Foxes & Fowls
(Psalm 27) Luke 13: 31 – 35
Foxes and fowls don’t go together as the one preys and the other lays. The fox is seen guileful and the fowl is guileless. Two very contrasting animals and Jesus speaks of Herod as a fox and he likens himself to a mother hen.
This passage is most helpful to us as it goes behind the scenes. We are used to stories about Jesus calling disciples, teaching, healing and exorcising demons. But here we encounter some off stage remarks and hear of Jesus’ personal feelings.
This passage corrects our one sided picture of the Pharisees. Reading through the Gospel accounts we can easily conclude that all the Pharisees were against Jesus. However Luke tells us that some Pharisees warned Jesus about Herod’s desire to kill him. These little statements remind us that Jesus’ world cannot be described in a few black and white statements such as ‘the Pharisees were against Jesus’. They were not all against him. Some like Nicodemus came and listened [Jn 3] and some of those who listened respected Jesus and a few like Joseph of Arimathea possibly followed Jesus. Joseph we are told was a respected member of the Council who had not consented to Jesus’ death [Jn 19:38; Mark 15:43; Lk 23: 50f]. The Pharisees themselves like all groups had their own sub-groups. We might think of some Pharisees as conservative others more liberal; some strictly traditional others more flexible; others would be protective while others would be adventurous. Some were respectful and supportive of Jesus. They warned him.
This passage tells us what Jesus thought of Herod – he was seen as a fox by Jesus. That was no compliment. William Barclay says that the Jews of Jesus’ time regarded the fox as the sliest of animals, the most destructive of animals and finally as worthless. So to call a person a fox was a grave insult. It was a brave thing to insult a king. There is the story of Hugh Latimer, a leader of the reformation in England, preaching in Westminster Abbey and King Henry VIII was present. Latimer was an outspoken critic of King Henry’s marriages. It is said that Latimer on this occasion soliloquized in the pulpit saying; “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of England is here!” Then he went on, “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of Kings is here.” The courage of such people mimics the courage of Jesus who took his orders solely from God, not from the wisdom and fears of this world. So too are we to do.
Did Herod deserve Jesus’ insult? Well Herod’s father, known as Herod the Great was a ruthless vassal king for the Romans maintaining peace and his position ruthlessly executing people who threatened or stood in his way. He had 10 wives and 15 children. His son Herod Antipas is the Herod in Jesus’ time who had John the Baptist beheaded and questioned Jesus before the crucifixion. This Herod was educated in Rome and Caesar Augustus appointed him Tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea after his father’s death. He claimed to be Jewish and celebrated the Jewish festivals but he was seen not to be genuine. His conduct possibly justly earned him the insult ‘a fox’ who pretended to be Jewish but supported Rome enjoying the Emperor’s favour. Herod reportedly had built the new capital over a Jewish cemetery naming it Tiberius after the Emperor.
This tells us so much about Jesus. It tells us what he feels and thinks, not what he does and teaches. In the first place he thinks that Herod Antipas is a fox. Herod is the cunning political manipulator obtaining his purposes at all costs even when it means the head of a preacher and the death of another.
This passage tells us what Jesus thinks of his work. He has come to cast out demons and heal the sick. Casting out demons is about liberating people from the evil spirits that bind them. I have mentioned before evil is not about little demons running around trying to enter our lives. Evil arises when we sanction a little wrong-doing then allowing it accumulate. The accumulative power gained then demonizes us. It controls us. Evil about a force far greater than us that drives and ensnares us in practices that under different circumstances we would not accept. The national socialism of Germany in the late thirties led good people to sanction the holocaust. The fear enshrined in the philosophy of Apartheid drove people to mindlessly ignore the injustice of the system. The fear of being swamped by hundreds of thousands of refugees has led this nation to sanction the incarceration of families and children causing great despair. Jesus died for our sins not because we were unkind or told a little lie, but because the awesome nature of sin became an evil that only complete and utter love could confront and destroy. Only Jesus could conquer the power of evil. And it is only through union with Christ Jesus that we become truly free to love.
This passage tells us that Jesus came to heal us. The healing is not merely a release from pain but a restoration to a life of love, peace, joy and goodness.
Jesus’ mysterious answer about working ‘today and tomorrow, and the third day I must finish my work’ tells us that he understood the full significance of his work. The third day alludes to two instances in the life of Jesus. When he was lost his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, found him on the third day in the temple discussing God with the religious leaders. And the other obvious occasion is the day of the Resurrection – the third day after the crucifixion when he rose from the dead having conquered evil and set us free to be what God wants us to be. Jesus reveals more in his statement ‘today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem’. Jesus knows he will be killed, but he will make sure that it is not some backstreet murder in some unknown place. Jesus will ensure that he will be in the right place – God’s place with God’s timing – for his death. So he will move on quickly, not because he fears to die but because this is not the moment for his death.
This passage tells us of Jesus’ compassion for his people. Luke tells us in chapter 19: 41 that when Jesus came near Jerusalem he wept. Luke 19: 41 is the shortest verse in the whole Bible. Jesus had a deep passion and compassion for Jerusalem. We also learn that he knew Jerusalem. Though Gospel writers, Matthew Mark and Luke, would have us believe that he only went to Jerusalem once and that was when he was crucified, it seems he went there more often. John’s account of the Gospel mentions three times. Jesus’ familiarity suggests an intimate knowledge regardless of how many times.
Finally we have a glimpse of the nature of Jesus’ death and of his deep desire. Jesus likens himself to a ‘mother hen’ and says of Jerusalem. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! [Lk 13: 34] This maternal image of a hen contrasts with the fox. Herod is the fox and Jesus the hen. The fox is a preyer. That is, P.R.E.Y. er. The hen is the layer. The fox is a taker and the hen is a maker. It is an interesting image that Christ Jesus uses here to describe himself and his feelings.
My mother kept fowls. Fortunately there were no foxes around. They were Black Australorps.
I remember them fondly. My mother loved her Australorps. We always had roast chicken on the table. They were nice birds. They were easy to catch, accepted you holding them and of course provided plenty of eggs. I saw the birds slaughtered. I saw the headless chook run around for a few seconds. That was part of life.
But Jesus uses a particular image of the hen gathering the chickens under her wings and protecting them. There are stories of barnyard fires where a mother hen has been found dead burnt by the fire yet when the fire had passed her chicks were found to have survived. The hen had completed covered and protected them at her own expense. This gentle yet strong image of love and protection accompanied by selfless giving contrasts starkly with the cunning and exploitative behaviour of Herod the fox.
The hen speaks to us gently, yet profoundly of God’s love for us – vulnerable self-giving love that liberates and saves. Oh, if only we would come to Jesus and let him liberate and save us from ourselves!
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 17/03/2019