Lent 2 C: The Fox and the Hen

Second Sunday in Lent Year C
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Phil. 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Luke 13:31-35

The Lament over Jerusalem
(Mt 23.37—39)
The Warning
31 At that very hour[a] some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
The Response
32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox[b] for me,[c] ‘Listen, I am casting out[d] demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day[e] I finish my work.[f] 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must[g] be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

The Lament
34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [h] 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[i] gathers her brood[j] under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is[k] left to you.[l]
The Prophesy
And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes[m] when[n] you say, ‘Blessed[o] is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”[p]


First, a few lines about the context of this passage.
Last week when we saw him, he was being tempted in the desert by Satan and much had to be bypassed to get him to this part of his journey. But such is the nature of following the Lectionary system. We are in Lent now and the wilderness temptations had to start it off, and the journey to Jerusalem has to be the guts of it. For much of the middle of the gospel, the geography is secondary. It was in and around Capernaum and Galilee, but most of what was said and done could have occurred anywhere. But now, beginning with v. 22, just before this morning’s reading, Luke tells us that Jesus “went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem” and from here on to the triumphal entry, the story will be replete with references to Jerusalem as directional markers reminding us of where he is going.
Here are the references (in case you don’t have time to look them all up on your own)
·        In this chapter, v. 33-4: “I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!
·        In 17:11, Luke reminds us that “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.”
·        In 10:31, he tells his disciples that “we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.”
·        And in 19:11, when he was about to tell a seemingly unrelated parable (the one about the pounds), Luke says that Jesus is telling it “because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.”

Outline of the section
The reading this week is in three parts (or maybe it's a brief narrative followed by two pronouncements)
·    The first is a warning from some unnamed (and relatively friendly) Pharisees about a threat from Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the king) to kill Jesus, v. 31. (This piece is unique to Luke.)
·    Second is Jesus’ response to the threat: “Go and tell that Fox (meaning Herod) what I’m doing, yet, I must be on my way because it is impossible for a Prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,” vv. 32-33. (Jesus simply cannot go away and hide, even if he would want to, because it is a divine necessity that he die in Jerusalem.)
·    Third is the lament proper over Jerusalem, vv 34-35a. This closely parallels Matthew 23.37—39.
    (The warning and the lament don’t quite fit well together and see below on possibly why Luke linked them.)
·    Finally, “You will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the lord.’” (This is referring to what we call “Palm Sunday.” It is, in fact almost the exact words that the people of Jerusalem shout out to him while waving palms when he enters the city. )

Explanatory background notes
You can’t use all of these, but bits and pieces of them will help your sermon become more clear for your parishioners.
V. 31 The Pharisees: Their comment seems fairly well-intentioned and there’s no reason to suspect that it is not, and Jesus’ caustic comment in response was directed at Herod, and not at the Pharisees bringing the warning. Herod Antipas may not have had the extensive power of his father (who also ruled over a much larger land), but he was powerful enough to do things like kill John the Baptist with impunity and he could do the same to Jesus. If they were in fact sincere, then it shows that Pharisees were not monolithic in their view of Jesus. It’s worth noting, that the Pharisaic community as a whole is not as vilified in Luke’s writings as in the other Gospels. He never has Jesus use the word “Hypocrites” to refer to them[q] Examples of Pharisees who seemed open to Jesus are: 7:36; 11:37. Craddock says that “Luke certainly gives no totally unfavorable portrait of them.”[r]

One thing that is always helpful to note for your congregation is that the Herod of this
story is not King Herod, the one who tried to kill Jesus in the birth stories. This is his son. When Herod the king died, Israel was divided up into four parts and each part had a ruler assigned by Rome. This Herod, Herod Antipas, was one of those heirs and he ruled over one of these four parts. His position was technically called “Tetrarch.”

