The sermon title, you may notice, is really three different sermon titles – three ways of saying the same thing. The first, “Hen in the foxhouse,” draws from the imagery of Luke chapter 13 where Jesus compares Herod to a fox and then in the next breath likens himself to a hen, longing to gather her chicks to herself, all the while talking about why he must keep walking toward the place where Herod and the powers-that-be reside, the city of Jerusalem. Setting up the scenario of a hen in the foxhouse, which, we’re pretty sure, can’t end all that well.
The second title, “Why didn’t Jesus listen to the Pharisees for once?” alludes to this warning that some of the Pharisees give Jesus at the beginning of this passage- a time when it appears that the Pharisees are genuinely looking out for the well-being of Jesus. The text reads, “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’” Given the fox and hen metaphor that Jesus follows with, he has little doubt that they are indeed correct. Herod wants to kill him. But he doesn’t “get away” as they urge. Why didn’t Jesus listen to the Pharisees for once?
The third title, “Why was Jesus crucified?” says in the most plain language one of the key questions that comes out of this story, and, indeed, the whole season of Lent. It gets to the theological issues of forgiveness, sacrifice, salvation and the nature of God. It gets to the political issues of what being crucified on a cross meant at that point in history. It gets to the spiritual/faith issues of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and the relationship between the life of Jesus and the death of Jesus. And it gets at a lot of other issues that the church has been talking about, writing about, debating about for the last 2000 years.
This season of Lent that we are in points us toward, walks us toward, and eventually brings us to the place of the cross. Every year we undergo this time where the death of Jesus is set before us and we orient ourselves in the way that the prophet Zechariah spoke of: “and they will look on the one whom they have pierced.” (Zech 12:10) Lent raises particularly interesting questions for Christians who are used to emphasizing the life of Jesus and who value that as the starting place of faith. We claim to be followers of Jesus and what it is we claim to be following comes from his teachings and his ministry, his life. We recognize that martyrdom may be a part of the picture, and has been for Christians many times, but the death of Jesus is not where we tend to focus. It is encouraging to see that this emphasis on the life of Jesus is taking hold across denominations and is valued by many even outside of any faith tradition.
This is good and encouraging, but still leaves us with the questions about just how it is that we approach the cross of Jesus – and what we do with a passage like Luke 13 in which Jesus seems to be choosing his death over his life. We may have the same kinds of words as the Pharisees have for Jesus. ‘Jesus, if you’re really all about life, then you have the chance here to steer clear of your own death and keep doing the things that are bringing life to so many people. Keep teaching, keep healing, keep casting out the demons that have been taking over people’s lives.’
This is the question I want to speak to some today and toss out the beginnings of what I hope are some helpful ways of looking at this, and what are some unhelpful ways. Why was Jesus crucified? Why doesn’t Jesus take our advice and get out of the line of fire? Why did the hen walk into the foxhouse? These are inherently dense theological questions, so we’ll try and navigate our way through it without getting too bogged down. If this happens to raise more questions than it answers, then that’s definitely OK. If it helps point toward seeing the life and the death of Jesus as intimately linked together; and calls on each of us to live as people who are dearly loved, struggling to be freed from our own violence, and working out the mystery of life in the body of Christ, then I believe we are on the right track.
So let’s take another look at this passage from Luke 13:31-35 and see where it takes us: “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and 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. 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.” 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! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
This passage from Luke is set within that middle portion of the gospel when Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. After the transfiguration, his consultation on the mountain with the prophets and the voice of God, Jesus’ receives a clarifying of his vocation. In that same chapter, 9, verse 51, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem – and everything that happens after that, for the next ten chapters, until Jesus enters Jerusalem in his street parade we call the triumphal entry, happens on this journey to Jerusalem. Luke makes sure to remind us of this at different points throughout this trek. Just before the reading from today, in verse 22 of chapter 13, it says, “Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” And then again in chapter 17, right before the story of healing the ten lepers where only one returned to give thanks, it says, “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” This week and these next couple weeks of Lent this year all take place along that path to Jerusalem.
As it is presented, there is an air of inevitability about what is happening here. It’s as if Jesus’ fate has already been determined. The cross already looms in the not too distant foreground, and we are watching the painful slow motion march of Jesus toward it. By all appearances, Jesus has accepted this trajectory and has set his sites on that destination, trying to teach the disciples along the way about what is going on here, what is about to happen.
The most popular book at our house these days is Peter and the wolf. Eve is in a music class that is learning this piece, so we got the book from the library, and the girls have us read it multiple times each day. They have assigned people to the characters – Eve is the cat, Lily is Peter, I am the duck, and baby Henry Bromels is the little bird that helps Peter catch the wolf. Unfortunately my part involves getting eaten by the wolf every time. The girls don’t seem to be too traumatized by this, and after it has happened 50 times or so, seem to look forward to it and think it’s kind of funny, especially since in the story the duck gets swallowed whole and can still talk inside the wolf. I’m not sure what this says about their relationship with me, but it is certainly an inevitability each time we read the book. No matter how fast the duck tries to run away, the wolf always gets it. No matter how confidently Jesus the loving mother hen heads toward Jerusalem, we know that the fox is waiting.
One way of understanding this, a way I would offer as being unhelpful and potentially harmful to our experience of God, seems to be the default mode of our culture’s Christianity these days. This is to see this journey to Jerusalem, and eventual crucifixion of Christ, as not only inevitable, but as required by God to accomplish that which God must accomplish for the salvation of humanity. So this walk toward Jerusalem is finally the point in history where the demands of sacrifice, of God’s justice, are getting carried out. Jesus has accepted this as the ultimate purpose of his life work, and is on his way to accomplish the task.
