Whom Shall We Fear? Thoughts on Luke 13

Since the full Lenten devotional is available here, I won’t be posting the entry for each day on my blog. But I thought this reflection on this week’s Narrative Lectionary scripture might be helpful for some of you preachers.

Image by rubyclement from Pixabay 

At the end of today’s scripture reading, there are two brief, distinct passages. 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.” The obvious 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.

Beyond the barnyard imagery, these stories work together to address a 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.

The U.S. federal government carried out ten executions last year (2020), and seven other people were executed by state governments. The death penalty exists because people are afraid of these other people who have allegedly done terrible things. But what we should be afraid of is what kind of humans we become when our government executes people. When our tax dollars pay for the materials and personnel to take the life of a human being.

The events of 9/11 were horrific. Everyone involved in perpetrating the suicide bombing plot enacted evil. The two planes that struck the towers killed about 3,000 people. And devastated the lives of tens–hundreds–of thousands of family members and friends of those who died. This event struck terror in our hearts. To realize that violence could come upon us in an instant.

And now, the low estimate of the civilian body count from the war in Iraq is over 185,000.

Of whom shall we be afraid?

We think the threat is external. Jesus says it is not. That the violence only really takes your life—your spirit, your soul—when it is the violence that you commit against another.

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 the heavy, soft wings; placing our trembling little bodies so close to her breast that we can feel her beating heart.

Other posts related to this week’s scripture:

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