Note that Jesus responds to death threats of Herod by quoting the saying that “It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,” but Herod’s rule did not extend to Jerusalem. What does he mean? Joseph Fitzmyer believes that Jesus is saying two things. First a tradition that prophets for the most part die in Jerusalem. And second, he is telling Herod, that while Herod may want to kill Jesus, Jesus’ destiny is not that Herod would kill him, but that Jerusalem will. As Fitzmyer puts it, “it is not destined that Herod will kill me, but that Jerusalem will.”[s]

If you are fast on your feet and would like to flesh that point out verbally in your sermon, here are examples from Fitzmyer of prophets who died in Jerusalem (or close enough to make the list):
·     the prophet Uriah in Jerusalem by King Jehoiakim (Jer 26:20–23); or
·     the attempt on Jeremiah’s life in Jerusalem (Jer 38:4–6)
·     also the attempt on Amos’ life (Amos 7:10–17), though that took place in Bethel, not in Jerusalem.
·     The Jerusalem-slaying of Zechariah (2 Chr 24:20–22), who later becomes a prophet (son of Berechiah, see Zech 1:1.
·     The story of King Manasseh, who shed much innocent blood “till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (2 Kgs 21:16; cf. 24:4). This account becomes a story of his …killing all the righteous people among the Hebrews: He spared not even the prophets, some of whom he slaughtered daily, so that Jerusalem ran with blood” (Josephus, Ant. 10.3, 1 § 38).
·     And there is a later legend of the killing of the prophet Isaiah spoken of in the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, and  Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.[t] 

V. 32 “That Fox”
Not considered a major insult today, but was something awful back then. Today we are clouded by the phrase, “sly fox,” or “clever like a fox,” concepts that were unknown in the Bible. Words change meanings over centuries and even across present cultures. In Guatemala, having a “good spoon” is a metaphor for being a good cook, but in Venezuela, a “spoon” is a metaphor for a male sexual organ, and I’ve heard a couple of horrifying stories of Guatemalans visiting in Venezuela and trying to complement their hosts’ cooking and getting the metaphor disastrously wrong. The Intervarsity Bible Background Commentary says it is wrong to confuse “sly” with Fox. Jesus is not paying Herod a backhanded compliment.

A fox was that awful reviled creature that ate your chickens. Many of your parishioners will know the Hebrew word for hell, Sheol. The word for fox was shu’al, which is very similar and means something that burrows down into the ground (and gets under the door to your hen house). They had particularly destructive effects on vineyards (Judg 15:4; Neh 4:3; Ps 63:10; Lam 5:18; Ezek 13:4).[u]

Reiling and Swellengrebel, in their handbook to help translators around the world who are working on this Gospel, suggest finding a vile animal in the local culture and translating it with that animal. That should do it. For example in Bahasa Indonesia, they suggest a Jackal, which is a particularly hated, reviled animal. So they say in Bahasa, have Jesus call Herod a jackal. In the Caribbean, they recommend “spider.”[u]

Why was Jesus Killed?
As an aside, this was one of the reasons why people wanted to kill Jesus. Jesus was one of those who criticized his government using nasty, earthy, language, and that’s the last thing one should do to endear oneself with despotic rulers. One cannot overstate how the use of language like this was at least one of the (many) reasons why they wanted to get rid of him. Jesus criticized the government and the wealthy elites and he had a big following. That was a real threat to them. If you are serving a church in which a good percentage of the membership hate Donald Trump and would love to see him impeached (if not shot), then dwelling on this might give them more encouragement than you feel comfortable with. But if, on the other hand, you are serving a church that seems cowed by government and helpless, and powerless to affect change in the direction of the government, then a little riff at this point on the attitude of Jesus towards his own rulers might be helpful. It’s your call.

The Strength of Mother Hens
Probably there were two meanings to the insult. First, that Herod called himself a “Lion of Judah,” and Jesus is calling him a fox, a tiny (if disgusting) animal. The second is the not so subtle implication that Herod is the one from whom Jesus is protecting the chicks with his motherly wings (v. 34 b). Herod is the fox and Jesus is the chicken taking care of the chicks that Herod is out to kill. On the one hand this doesn’t seem like a fair fight. The Fox is, after all, much stronger and more vicious than a chicken. There were certainly a lot of big strong birds in the Old Testament that Jesus could have said he was like, but for some reason, he picked a chicken.

Not a good balance of power, when you think about it.

On the other hand, I’ve heard farmers say that usually (though not always) when a fox invades a hen house, it avoids the hen with her chicks. It will take down a horse, or a cow or a pig or a goat, or a sheep, but not a hen protecting her chicks. One of the most powerful forces in the universe is a mother protecting her children. And if you’ve ever tried to take a woman’s kids away from her, you’d know that the image is just about right. The fox may be powerful enough to get away with it, but he’d also have a real nasty limp for the rest of his life.

One time after I had preached on this story, one of my parishioners pointed out that fire fighters in forests often will come across a dead bird covering her chicks. The female bird could easily have flown away, but she preferred to stay there and die and protect her young. They just do that.

