Fox and the hen
by Melissa Florer-Bixler
February 24, 2013
While I’ve heard the adage “fox in a henhouse” it came to life when I visited the home of one of my daughter’s classmates who lives on the outskirts of Chapel Hill. The mother of the family was showing me their sprawling acreage and on it the chicken coop they built. As we watched her colorful hens strut through the grass, noisily scratching and clucking, she described to me the eerie silence that greeted her one autumn morning as she went to collect eggs. The silence gave away that something was wrong. When she reached the coop she saw a small hole in the door where the wire had been pried back. Then she saw the ground, covered with feathers and blood. “It was gruesome,” she told me. “You don’t realize how much damage one fox can do.”
Today’s Gospel lesson is about a fox and a hen, let loose in the same barnyard. The fox is the tetrarch of Galilee and son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas. At several points throughout this Gospel, Luke inserts reminders of the political powers at work in Judea. This brooding darkness hangs over every scene, like a lightning bolt ready to strike. And by the time we get to today’s story Herod has already left the stain of blood on the page with the shocking beheading of John the Baptist.
Yet, up to this point Herod has shown no antipathy towards Jesus. In fact, Herod seemed genuinely curious about this new prophet on the scene. Whereas in Matthew we find Herod querying the magi about the location of Jesus’ birth, leading to the slaughter of the newborn Hebrew babies, none of this information is provided in Luke. Instead there is an uncomfortable silence as Herod slowly begins to understand the threat of Jesus. Now something has changed. The fox, having murdered Jesus predecessor, John the Baptist, is hunting new prey.
In Luke 13 Jesus seems almost to taunt his pursuer. Warned by the Pharisees that Herod’s wrath was about to befall him, Jesus replies, “Go tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Prophets are always killed in Jerusalem, he tells the astonished crowd. What more is to be expected for me?
But who is this fox? And what did Jesus mean? Several writings from around the same time as Luke’s Gospel give us a better idea. Epictetus’ (eh-PICK-tay-tos) Discourse contains this description of the various animals that occupy ancient Roman society: “some of us incline to become like wolves, faithless and treacherous and mischievous: some become like lions, savage and untamed; but the greater part of us become foxes and other worse animals. For what else is a slanderer and a malignant man than a fox, or some other more wretched and meaner animal?”
But perhaps the story that may best inform us of Herod’s character is one that comes from the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish stories and teachings that cropped up around Jesus’ day. In this story two rabbis are discussing a recent governmental ban on gathering to study the Bible. When one rabbi asks Rabbi Akiva if he isn’t afraid of disobeying the command, he responds with this story. Once a fox was walking along the river bank and saw fish in the water swarming from one place to another. The fox said to the fish, “from what are you fleeing,” to which they replied, “the nets of men.” The fox then suggested, “why not come out of the water to live with me, as my ancestors once lived with your ancestors?” To this the fish replied, “Aren’t you the one they call the cleverest of animals? You are not clever but foolish. If we live now in a place that causes fear, how much more in the element in which we would die!”
Rabbi Akiva explains that, like the fish, we can live with the threats of the government, even the threat of death. But true death, death of the soul, is to let go of the God who we cling to like a child.
There is no doubt that Herod knew these characterizations of the fox. Being labeled a fox would no doubt send him into a rage. Herod, a Roman ruler would want to be compared to an eagle, the symbol of Rome. Instead he is lumped in with a malicious fox, who tries to jockey for power but is ultimately revealed as impotent and reviled. Instead of power and influence, what the fox brings is destruction – destruction of the workers in God’s vineyard. John Darr calls Herod the fox “a would-be disrupter of God’s divine economy.” Herod is a predator in the worse way, the kind that is deadly yet not a worthy opponent.
Reckless Destroyer. Marauder. Deceiver. Do those descriptions sound familiar? As I take in more and more about Herod the Fox I am reminded of another assailant Jesus faced at the beginning of his ministry – Satan. Last week we heard the Gospel reading from Luke that recounted the temptation of Jesus. In this story Satan offers up to Jesus the testing of his own identity, hoping to trick Jesus into believing that his work was about amassing coercive power. One of the themes of the temptations was getting Jesus to play by Satan’s rules – the rules of this world. Satan looks for Jesus to participate in the ways power, influence, and position function in a world of sin.
Strangely, despite Luke’s insistence that he will reemerge at “an opportune time,” Satan does not make an appearance again until the end of Luke’s Gospel, when he enters Judas. Between these bookends we have to look more closely for his temptation of Jesus. I wonder if here Luke sees Satan’s temptation coming to Jesus in different forms. Like Satan, Herod wants Jesus to operate within his sphere of influence. “Accept my terms,” he says. “Treat me like the worthy adversary that I am.” We may expect Jesus’ response to be fear, to turn and run. Or we may expect him to regroup, examine his options, try to stay alive. Or maybe we expect an eagle, talons bared, ready to fight. And instead what we get is a hen.
It may be shocking for us to see Jesus here described as a mother hen, despite the fact that the previous verses prepares us for such an analogy. “Indeed,” we read verse, “some are first who will be last, and some last will be first.” Instead of taking the Pharisees hint, instead of taking Herod’s terms, Jesus does what he has done so often in the Gospels – he turns things on their head. Jesus will travel on, but not to escape Herod, and not to escape death. Jesus knows exactly how his story will end. There is still work to be done, and after that work death, and death like a prophet, the horrible kind.
A fox and a hen. It really doesn’t seem like a fair fight, which is why there’s something disconcerting about Jesus’ response. If Herod isn’t a true adversary, a power-drunk underlord, prone to vicious rage, why is it that Jesus’ allow himself to stay on the path of destruction? To make matters worse, we find out that the hen is not alone. There are chicks with her, chicks that need to be protected. And in the face of a fox, I want an eagle with talons. I want powerful wings that can beat back, intimidate, and force into submission. And on my better days I want a savior like this not just for myself, but for those little ones Jesus mentions, the ones he longs to gather under his wing. Jesus tells us there’s only one way to deal with a fox. The hen will die for its babies, even when the chicks are chasing after the fox, beguiled by his lies.
There are foxes in the world. Sometimes they whisper, sometimes they shout – my terms! My kingdom! My power! My rules! But instead, Jesus beckons to us. He is the one who tell the world what it is. He calls the fox by name. Instead of playing by the rules he continues his relentless march to death, to do the work he has been given to do.
And although we know it’s coming, we know that the journey will lead to Jerusalem and the cross, I cannot help but pause to hear Jesus’ heart break when he cries out “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” It is my name he says here. And it is yours. This time the answer to the Tempter is the declaration of a heartbroken mother. There will be no way for the hen to conquer the fox, no way to defend itself or its young. Instead, Jesus offers up the love of a mother, the tucking away of each of us into his arms. You know this heartache if you have ever watched a love one follow after the fox, if you have loved one who was lost. It’s heartache that comes from knowing we are helpless to call her back. It is the heartache of wondering each day if your beloved is safe.
If there is a self-emptying of God perhaps this is it – God rids God’s self of the ability to stand above the fray, to be free of the pain we inflict in our fleeing from God’ presence. So it is that in these chapters about wrath and judgment, between exhaustion and the psychological terror that death awaits, that we encounter this moment of Jesus at his most vulnerable. This is the God who loves so intensely that he will put his own body between the teeth and the claws.
This is the God of broken-hearted mothers, the lover of lost brothers, missing sisters, and those who lay awake in bed late into the night waiting for the creek of the porch step, the turn of door knob. And this God is waiting for you.
This is the God who calls for us each day, beckons us, and waits.