod to a specific type of animal.
(Oh, and by the way: This isn’t the same King Herod we met a month or so ago, who sent out the wise men to find Jesus. That was Herod the Great. This is his son, Herod Antipas. He’s the guy who had St. John the Baptist beheaded as a favor to his wife.)
Notice, too, that Jesus also chooses to compare himself to a specific type of animal: a chicken.
And yes, if you’re curious, the word he uses– ὄρνις (OR-niss)– literally does mean chicken. This isn’t just some weird translation of a figure of speech in Greek– he’s actually using the words “fox” and “chicken” here. By choosing these two words, these two animals, he must be doing something deliberate.
Why a fox? The immediate answer that comes to mind is that foxes are related to dogs, and “dog” wasn’t a particularly complimentary thing to call someone in Jesus’s culture, either. (We see “dog” used as an insult elsewhere in the Bible.) Dogs– and foxes– were considered to be pests. It would be like calling someone a rat or a cockroach.
And even today, in our culture, foxes are generally thought of as being smart and crafty– and not in a good way. They’re tricksters– fickle, cowardly, cunning, and always up to no good. I think it’s more common nowadays to use the term “weasel” to describe someone like that, but calling someone a fox would have the same meaning.
For example, one of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and the Crow, has a fox using its wits to trick a crow into dropping food through flattery.
In his famous book The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli describes a successful politician as having traits of both a fox and a lion– lions represent all things noble and brave and just, while foxes are slick and sly and untrustworthy.
Foxes are also carnivores– they’re predators. Farmers hate foxes, because foxes have a tendency to kill chickens.
Wait a minute– isn’t a chicken exactly what Jesus just compared himself to?
When Jesus compares himself to a chicken, he makes it clear that he’s specifically referencing the maternal nature of hens. He talks about how a mother hen will gather her brood– her chicks– up under her wings to protect them from harm.
I’m from South Carolina, but I grew up in a decent-sized city– not out in the country, and definitely not on a farm. I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen a live chicken in person. I don’t know very much about their behavior. So I had to do some Googling to learn about this phenomenon that Jesus is talking about. Apparently, anytime there’s a threat, whether it’s a predator or a barn fire or the rain– a mother hen clucks loudly and spreads out her wings, and her chicks instinctively know to take cover. This is the image Jesus chose to use as a metaphor for himself.
Foxes eat chickens, and chickens protect their young. So, it’s safe to say that if a fox and a hen were to meet, the fox would likely go after the hen. How would the hen respond? Well, if she had chicks, she would likely call for them, offering them her wings as a shelter. She would hide them there, shielding them from danger, even if it meant giving up her own life in the process. A mother hen will do anything for her babies.
Perhaps this answers our earlier questions– why a fox, and why a chicken? It seems as though Jesus is trying to set up a contrast here, between himself and Herod. Herod is a threat. Not just Herod himself– he’s small potatoes, really, in the scheme of things– but what he represents: earthly power. Power– according to a human definition of power– is a nasty thing. This type of power preys on the weak and defenseless– those least able to help themselves. It’s cowardly, really. This type of power often makes those who wield or seek to wield it dishonest, conniving, and untrustworthy. Like a fox, this type of power is loud, often obnoxious– have you ever heard the sound foxes make? It’s pretty unmistakable.
This stands in contrast to the gentle, meek, quiet courage of a mother hen who is willing to give up her life for her young. She responds to threats not by running and hiding like a cowardly fox, but by making sure others are protected. She gathers her young together in the face of danger, rather than allowing them to be scattered and isolated. She calls to them, and they know she will protect them.
This is the kind of power Jesus wields. It’s subtle. It’s quiet. It doesn’t really look all that powerful to our human eyes. But it is.
In what ways do we act like foxes? In what ways do we align ourselves with power systems that look more like Herod than Jesus? In what ways do we use our resources to support the predatory, dishonest, fox-like powers in this world? In what ways do we give our loyalty to those powers?
And in what ways can we be more like the mother hen– brave, gentle, and self-sacrificing? In what ways can we better use our wings to protect those who are most vulnerable to being preyed upon by the powers that be? How can we more boldly stand up to whatever is dishonest and unjust in the world?
And, finally, how can we be more like the little chicks who huddle together as a family when the fox comes around, trusting completely in the Mother who loves them so much that she would give her own life for theirs?