“A Hen Among the Foxes”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, March 6, 2022
Reading: Luke 13:31-35
There are not many references to foxes in the Old Testament, but where the beautiful and mysterious creature is mentioned, a fox is a destructive figure. The main reference to foxes in the Old Testament is from Song of Solomon, where the bride says to her beloved:
Catch us the foxes,
The little foxes that spoil the vines,
For our vines have tender grapes. (SoS 2:15)
In the verses before this she describes the beautiful and perfect world around her – the world of one who is deeply in love – and she doesn’t want “the foxes” – or anything – to cause damage to their fragile young love. I like how the fox metaphor is sometimes used in Spanish: to call someone “un viejo zorro” – an old fox – implies that having achieved “a certain age” a man has become wise; he has seen a lot of the world and isn’t easily tricked or flattered; he’s calm and cool, but not gullible or naïve.
In Greek literature, a “fox” was typically portrayed as clever and deceitful, which fits more closely with our modern image of a fox as being sneaky and cunning. We’re suspicious of the person who is called “sly as a fox” because they are usually able to get what they want in an underhand or dishonest way. They are self-serving, they take advantage of honest people, and they have no remorse.
Personally, I’ve occasionally seen a fox up close, and I think they’re fascinating and adorable. I feel like they get a bad rap, and I believe they may have come by this reputation unfairly, having been portrayed in many traditional folklores and fables as crafty and cunning and capable of trickery. For sure, foxes are cunning and clever hunters. They have to be, because unlike wolves, for example, they’re not pack animals, and they hunt alone. But they’re certainly not the only animals that are like that. They are, however, known for being tenacious in their ability to get into a henhouse, which is one of their favourite places to find their lunch.
Since Luke was writing for a Greek audience, this “cunning and deceitful” understanding of Herod being a fox is most likely what Jesus means in this passage. Since Chapter 9, Jesus has been making his way toward Jerusalem (9:51), winding through the towns and villages of Judea, teaching about the Kingdom of God, about the “narrow door” of discipleship, and now beginning his cryptic “teaching” about what is to come: the cross and resurrection.
“Go and tell that fox for me,” he says, “‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet 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.’” He says this in bold response to some of the kind and believing Pharisees who followed Jesus, who have come to warn him that Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, was seeking to have him killed.
Remember, Herod had beheaded John the Baptist, and now, amidst stories about what Jesus has been doing, Herod fears that Jesus may be the return of John, who has come back to seek his revenge. Jesus is neither intimidated nor deterred by this news, but instead calls Herod “that fox” – “you go tell that fox.” It captures the cunning and deceitfulness of Herod’s self-serving actions. Not long before this, Herod had actually wanted to meet Jesus (9:7-9) to see for himself whether Jesus was John returned, but now he is simply fed up with these prophets who have been such a nuisance to him, and he wants to kill Jesus and be done with it.
There’s a common saying, “Don’t put a fox among the hens” and that is what Herod is in Jesus’ estimation. The ordinary people of Israel are like defenceless chicks against the prowess of Herod, a cunning “fox” with a ruthless military at his command and the power of the Roman empire backing him; a “fox” who is only too pleased to devour the hen for dinner and turn her chicks into dessert. There is no comparable saying warning about putting a hen among the foxes, of course. What can a hen do to foxes? Peck them to death? She would try that at her own peril.
So, when Jesus calls Herod a fox, and immediately turns to the city of Jerusalem with the famous lament, “Jerusalem, 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!” it feels like he is referring to himself as a weak adversary. It is, though, a remarkable juxtaposition.
Remember, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has been talking about fighting evil with good, about turning the other cheek, about going the extra mile, about giving your cloak as well as your tunic; and I think that the difficulty of his teaching really hits home when we’re confronted head-on with the evil of a fox: not just a fox we read about like Herod, but a real-life fox such as Vladimir Putin.
As I have watched the news reports these past couple of weeks, I will confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that my gut response to the military strikes that have been taking place in Ukraine has not been that people should turn the other cheek. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment, to be honest. That is not how we naturally want to respond to the foxes in our lives and in our world.