Barbara Brown Taylor has a beautiful sermon on this text and she emphasizes this image of the hen with her chicks:
Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.

Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her -- wings spread, breast exposed -- without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.[v]

Vv. 31-33 are unique to Luke. The rest closely parallels Matt. 23:37-39, so are both probably derived from “Q”.

v. 32 “The third day I finish my work.”
Does this mean that on his third day in the tomb his work will be finished, or that here in Galilee he has three more days to go before being finished and then off to Jerusalem? My suspicion is the latter, though it clearly has overtones of the “passion.” Reiling and Sevellengrebel, in their Translator’s Handbook, vote for the second as well. Here is their argument for that. Following v. 32, and “the third day I finish (teleioumai) my work,” verse 33 begins (in the nrsv) with the word “yet” (plén, “nevertheless” or “however”). That indicates that there is going to be a contrast between the two verses, something like, “after the third day I will be finished, however, following today, tomorrow and the next day I have to be leaving.” The meaning that they suggest is “tell him he can’t frighten me by saying he wants to kill me. I have three more days of work to do here and I will do it.”[w]

It might be helpful to your listeners to note for them how closely this passage is linked to a second lament over Jerusalem in Luke, 19:41 ff., after he has reached Jerusalem. It clearly reflects back to this one. You might want to point to it as a follow up to this one. Here is the text (in case you don’t have a Bible handy):
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” 

Jerusalem is central to the Gospel and Acts of Luke. Luke must have had some kind of larger than life passion for the city, because he “refers to Jerusalem ninety times; the entire remainder of the New Testament mentions it only forty-nine.[x] It is central to the meaning of his politics and theology.

“The metaphor of Jerusalem as a mother and her inhabitants—or all Israel—as children is rooted in the OT (Isa 54:1-8, 13; 62:45). The image of a bird mothering her young also appears in various passages (Deut 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Pss 17:8; 36:7; 91:4; Isa 31:5). Jesus, perhaps speaking as the Wisdom of God, has repeatedly offered Israel, God’s people, his motherly love and protection, but they would not receive him (cf. John 1:11-12).[y]

“To illustrate this [nurturing, protecting] facet of God’s nature, the Bible turns to mothering images. Jesus likens his desire for Jerusalem, as God’s emissary, to that of a mother hen who instinctively draws her young under her wing when danger threatens. Her love is steadfast (Ps 36:7;), and we are the apple of her eye (Ps 17:8). A woman cannot forget her nursing child (Isa 49:15; cf. 1 Thess 2:7). How often has she wanted to gather her young to herself? What more tender image could describe God’s love?”[z]

“to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”
See my comments above on the pairing of the Fox and Chicken. But it’s also interesting to simply emphasize that she wants to comfort and protect the chicks under her wing. Jewish tradition claimed that Jewish people were under God’s wings, and when a Jewish person converted a Gentile, he or she “brought the Gentile under the wings of God’s presence.” The Hebrew Bible also portrays God as an eagle hovering over its offspring (Deut 32:11; cf. Ex 19:4) and protecting Israel under his wings (Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4), and similarly terrifying Israel’s foes (Jer 49:22). Jesus here applies this divine role and image to himself.[aa]

V. 35: “See, your house is left to you.”
The kjv and some older translations have “your house is left to you desolate (erēmos). But that word is not in modern editions of the Greek. Probably a scribal attempt to force Luke to sound more like Matthew 23:39 or like a prophecy from Jeremiah Jr 22:5. However, the adjective is textually suspect even so. The sense of the verse still however implies that something destructive will happen to your houses. Jesus is saying, “I tried to bring you in, I tried to teach you what makes for peace, but you did not listen, so ‘something’ will happen to your houses.” The implication is strongly that their actions are going to result in something terrible happening to their “houses.” One could say that because of Jerusalem’s sin, it was “left to its own devices” which in practice could lead to destruction and perhaps desolation. They are left without the care of God. Reiling and Swellengrebel (the authors of the handbook for Luke for translators) suggest the ominous phrase, “Your house will be abandoned to you.”[bb] God will pull away and they will suffer the consequences of having to survive on their own.

