Wednesday, 28 February 2007

The fox and the chickens Luke 13 31-35

What a contrast we have in these verses. Jesus calls Herod a “fox” whereas he is the “mother hen”. In rabbinic literature the fox was regarded as an animal of low cunning. It stood lower in comparison even with the mighty wolf, let alone the kingly lion. Of course the wolf stood as the emblem of Rome for it had been a she-wolf that had suckled Romulus and Remus in Roman folklore and had therefore been instrumental in the establishment of the original city. The fox is at best a poor substitute for the wolf. Foxes have their holes from which they emerge to wreak havoc in the hen house at night. Creatures of the darkness and the underworld, predatory on the weak and defenceless, the fox was among the least complimentary epithets for a tetrarch let alone a would be king. For his power was shadowy and his rule predatory- but it was not the mighty he could challenge – he preyed on the poor and like those whose ways were evil he prowled in the twilight. Herod the great had played wolf: Herod Antipas could but play fox. “Better to be a tail to lion than a head to foxes” the proverb put it.

But Jesus does not push this proverb. Having dismissed Herod as the fox he does not seize the lion of Judah image for himself. Instead astonishingly he chooses the rather domestic and banal image of the fussy mother hen. The contrast with the fox could hardly be greater. Here Jesus aligns himself unambiguously with the defenceless and helpless chickens upon whom the Herodian party preyed. In the prophecy of Isaiah (ch 31) God says that he will protect Jerusalem like “birds hovering”. The image at least is of a large bird of prey, scouring the surface of the earth with piercing and all-seeing eye, ready to swoop in powerful dive to protect its young in moments of danger. Instead we have this image of the plump flightless timid hen clucking fussily over its nest offering as its only protection for its chicks its own defenceless body – saying effectively to the predator – take me, eat me have your fill and leave the chicks – they are of little use to you.

Jesus prophetically sees the futility of his own sacrifice. He offers his body for the protection of Jerusalem, but the chickens go pecking around the farmyard oblivious of fox or wolf or even lion for that matter. Indeed rather like the foolish chickens in folk tales of all ages they would rather trust themselves to the power of a predator than to the warm and gentle embrace of their mother’s flightless wing. Just as he must not throw himself from the temple so Jesus refuses to be other than a defenceless hen to his powerless children. It is an awesome sign of his humility.

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