It's Oscar Sunday coming up this week, and Luke could get a nod for Best Original Screenplay: he moves the Jesus story forward in a relentless march to Jerusalem and the cross. He's got a story with some great metaphors about foxes and chickens, and it's all colored with an undertone of danger to come. But there's more to the story in Luke 13 than high drama.
We hear danger ring in the Pharisees' warning to Jesus: "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." Discretion, they seem to hint, is the better part of valor. You don't want to end up like John with your head on a platter. But Jesus, like his cousin John the baptizer, is not one for discretion.
Jesus knows that his challenge to the authorities, his insistence that God was available outside the structures of religion and the policies of Rome, could get him into serious trouble. So we see here in this odd exchange another passion prediction, the fourth one in Luke's gospel. This is another reminder of the radical nature of Jesus' ministry, and a clue about his impending death. Jesus was not executed by the authorities because he gathered crowds of people for hillside picnics and told nice stories.
Jesus is not very nice here at all. He calls King Herod a fox, and then he turns the tables, as he so often does, and presents an image of a mother hen.
In doing so, he recalls passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah and I Kings and Deuteronomy and Ezekiel and the Psalms about God as a mother, and God as a protective bird. His listeners might imagine God as mother, protective mother, the lioness, strong, sure, steady, or an eagle swooping, soaring, the picture of grace and splendor. This is Jesus as wisdom teacher, teacher of the new alternative wisdom.
Picture this, Jesus says, imagine God as a mother hen. Fluffy chicks nestled underneath a quiet protective wing come to mind, safe, sweet, protected from evil.
But we have a fox nearby, a whole regime of foxes, and life is not sweet and not safe at all. So where's the God who is a match for the cunning fox? Where are those stern metaphors when we need them: the Shield of Genesis, the Rock of the Psalms, a Castle to keep us safe? Chickens run around clucking and squawking, not too smart, hardly an attractive notion of divinity, and no match for a fox. What kind of alternative wisdom is this?
Luke's Jesus speaks of a chicken. We are on a long journey here, Luke reminds us, a journey that leads to the cross. And our God is not, in this case, a powerful lioness or an eagle snatching us up to safety, no power from on high keeping the good ones safe and giving the evil their just desserts. God is not predictable. God's way is often the way of human frailty and weakness. Luke's listeners, hearing these words in the late first century, seeing a row of crosses planted with increasing frequency across the hilltops, could take comfort in this. They might hear the irony. They might feel the mother's sorrow yearning after lost children. They would know that God's way is different from the might of Rome, or any Empire. The God of the Bible acts in our lives not with the cocksure proclamation of a commander sending troops to battle, or drones to targets, and not with a detailed divine plan for our lives that make everything turn out right in the end. Instead, our stories tell us, we get the smallest of gestures that reveal -or maybe only hint at-divinity:
a walk outside the tent, so childless Abram can see the night sky filled with stars;
a powerless and fearful band of believers huddled together in a middle eastern outpost of the empire begin to feel a new vitality and a stone rolls away from the tomb of their hearts;
a proud persecutor of Christians is blinded by a light in his eyes that sears him into a new way of seeing, and he leaves the service of the empire to follow a new Lord.
Luke's Jesus gives us God as a mother hen, a God who weeps in sorrow, a God who knows what it is to lose. This is an image not of craft and cunning, not of strength and valor, an image not as robust as we might prefer.
But this year I'm willing to sit with this image, to imagine the God who gathers the parents of Hadiya Pendleton and the parents of New Town and the parents of Palestine and Congo and Afghanistan. In my imagining of the fox and the chicken, I can ask who wields power today, and who needs protecting.
I invite you to sit this Lent with this icon of the mother hen, the mother who weeps for her vulnerable, foolish, lovable children. I invite you to allow this God to gather you in, where the weakness of God's Chosen One can touch your own vulnerability. That's the touch that leads to Easter.