Allan Culpepper, in his New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, says that “This allusion may be taken as a reference to the Temple in Jerusalem, but it should probably be read as a metaphor for Israel, as in Jeremiah’s warning, ‘But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation’ (Jer 22:5; cf. 12:7; 1 Kings 9:7-8). The use of the present tense in the declaration of the verdict presents the future act as already accomplished. Jerusalem would be destroyed, and by the time Luke wrote its destruction had fulfilled Jesus’ words.”[cc]

A possible sermon outline based on the lament:
1. 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!
In recent memory Jerusalem seems to be always fighting, always at war (though in recent decades most of its “wars” have been with the Palestinians whose land the new Israel has been occupying since 1947).
Give an example from the week’s news about tension, or fighting in Jerusalem. My unhappy assumption is that when a preacher lifts this text for the next generation or more, he or she will be able to find a recent example in the news about a Jerusalem (or Israel) that “kills prophets and stones people who are sent to it.”

2. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her
What a symbol. In comparison with the symbol of Herod as a fox. Why such a paltry, weak image. A chicken vs. a Fox. Hadn’t Jesus ever heard of the old image of the Fox in the Hen house? Didn’t he know what Foxes do for a living? But on the other hand, I’ve heard that when foxes invade a henhouse, they seldom attack mothers with baby chicks around them because they know they’ll get their eyeballs scratched out. There are few forces in the world more powerful than a mother protecting her children and that is the image that Jesus is reaching for.

3. and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you.
Well, being held, comforted and gathered may be what Jesus is offering, but it’s not what we’re buying. We deny the gift and in fact pal around with the fox most of the time. Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story in her sermon, “As a Hen Gathers her Brood,” of a chapel on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, overlooking old Jerusalem. It is the traditional site of Jesus’ second lament over the suffering and recalcitrance of Jerusalem. There is a high arched window just above the altar that looks down over the city. She says it is divided by iron grill work, so that it almost looks like a stained glass rendering, except that the breathtaking view is real. Just below the altar is a medallion embedded in the floor, of a white hen whose comb resembles a halo, with wide outstretched wings, gathering in beautiful little yellow chicks. The chicks all seem happy to be within her protective shelter. She calls it “a picture of what never happened in that city.” The peace embodied in that picture has eluded Jerusalem and instead it has been wracked by wars and violence and distrust and oppression and bigotry.[dd]
Denying the comfort and love of God is a disease that has stricken most of humanity for most of our lives on the planet. And when left to our own devices most of what we are left to is wars and distrust and oppression and grief. This is a description that is public and political and also private and individual. All of us, nations, races, and individuals, have at one time or another rejected the love of God and suffered the consequences.
I don’t have the wisdom to understand how it works, but I know personally that in those times when I have felt close to God, I could experience tremendous pain or loss (or both) and survive intact and stronger. And during those times when I felt distant from God, I could have a hangnail and think the world was about to end.
Surrounding the medallion on the floor of the chapel on the Mount of Olives are the words “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, 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 then outside the circle, is the rest of the verse: “and you were not willing!" Outside the circle, in a pool of red, underneath the chicks’ feet.
And haven’t we all.