Herod was by no means the first or the last or the only world leader to fit our common understanding of a “fox,” nor is Putin. There has been no shortage of “foxes” in the world throughout history: Dictators and other despotic rulers have used cruel and oppressive tactics against their enemies – and even against their own people – for centuries, always for self-serving purposes. You know their names: Caligula, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Bloody Mary, Ivan the Terrible, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Pinochet, Hitler. To be honest, at the mention of some of these names, Putin seems more like a pussycat than a fox, except that his tactics of silencing, “disappearing,” and executing his opponents are the same, and left unchecked could lead to tragedies just as great, as we are seeing with our own eyes this week.
But, just as the people in Jesus’ time might have wondered why their Messiah – who was expected to be a great military leader – was calling himself a hen in contrast to “that fox” Herod, we don’t typically think to fight “foxes” with “hens” in our time either. What on earth was Jesus talking about?
Let me share with you a story that one farmer told about hens: “The forest fire had been brought under control, and firefighters were working back through the devastation making sure all the hot spots had been extinguished. As they marched across the blackened landscape between the wisps of smoke still rising from the smoldering remains, a large lump on the trail caught a firefighter’s eye.
“As he got closer, he noticed it was the charred remains of a large bird that had burned to death. Since birds can so easily fly away from the approaching flames, the firefighter wondered what must have been wrong with this bird that it could not escape. Had it been sick or injured?
“Arriving at the carcass, he decided to nudge it off to the side of the trail with his boot. As soon as he did, however, he was startled by a flurry of activity around his feet. Four tiny birds fluttered and flailed in the ashes, then scurried away down the hillside.
“The bulk of the mother’s body had covered them from the searing flames. Though the heat was enough to consume her, her babies found safety underneath. In the face of the rising flames, she had stayed with them. Her dead carcass and her fleeing chicks told the story well enough–she gave the ultimate sacrifice to save her young.”
The hen in the story was the only chance those chicks had for safety; she could not fight the fire; but being willing to spare her own life, she had gathered them up under her wings to herself. At the point of pain and death, when she might still have saved herself, she chose to stay and protect her defenseless babies. A mother hen will do the same when the fox raids the henhouse – cover her babies with her own body, offering herself to be devoured in order to protect her chicks.
I’ll admit that I shared President Zelensky’s frustration this week when NATO decided not to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Surely, I thought, our powerful countries should have the courage to stand up against evil, even if it means personal cost. But, as Jesus knew, and as NATO leaders discerned, fighting evil with evil does not advance the Kingdom of God, and provoking the fox is never a good strategy. Perhaps in a situation like this we, the allies of the Ukrainian people, are instead called to be the Christ-like hen that spreads her wings to protect the innocent and vulnerable.
The farmer who told the story of the hen shared a further observation that not all chicks run to their mothers in time of danger. Some are either paralyzed in panic or try to find a way to save themselves. The mother hen cannot run around gathering them individually. They have to come to her.
In this passage and others in the book of Luke, Jesus recalls the warning of Ezekiel, that Jerusalem would face destruction as a result of refusing to take refuge under the protective wings of God. They were the chicks that would not run to their mother in the face of danger. But Jesus is still determined to protect the rebellious nation of Israel. Like the mother hen stretches out her wings, Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, that his wings might cover the whole earth, and protect all those who will take shelter there.
In the moment when Jesus was most under threat, his thoughts turned immediately to the innocent and vulnerable people who were subject to the rule of “that fox.” Jesus knew that Herod could do nothing to impede Jesus or his mission, which was ordained by God Almighty. He had a destiny to fulfill, and that destiny was to go to Jerusalem and die, risking the threats of the fox, and finally adopting the role of the mother hen, protecting the innocent, as he had so long wanted. By his sacrifice, all those who take refuge under his outstretched arms need fear no evil.
Maybe it’s pandemic, or war, or national or world events that are pressing down on you, weighing heavy on your heart and spirit; or maybe it’s a situation in your own life that feels like there is a fox trying to devour you: an oppressive home or work situation; a mental health struggle or addiction; a job loss or rising inflation that is stretching your family finances to the breaking point. Jesus is spreading out his wings and inviting us to seek rest and protection under his all-encompassing wings.
When it feels like the world is burning around us, we can take refuge under the wings of Jesus. He has given his life so that we might have the power of the Holy Spirit to face all the foxes and fires in the world. And when the fox leaves and the fire dies down – as they always do, because evil never has the last word – then we are released to new life, knowing that Jesus is the hen who rose from the dead to new life, and who will always be there to protect and sustain us.
Come, Lord Jesus, spread out your wings to protect your chicks in Ukraine and around the world today. Amen.