31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He 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. 33Yet 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.’ 34Jerusalem, 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! 35See, 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.’”
In Disney’s 1973 film telling the Robin Hood story, it makes perfect sense that the hero is depicted as a fox. Foxes, we know, are sly, clever, and quick. They can trick or “outfox” an opponent. In this way, western culture has a sort of admiration for the fox.
This was not the case in ancient Palestine. When Jesus calls Herod a fox in the Gospel passage today, there is no sense of admiration or respect. Herod, to be clear, is no misunderstood hero or even clever villain. Instead, Jesus dismisses him as rather meaningless, as a creature who thinks he is much bigger and more intimidating than he really is, as basically a fool. When Jesus called Herod a fox, it’s very clearly an insult.
It’s also audacious. While Herod may not have been quite as nasty as his father, Herod the Great, he had a pretty violent track record himself, especially in instances when he felt his power was threatened. It was he who was responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist, and he has already ominously indicated that Jesus reminded him of John. Plus, as the one put in charge of the Galilean quarter, he had the full force of the Roman Empire behind him if he needed it. All this is to say that Herod presented a very real danger to Jesus. The Pharisees were not wrong to warn Jesus that Herod was after him.
Still, those Pharisees are interesting, complex figures. They had so much in common with Jesus. They shared a faith and many similar commitments. There are mentions of Pharisees who liked Jesus, who invited him to dinner, who even became followers of his. So I trust that the Pharisees who came to Jesus to warn him about Herod had a genuine concern for his safety. They didn’t want to see Jesus killed.
At the same time, the Pharisees were the most likely debate partners for Jesus and were regularly the recipients of his most direct criticisms. There were real differences between them. So if there was any part of these particular Pharisees that felt Jesus was leading people in the wrong direction, if they believed his view of God’s kingdom was a little too radical and too inclusive, if they were annoyed with his call to leave behind everything that doesn’t serve God’s purposes, then here was a situation they could use to their advantage. What a great opportunity for them to try to get rid of Jesus. “You’re gonna have to leave, Jesus. It’s just not safe around here.”
But the response to Herod and the Pharisees was the same. It didn’t matter who tried to deter him, Jesus was clear what he was about and where he was headed. Yes, Jesus was about to leave Galilee but in his own time. And when he did, he knew exactly where he was going. His message was not going to diminish but increase. He was not going into hiding but traveling straight into the seat of power. Jerusalem was where he needed to be with a message of God’s radical grace, no matter what it cost him.
So while Herod is the obvious threat in this story, I’m especially struck by how Jesus responds to the Pharisees. He could see that they wouldn’t go along with him, that they couldn’t join him in his vision of a radically merciful God. I guess I’m struck by the Pharisees because I can more easily identify with them.
How easy it is to look for reasons not to fully follow Jesus in his way of discipleship. How easy it is to let threats and fears take priority.
This week Pope Francis made headlines when he responded to a reporter’s question by saying, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” I agree wholeheartedly with him from a theological point-of-view. Historically, however, the Christian Church has not always been so good about bridge building. Sadly, fear has a way of creeping into the church, too. Fear of others, fear of a losing one’s way of life, fear that compels us to give up much too quickly on our core convictions. It’s this kind of fear that caused Christians to support slavery in this country and apartheid in South Africa, or to be suspicious of Muslims after September 11, or to seek only the preservation of an institution rather than taking risks for the sake of sharing good news with people who need to hear it. There are just so many opportunities, it seems to me, to delay the work of building bridges because we perceive that threats or insecurities simply demand walls.
So I’m intrigued by the Pharisees and have sympathy for them because they may represent us Christians more than we’d like to admit…. But I’m even more struck by the way Jesus responds… because all that fills his eyes as he looks at them is great compassion. He says to them, and to so many others, “How often have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes of this passage, “If you ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them.” For Jesus, despite the resistance, his invitation to the way of compassion and grace and reconciliation is consistent. No threat will deter him. Perhaps the words of Harper Lee’s famous character, Atticus Finch, are fitting for this passage. He says, “[courage] is when you know you are licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” It’s such courage that drove Jesus. It’s not that he intended to heroically overcome the powers that opposed him, but he continued to be who he was, with trust in the One who had called him beloved at his baptism.
“How often have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” What a stark contrast to the foxes of the world who seek to impose power through violence. Jesus demonstrates instead vulnerable compassion.
It is his way to turn a story on its head. It’s the way a peasant girl Mary can sing a song of revolutionary praise when the lowly are lifted up and the mighty brought down from their thrones. It’s the way a prodigal is welcomed home with an extravagant party. It’s the way a hated Samaritan turns out to be the one who is good. Similarly, his way of responding to threats of bloody violence is to show compassionate care and protection.
This is the Gospel that has been given to us. And when the church is at its best, we too open our sheltering wings wide to welcome anyone who needs nurturing community and the protection of God’s grace. Filled with compassion by the one who demonstrates such persistent love, we continue in his courageous way.