Our gospel reading for this week is really a rather odd bit of scripture. Only five verses and still we have two distinct parts. In the first, Jesus is warned—by the Pharisees no less—that Herod is out to kill him. Jesus responds by calling Herod a “fox” and saying he will go to Jerusalem anyway.
In the second part, Jesus accuses Jerusalem of violence against the prophets. And yet, in a stunning metaphor, Jesus reveals his desire to gather and protect the people of Jerusalem “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Why did Luke place these brief episodes next to each other? Why did the people who set the lectionary readings include these stories together for this second Sunday of Lent?
The most dramatic connection between these two sections is the animal imagery. If Herod is a fox and Jesus is a hen . . . well, you don’t have to be a farmer to know how that story turns out.
Which leads us into the larger story—that bloody mess of violence coming up on Good Friday that moves closer and closer toward the front of our minds as the Lenten weeks progress.
But we’re not there yet.
And Herod, of course, isn’t really a fox. He’s an insecure political leader.
And Jesus, of course, is not a mother hen. He’s an itinerant Jewish rabbi.
So beyond the barnyard metaphors, what do these two snippets have in common? I think it is the question of fear. It’s the question posed centuries before by the psalmist: Whom shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?
The Pharisees figure Jesus should be afraid of Herod. The powerful man who, at least in their estimation, is trying to kill Jesus. This is the same Herod that had John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, beheaded a few years back. If Herod wants someone dead, chances are they will be dead. Soon.
But Jesus refuses to change his plans. He will not go into hiding. He stays the course and seems utterly unafraid of the threat posed by Herod’s ill wishes.
Of whom shall I be afraid? Through his actions, Jesus says, “Not Herod.”
Whom shall we fear? The answer comes, I think, in the second little part of our gospel reading. Jesus gives us the image of himself as the mother hen, spreading her wings over the chicks. And why would the chicks gather around their mother and hide under her wings? Maybe because they are afraid.
The people of Jerusalem are actually not running for cover. They are not afraid. But Jesus strongly implies that they should be.
And why should they be afraid? Not because of Herod. Not because of some external oppressive, violent force. They should be afraid because they are the city that stones the prophets and kills those who are sent to it.
They should be afraid of themselves. Of their own propensity toward rejecting the outsider. Of their own blindness to reality. Of their own ability to commit violence.
Do not be afraid of the violence others may do to you, Jesus teaches. Be afraid of the violence that you are capable of doing to others.
. . . [You can read the ensuing tirade against our national reaction to 9/11, the continuation of the death penalty, and local attitudes toward our homeless shelter in the full sermon.]
Whom shall we fear? Whom do we fear? Personally, I tend to fear the foxes—those threats of external, physical violence. I don’t know what you are afraid of.
I do know what we should be afraid of. We should be afraid of killing the prophets. Of stoning those who are sent. We should be afraid that we will somehow treat another person as less than human and thereby reduce our own humanity. We should be afraid that we will fail to care for the least of these and thereby place ourselves at odds with the Kingdom of God.
We should be afraid. We should be so afraid that we go flocking to the mother hen, huddling under her heavy, soft wings; placing our trembling little bodies so close to her breast that we can feel her beating heart.