Second Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2010
“The Fox and the Hen” (Luke 13:31-35)
In our Gospel reading for today, we have the story of a “fox” and a “hen.” The “fox” is Herod. The “hen” is Jesus. The distinctive features of both “The Fox and the Hen” come into play in this text, and it is something to behold. Let’s look at both, and see where we fit into the story.
The “fox,” as I say, the fox is Herod. Which Herod, you ask? And well you should, for there are several Herods mentioned in the New Testament. This one is Herod Antipas, Herod the tetrarch, the ruler of Galilee and Perea during the time of Jesus’ public ministry. The thing that this Herod is most famous for–or infamous, I should say–is the beheading of John the Baptist. So Herod’s threats are not something one should take lightly. The whole house of Herod, all the rulers by that name, share the family traits of ruthlessness and violence to maintain their power.
Most of Jesus’ ministry was spent in Galilee, of course, in Herod’s territory. This may not have been so comfortable a thing for Herod to have going on in his realm–Jesus drawing all those disciples, causing all that commotion, possibly forming a following that could get out of control. John the Baptist had been a headache, as well, especially when he began directly calling out Herod for his sins, and so Herod had him tossed in jail. Then Herod got trapped by his own foolish promise and ended up having to behead John, even though he was wary of the public reaction. It was a political tightrope Herod had to walk, asserting his power, on the one hand, and not stirring up a popular revolt, on the other. And now here is this Jesus guy, and he is drawing even more attention and bigger crowds than John ever did. What is a shrewd ruler to do? How do you solve a problem like Jesus? It was a tricky situation.
Now if Herod didn’t want Jesus around, there was a group that liked him even less, and that was the Pharisees. Jesus had repeatedly denounced the Pharisees for being the blind guides that they were, a bunch of hypocrites who liked to look righteous outwardly but inwardly were full of sin and pride. The Pharisees did not like Jesus exposing their hypocrisy and undercutting their prestige. So these Pharisees wanted to get rid of him, too, get him out of their neck of the woods.
The Pharisees did not think too highly of Herod–he was kind of a collaborator with the pagan Romans, and he was not a very good example of pious morality. But in this case, in the matter of disliking Jesus, Herod and the Pharisees had common cause: They both wanted to get Jesus out of their hair.
So this is what appears to happen: Herod lets it leak that he is thinking of killing Jesus, like he killed John the Baptist. Now it’s likely Herod didn’t really want to do that–remember, he was worried about a popular revolt, and Jesus was very popular. Also, we find out elsewhere that Herod had actually wanted to see this Jesus he had heard so much about; Herod wanted to see him do one of those miracles he was famous for. But it seems Herod let the Pharisees think he was planning to kill Jesus. Then the Pharisees could tell Jesus, “You better get out of here, fast,” because that would serve the Pharisees’ purpose, too, to get him out of the way.
We can’t be 100% sure that’s exactly how it played out, but it’s perhaps the most likely scenario to explain what we see going on in our text, where we read: “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’” The attempt would be to try to scare Jesus off, to get him out of the region of Galilee and Perea, thus ridding both Herod and the Pharisees of this problem named Jesus.
But Jesus doesn’t scare off so easy. Listen to his reply: “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.” Whoa, Jesus! Watch who you’re calling a fox! That’s an insult! Are you sure you want to be insulting the ruler who just beheaded John the Baptist? Not a safe thing to do. But if Herod is the fox, and Jesus is the hen–well, this hen is no chicken!
Jesus is unafraid. He calls a spade a spade, and when he smells a fox, he’ll call him a fox–a yappy, sneaky pest whose bark is worse than his bite. For the most distinctive feature of the proverbial fox is its cunning. A cunning, crafty, sneaky little creature is the fox, in the literature of many cultures. So also here, in Jesus’ use of the term. Jesus sees through the trickiness of Herod’s ploy, and he sends a message back that he will not be scared off by a mere threat. “Go and tell that fox. . . .”
