February 28, 2010
The Hen roosted high on her perch;
Hungry Fox down below, on the search,
Coaxed her hard to descend
She replied, "Most dear friend!
I feel more secure on my perch.”
~Baby's Own Aesop (1887)
I suspect that we’re all familiar with the image of a fox in a henhouse. Folklore is full of stories of sly and cunning foxes trying to outwit supposedly simpler creatures like hens in order to make a good feast of them. I have a vivid memory of a story that my grandmother used to read to me of a fox who used all his wiles to convince a mother hen to let him into her house, and then captured the hen and her chicks and carted them off in a big sack so that he might dine on them in the comfort of his own cozy den. The mother hen was far too clever for the crafty fox, however, and when he stopped to nap on his way home, she used her sewing scissors (in a testimony to her cleverness, her sewing kit was tucked into her feathers) to release her family from captivity, and with the help of her children, filled his sack with river rocks and sewed it back up so that he would notice their escape, proving once again that even the wily fox could be outsmarted.
In today’s gospel we hear Jesus refer to Herod as “that fox” “Fox” was an apt descriptor for Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and ruler of the regions of Galilee and Perea. This Herod, you might recall, divorced his wife to marry his brother’s widow, and had John the Baptist arrested and later beheaded when John condemned him for that marriage. Herod had felt threatened by John, not only because of the accusations of adultery, of breaking Jewish law, but also because John was so influential among the people that Herod feared he might incite revolution. And according the gospels, Herod Antipas was both fascinated by and fearful of Jesus, the itinerant preacher he heard so much about, and it is entirely likely that Herod did wish Jesus dead and out of the way.
Jesus, however, is not deterred by the threat of that fox, Herod. Jesus is on a mission, and he has set his face towards Jerusalem—Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God; Jerusalem, the place where Isaiah tells us that God’s glory shall be revealed (Isaiah 24:23); Jerusalem, the place where the prophet Micah reminds us that God is betrayed by those who hate the good and love what is evil (Micah 3:2). Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is insignificant. When Jerusalem obeys God, the world spins peacefully on its axis. When Jerusalem ignores God, the whole planet wobbles, and now Jesus is on his way there to fulfill his destiny.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus laments, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those 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!”
What a poignant image! Jesus doesn’t use the metaphor of a fierce mother lion protecting her cubs, nor even that of an eagle with sharp beak and talons to drive away the enemy; instead he uses the image of a mother hen, a relatively small and gentle creature who in her ferocious desire to protect her young can only draw them close to her, gathering them under the mantle of her wings, covering them with the protective blanket of her love.
Modern day Christians sometimes like to portray Jesus as a mighty warrior, to describe his power in military terms, but to me, this image of a mother hen protecting her brood speaks of a power far greater, far deeper than any power that comes in a display of force. When Jesus uses this metaphor of a mother hen it seems to perfectly captures the essence of the power he exuded, a power lived out in the love he preached and taught and lived—a love that cannot coerce but rather invites, a love that does not back down in the face of greater physical might, a love that crosses all human boundaries and reaches out to the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the sinner.
As it turns out, Herod is not the only fox loose in Jerusalem, no indeed. Jerusalem is full of foxes, religious leaders, government officials, common folk, even a disciple who, seduced by some secular vision of power and might, fear, the itinerant preacher and healer who has come into their midst, fear him enough that like the proverbial fox in the henhouse, they act to betray him and have him crucified before he can stir up any REAL trouble.
But it’s a bit ironic, isn’t it? Just like in the story my grandmother told me about the hen who helped her children escape, the love of the mother hen who would gather the children of Jerusalem—the people of God—under her wings wins the day. The foxes loose in Jerusalem were “outfoxed” by Jesus whose powerful love could not be stilled by the cross, could not be quenched by earthly powers, could not be contained by death; a powerful love that is still very present and very real in the world today.
In this season of Lent, it might be worthwhile for us to keep in mind the notion of the fox and the hen. Foxes are crafty and seductive and they seek to lure us away from the care of the One who loves us. So who or what are the foxes in our own lives? Could they be the lure of material goods—the ever bigger and better TV, the more powerful computer, the sleeker car—or the promise of power? What about greed—not just that appetite for more, more, more, but the greed that makes us reluctant to share of the abundance we already have? Could our fox wear the guise of sloth, or mere laziness, the inertia that keeps us from doing even things we claim to care deeply about? Or perhaps our fox has slipped in as the urge to gossip, the tendency to think the worst of others, thoughtlessness, or even cruelty?
As we look for the foxes who might have crept into our lives, we might also recall the powerful and unassuming loved of the One who laments for his beloved who have gone astray, the One who would gather his lost children to him as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings. And we might recall that the cunning fox does not always win the day.