The Sunday Sermon: Hide us under the shadow of thy wings

Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.

This gospel passage, though only five verses long, offers a veritable kaleidoscope of ways to view it. Jesus’ references agrarian symbols with mentions of a fox, a hen, and a brood of chicks while also being alerted by the Pharisees of a murderous plot of Herod’s hatching, all the while Jesus is traveling to and lamenting over Jerusalem. It’s a very short passage, but it packs a lot in, and it offers the opportunity and challenge of untangling several things at once.

But let’s start with what we know Jesus is up to. While we don’t get any further clue as to his actual location at this point in the chapter, we know that “went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” Where we catch up with Jesus the Pharisees have followed, and they warn him of Herod’s plan to have Jesus killed. Because of how the other gospels paint the portrait of Pharisees, we understandably come with a lens of suspicion as to why they’d warn the one who we perceive to be their enemy. But we must remember that the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees is more complicated in Luke than in the other gospels. Many scholars have concluded that Luke’s presentation of this group is inconsistent and puzzling.[1]

On one hand, Luke’s passion narrative is devoid of any Pharisees at all, and there are even Pharisees who are members of the Christian community in the book of Acts, which is the second part of Luke’s gospel that focuses on the work of the early church (Acts 15.5). On the other hand, the first words attributed to Pharisees in Luke—“Who is this who is speaking blasphemies”—are words of either misunderstanding Jesus if not outright opposition. They also grumble about Jesus’ disciples for violating the Sabbath, not fasting, and inappropriate table fellowship. But then, Jesus is at dinner parties with Pharisees, in their homes no less, where Jesus tells them, while eating the food they’ve invited him to enjoy in their company, that they “neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11.42). They also reject John’s baptism, a sign of their rejection of God’s plan in the gospel. Luke’s gospel also are self-righteous lovers of money, which is in contention with the historical record about this group through the writings of Josephus, who claimed they would “simplify their standard of living, making no concession to luxury.”[2] This tension in the Gospel of Luke lends itself towards seeing the Pharisees as potentially trying to end Jesus’ ministry, trying to get him to run off to hide. My personal sense is that they despise Herod far more than they dislike Jesus, as evidenced by Jesus’ appearing at their dinner parties later in the gospel.

Whatever the case, Jesus verbally swings at Herod, telling them to go tell “that fox” his message. Now, in contemporary parlance, to be a fox is rather flattering. One might want to be called a “silver fox” as an attractive senior or “crazy like a fox” because foxes are stunning, elegant, and intelligent creatures. But in an agrarian society in the ancient Near East in Jewish circles, the fox is thieving pestilence, an unclean animal that comes in the night to steal livelihood. Indeed, Herod’s reputation was just such a creature, a local puppet of Rome who accidentally built his capital city of Tiberius (pandering much?) on top of an ancient Jewish graveyard. Whoops. While the Pharisees are highly unlikely to deliver such a message, one can imagine them snickering or even applauding this line from Jesus. There is no love lost on this despised prop of a despot amongst Jewish comrades.

That image of the fox as a thief is deepened drastically by Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem; “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 you were not willing!” This very intentional choice by Jesus to put his mission in contrast with that of the ruling class is marked with femininity and motherhood. Christ the mother has always been present in our Scriptures, and is downright subversive in comparison with male figures of bulls, eagles, and other animals used as symbols for conquering kings and emperors. But a fox would attack a hen and would certainly eat the brood of chicks.

It is not just a moment of agrarian comparison that Jesus is drawing on here, he is reaching much further back into the Jewish tradition. What Jesus says here is comparable to a passage from Jeremiah. Where Jesus wishes to swoop Jerusalem close to his bosom, the prophet Jeremiah writes in chapter 22 of his work:

“Thus says the Lord: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.”

Jesus knows what Jerusalem is, the home of the Temple that he loves, and the political seat of power for Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel. Jesus’ lineage lays claim to that throne that Jeremiah was extorting. Jesus is also well versed in his people’s scripture and history, of the cycle of leaders that occurred from the end of the time of Judges and chieftains to the anointing of King Saul, to King David, Solomon, and then the collapse of the united Israelite kingdom into two, all as a result of fickle kings, even the most righteous of which still could not keep the nation from various forms of disaster due to their own character flaws. Jesus wants to gather all the oppressed close to him and his heavenly reign, but he will not do it on the back of chariots and other materials of war. Instead, as he alludes to, his reign will be one of yet further subversion of human anticipation.

            And thus his comparison with Herod is further striking, because Jesus rejects the tools of power as we understand them. Instead, this heavenly hen that he depicts himself as enfolds her children under the wing, rather than casting them before her in armed throngs. God will indeed cast the mighty from their thrones and uplift the lowly, and he’s making it clear that Herod isn’t even that impressive despite his willingness to kill. Where others see despot to be conquered and crushed, Jesus sees a wily animal best suited to scavenge at night.

            But the mere toppling of earthly leaders is further still from Jesus’ mind, his power is cosmic, not combustible. No chemical weapons, cruise missiles, or blitzkriegs will come from Christ. No, his path is merely to home, to die. Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, but his home is in Jerusalem, the seat of his forebearer’s thrones. But his home is not even to be the throne, but instead the cross. In the end he will put all vulnerable people under the shadow of his wings, as he will be cruelly stretched out on the hillside for the holy city to see. He is the firstborn of all creation, and he will be the last king the world will ever need.

            Jesus, like Abram in our first reading, is seeking the place called has called them to be. For Abram and the journey of faith, I often reflect on the fact that these stories, according to the best of our archaeological records, were written down by Jews in exile in Babylon, as was nearly the entirety of Genesis. Is it so surprising then, that God’s chosen father of faith would come from Ur of the Chaldeans? Ur and Babylon were on the same side of the Euphrates river and just a few days journey from each other. Is it so surprising that in trying to inspire their own patience, the Hebrews in exile in Jerusalem would write themselves a literary way home in anticipation and hope? When framed through that lens, it makes the wandering of Abraham and his seemingly tenuous but divinely promised hope for the future even more palpable. They were writing their way home! And indeed it came to pass.

But tragedy had struck the exiled people of Jerusalem for precisely the reasons that Jesus denounces Herod, that fox, and alludes to the evils of the Roman empire through images of pigs, vultures, and crows throughout each gospel. Bad leadership creates chaos and calamity. These are not God’s chosen leaders, and Jesus intends not to overthrow them, but to show that their power is utterly useless to the self-emptying love of God. Death, capital punishment, and destruction may be the tools of the state, but Christ’s reign is one of protection for the meek and dispossessed. God’s maternal instinct is to shelter, not to bomb, to draw close instead of dismember.

            For all the real and would be foxes, pigs, vultures, and crows of this world, I need not name them, you know who they are, this is still their greatest threat: that love will overcome hate, and that people will lay down their arms to build a better world together. The disarming power of God’s love is the ultimate threat to those who would choose to grasp violently to their power. Ultimately, that power always slip away, because we are finite beings, and God will gather even the hateful and evil under her wings in death. There, God’s power alone will provide succor, and it is there that we will all find our home. May God our mother have reason to welcome all of us under the shadow of her sturdy wings. Amen.

[1] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine, “Pharisees in Luke,” p110.

[2] Ibid.

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