What is it that the Pharisees to go and tell him? “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.” Jesus has work to do. He will not be rushed. There are still some things he has to take care of in Galilee and Perea. Mercy things. Messiah things. Things like healing the sick and casting out demons. Kingdom of God things. The Christ coming with the blessings of the new age he is ushering in, the restoration of creation, the wholeness of human beings, the defeat of the devil and his domain. These are important things Jesus is about, and he’s not done yet in this territory. “Go tell Herod to stuff his puny threat. I will not be scared off. I’m in charge of my schedule, and I still have a few things to do here.” One commentator puts it this way: “He who is master of demons and diseases remains serenely undisturbed by any barking of a tricky fox.”
Now, make no mistake, Jesus is on the move. He is working his way south, on a journey to the territory of Judea and, in particular, to the city of Jerusalem. He’s not there yet, but he’s on his way. Ever since his transfiguration up north, Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus has an appointment with destiny in Jerusalem. That’s why he came in the first place, to go to the holy city to offer up the perfect sacrifice–himself, for the sins of the world, for your sins, my dear friends. Nothing will deter your Savior from finishing that course, that course that will end in a cross–and, on the third day, a resurrection from the dead.
Jesus has a destination he is heading toward, but he will get there on his own time. The place is Jerusalem: “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.” It will not be in Galilee or Perea that Jesus will die, but rather in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the Holy City. The one city, of all places, that ought to know better. Jerusalem was the home of the temple, the dwelling place of God. Jerusalem was the home of kings, the city of David. Jerusalem had every advantage. The Lord God had sent Jerusalem prophets before–Isaiah and Jeremiah are prime examples–but these many prophets were rejected and persecuted and, in some cases, killed. Rejected and killed by the very leadership of the nation that ought to know better. Now here is the greatest prophet of them all–indeed, the Messiah himself, indeed, the very Son of God–and Jerusalem will reject and kill him.
Jesus knows this. He knows what is in store for him in Jerusalem. Yet this is where we see most profoundly the love and compassion of our Savior, his tender mercy, how his heart is moved with sorrow when his love is rejected. The thought of the horrific mistake Jerusalem is about to make causes him to cry out: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
Here is where we see the most distinctive feature of the hen play out in the character of Christ. It is in the nature of a hen to gather and protect her brood, and that is what Jesus wanted to do with the people of Jerusalem. “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!” Can you feel the tender heart of Jesus here? His will is to save. He came to show mercy. Jesus shows us the heart of his Father, who loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to the knowledge of the truth. Jesus is God’s love in action, reaching out to sinful mankind. He came to seek and to save that which was lost. In the person of Jesus Christ, God’s grace comes to us.
But this grace of God is resistible. People can say no to his grace. And that is what Jerusalem did, when Christ came to them. They said no. And, oh, how that tore Jesus apart! “How often would I have gathered your children together . . . and you would not!” “And you would not!” Those may be the saddest words in the Bible. “And you were not willing!” “My will was to pull you in close to the heart of God’s love, but your stubborn will fought against this and finally said no.” It is a sad and terrible thing when people hear the gospel of Christ and harden their hearts against it. It is a fearful thing. There is nothing left to show such a one but judgment–as would happen to the city of Jerusalem. “Behold, your house is forsaken.” Jerusalem, the city that rejected her Messiah–Jerusalem would be destroyed in the year A.D. 70.
Dear friends, thank God that he has caused you to receive your Savior, to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thus be saved. The Holy Spirit has quickened your will, through the means of grace, so that now you believe in Christ. Thank God! This is the gift of faith, the miracle and the working of God, to bring you from death to life. What a wonderful thing it is to know you have a Savior from sin! You, dear Christian, you realize that you need saving, that you do not have any righteousness of your own, to stand before God on the day of judgment. That’s a good thing that you realize this, rather than fooling yourself into thinking you don’t need help, you don’t need the Savior. This faith is the work of God in your life; the gospel is doing its work.
Yes, dear ones, you know that you have a tenderhearted Savior, who loves you more than a hen loves her chicks and who gathers you in under the safety of his wings. You have a determined, unafraid Savior, unafraid of any fox, a Savior who finished his course by going to the cross for you and who now lives and reigns to all eternity. You have a Savior who comes to you now in Word and Sacrament, whom we greet with the joyful acclamation of faith, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
You know, if our text today is the story of “The Fox and the Hen,” the surprise ending is . . . the hen wins! And because of that, so do we.