[a] “In that very hour” (en autēi tēi hōrāi). The kjv has “That very day,” but the best modern mss. say otherwise. The net has “at that time.” Vincent calls this, “Luke’s favorite notation of time.”
[b] “That fox” (tēi alōpeki tautēi). Figuratively, could be someone who was either cunning or destructive, a destroyer (see, for ex, Eze.13:4; Lam.5:18; 1 Enoch 89:10, 42-49, 55). Here, Luke seems to be emphasizing the destructiveness meaning, and Herod did, after all murder John the Baptist,
[c] NRSV note: Gk lacks for me
[d] “Casting out” (ekballo), to eject, throw, bring forth, cast out, drive out, expel, send away. See. Mark 1:43, where the same verb is translated, “sent him away.”
[e]On the third day.” “Translators differ over whether this means on his third day in the tomb his work will be finished, or that here in Galilee he has three more days to go before being finished. Reiling and Swellengrebel say that “since plen (however) at the beginning of v. 33 (which refers to Jesus’ death) suggests a contrast between v. 32 and 33, it seems better to interpret teleioumai as not referring to Jesus’ death.” (Translator’s Handbook to Luke). Perhaps the meaning is, “tell him he can’t frighten me by saying he wants to kill me. I have three more days of work to do here and I will do it.”
[f] “I finish my work” (teleioumai, present pass. indicative of teleioō, from teleios, to bring to perfection. It’s one word in Greek but many in English because in Greek the direct object (“my work”) is understood, and must be supplied to make sense in an English translation. The kjv has “perfected.” Could also be, "I reach my goal." “I have reached my end.” “Tελειόω (teleioō) is common in the NT for the completion of God's plan. Used in Hebrews 2:10 of God’s purpose in the humanity of Christ. In John 19:30; it has the additional meaning of "to perfect." See also, Luke 12:50; Luke 22:37;  Heb 2:10; Heb 5:8-9; Heb 7:28" (NET). “I finish my work” “The actual words of 13:32 are ‘I am being perfected’, which uses the divine passive and means ‘God is perfecting me’. Jesus, for Luke, is the eschatological prophet of whom Moses spoke (Deut 18:15) and, since he is the agent of God’s renewal of Israel, he must like so many of the prophets suffer, and that nowhere other than in Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel begins and ends in that city” (John Barton and John Muddiman, eds., Oxford Bible Commentary [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001]).
[g] "Must" (dei), or "it is necessary." In Luke, this usually indicates something that is a part of the Divine plan.
[h]  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem" (Ierousalēm, Ierousalēm). "In Matthew 23:37 Jesus utters a similar lament over Jerusalem. Plummer considers it 'rather a violent hypothesis' to suppose that Jesus spoke these words twice. It is possible that he put the words here because of the mention of Jerusalem. The language of the apostrophe is almost identical in both places (Luke 13:34; Matthew 23:37-39). In Luke we have episunaxai (late first aorist active infinitive) and in Matthew episunagagein (second aorist active infinitive), both from episunagō, a double compound of late Greek (Polybius). Both have “How often would I” (posakis ēthelēsa). "How often did I wish."
[i] “Hen” (ornis). A bird (as rising in the air). In the NT, only of a “hen” (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34) could also refer to any female domestic fowl.
[j] “Brood” (nossia). Matthew has “chickens.”
[k] “Is.” Note the present tense, not future. This was written by Luke after the destruction of Jerusalem, and that is subtly reflected in Luke’s wording.
[l] “Your house is left to you” The kjv and other older translations have “your house is left to you desolate (erēmos). But the word is not in modern editions of the Greek. Probably a scribal attempt to force Luke into a parallel with Matthew 23:39, but the adjective is textually suspect even so. The sense of the verse can, however, still intend a destructive end. One could say that because of Jerusalem’s sin, it was “left to its own devices” which in practice could lead to destruction and perhaps desolation. They are left without the care of God. “Your house will be abandoned to you” is suggested by Reiling and Swellengrebel.
[m] "You will not see me until the time comes when..." Matthew's version has "until the time comes again..." Luke probably intentionally leaves "again" out because it didn't fit with his chronology. In Matthew, these words occur after Jesus has been in Judah for some time and is about to enter Jerusalem. So it makes sense that people of Jerusalem or Judah could see him "again." But for Luke, the event occurs on the way, but not in Judah, so, when they see him at the triumphal entry with the palms, they will be seeing him for the first time. Therefore, he had to take out the "Again" in a phrase that is otherwise exactly as Matthew had it.
[n] NRSV note: Other ancient authorities lack the time comes when
[o] “Blessed? (eulogeo) Verb Participle Perfect Passive Nominative Masculine Singular. Bestow a blessing upon, act graciously toward (with God or Christ as subject). When God is the object: praise, as with Luke 1:64, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.”
[p] “Blessed is the one who comes [in the name of the Lord].” From Ps. 118:26. Clearly a not-so-subtle reference to his Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where this verse is chanted by the onlookers almost verbatim (Luke 19:39-44). “By placing it so early in Jesus’ ministry, perhaps Luke is saying that though Israel’s house is forsaken, there is yet time for repentance and for joining in the expectation of redemption. It is late but not too late” (Harper’s Bible Commentary, [New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.] 1988).
[q] Though he does in 12:1, say to beware of the “yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.”
[r] Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, p. 173.
[s] Fitzmyer, Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV, p. 1032.
[t] Adapted from, Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV, vol. 28A, p. 1032.
[u] A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Luke, (Brill: United Bible Society), 1971.
[u] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016)
[v] The Christian Century, 09/19/06, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-09/barnyard-behavior, retrieved, 02/15/16.
[w] Translator’s Handbook, p. 518.
[x] Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, p. 174.
[y] Alan Culpepper, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Luke-John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), p. 282.
[z] Culpepper, Luke, p. 283.
[aa] Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament.
[bb] Translator’s Handbook, Luke, p. 520.
[cc] Culpepper, Luke, p. 282.