Catholic theologian James Alison has described this in a caricature this way: “God was angry with humanity; Jesus says, ‘Here am I’; God needed to loose a lightning rod, so Jesus said, ‘You can loose it on me’, thus substituting himself for us. Boom: lightning rod gets struck: sacrifice is carried out: God is happy: ‘I got my blood-lust out of the way!’” (Undergoing God: dispatches from the scene of a break-in, p . 58).
The problem with this way of seeing Jesus’ death, one of many problems, is that in this fox and hen metaphor, it puts God in the place of being the fox. God is the wolf who is going to swallow that duck. Jesus is the compassionate mother hen that longs to gather all of the chicks together under her wing, but the fox is hungry and has to have his dinner. Rather than allow any of the chicks to get taken out, Jesus throws himself into the belly of the fox, satisfying his hunger and allowing the chicks to now live free. God’s wrath, and hunger for a proper sacrifice, fulfilled. This all has elements of truth, but is dangerous precisely because it is close enough to the truth while confusing a key component.
Recognizing Herod as the fox shifts some things significantly and has all sorts of implications for our understanding of God, humanity, and what the gift of redemption looks like. With Herod as the fox, the one on the prowl ready to take his next victim to satisfy his need for continually creating victims to prop up his rule, his power, his appearance of authority, the whole picture looks different.
Throughout all of scripture it becomes more and more clear that the sacrificial mechanism, the system that demands for there to be victims and crucifixions and scapegoats, is one of human making. What unifies human communities, far too often, is their need to project their evil and sin within them somewhere outside themselves, onto the other, the outsider, the foreigner. This can look like a religious sacrificial system that keeps offering people or animals as offerings to the deity, or a political system that keeps needing to create enemies and victims in order to hold together. It can be as simple and juvenile as the grade schooler on the playground who receives the brunt of everyone’s jokes or bullying. They have the same pattern. Our struggles to be at peace with ourselves and with God are projected onto an outside object that takes the brunt of all our sin. The sacrifice works for a while, but needs to keep creating victims in order to prop itself up. There is no real inner transformation when the blame is projected outward. Since the beginning of time, this has served as the way that human communities define themselves and find meaning.
In identifying himself with a mother hen, Jesus is not defining himself as a pawn in the sacrificial system of God’s design, but rather identifying himself with the work of God within history to overcome the sacrificial system of our own making. The temple system of the ancient Israelites is already starting to break out of this pattern. The first temple included the outstretched wings of the divine presence, the cherubim, which were seen as sheltering Israel. These wings of protection are referred to throughout the Psalms when the Psalmist is often in the position of being surrounded by enemies – about to become the next victim of the system of violence. “Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me” (Psalm 17). “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by” (Psalm 57). “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings” (Psalm 61). Rather than demanding this kind of sacrifice God is seen as the one protecting the one about to become the next victim. God is to Israel like a great bird whose wings provide protection against the human tendency to blame the other, to gang up on a victim. Jesus as a hen longing to gather the chicks under her wings, safe from harm, looks very much like the character of God.
The fox, Herod, the one hungry for another victim, is, of course, much bigger than just Herod. Making Herod the enemy, the only fox, in this case would just be continuing the pattern of putting all the blame somewhere else outside ourselves. In this case Herod is a stand in for the whole system of human relationships that depend on this pattern of sacrifice and devouring of victims. The better name for this is Satan, the entire force of creation that has set itself against the ways of God. And it is this overcoming of Satan, of this entire lousy way of being human, that the New Testament sees is happening through Jesus’ death.
So what I’d like to offer is that Jesus going to his death, and not turning aside as he surely could have, is his answer to the age-old human sacrificial system. In Jesus’ death, the whole mechanism is revealed for what it is, it’s uncovered, unmasked, as murder and violence, and, ultimately, unnecessary. There is another way of being human together. Another way of forming community that looks at Jesus on the cross and says “never again.” Never again will we allow ourselves to be a part of a set up where the foxes are always devouring the hens. No more sacrifice. No more victims.
One of the important parts of this is that Jesus death isn’t meant primarily to change God, as if God needed a sacrifice to be able to forgive us, but is meant to change us, freeing us from our tendency to keep blaming and forming communities based on the violence of sacrifice. We are free to become a part of a new humanity coming into being – what the Apostle Paul called “a new creation,” based on reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5) A humanity that has overcome the ways of Satan and is based on an entirely different way of being human. A way that has no need for victims or outcasts because our identity is received as a pure gift and there is nothing to defend. There’s nothing to prop up out of fear. “Everything old has passed away,” Paul says.
This has been closer to a theological essay than most sermons, but I feel that it’s important to dig into this and wrestle with these things. Lent can be a time when we reflect on ways that we are still a part of that old way of being human that Jesus has already overcome. We can be freely forgiven and allow ourselves to be gently, tenderly, moved out of the old way, and called to dwell under the shelter of these mothering wings. The everlasting wings that are at the same time vulnerable and victorious.
If you wish to dig more into this, a place to start would be this 2006 Christian Century interview HERE with the brilliant James Alison. You’ll note that during the interview there is significant reference to Rene Girard, who is someone who has done significant work on the “scapegoating mechanism” that is so key to understanding Jesus’ death.