When I was a child we lived on a couple of acres outside of town in an old farmhouse. There was a barn next to the house, and some smaller sheds and outbuildings, and although we didn’t have pigs or cows or chickens or geese, we did have dogs and cats. At any given time we might have a couple of dogs and half a dozen cats, which worked fine because the animals were usually outside. We didn’t worry about fencing or leashing the dogs because the house was well back from the road, and the neighboring houses were few and a good distance away. The cats also came and went as they pleased, and some of them spent more time in and around the house, and others preferred the outbuildings and the fields.
The top part of the barn was a haymow, which you climbed up into on a ladder fixed to the wall, and at the base of the ladder was a small windowless room. I guess it had been used to store a smaller amount of hay so the farmer didn’t have to climb up into the haymow and throw some down every time he wanted to feed his horses and cows. And there was still hay on the floor of this little room, about a foot deep, and at least a couple of times that I remember, one of our animals decided that this would be a good place to give birth to her young. I know it happened at least once with puppies, and there’s a story about that which will have to wait for another day. And it happened at least once with kittens, because I remember the morning my brother Gordon got up early and went out to the barn to visit a litter of kittens, and came running back into the house, calling for us in alarm to come and see. And we ran to the barn to find that every one of the kittens was dead, their little bodies scattered here and there, their necks torn and broken.
There is no way to know what kind of animal it was that did this, but my money is on a fox. Foxes typically kill their prey by gripping it by the neck and shaking. They also kill more than they need, when the opportunity arises, and bury the leftovers for later. Perhaps the mother cat had been gone and returned, or one of our dogs heard a noise from the barn and went to investigate, and surprised the hunter before it could carry its prizes away. And I’m going to say it was a fox, because that’s what Jesus calls Herod in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. Some Pharisees have come to warn him that Herod, the ruler of Galilee, the one who threw John the Baptist in prison and executed him, now is out to kill Jesus so he should move along from there. And Jesus says, “Go and tell that fox that I have work to do, healing the people who need healing, and I will not leave here ‘til I’m done.”
I don’t think Jesus calls Herod a fox because he’s a sly trickster, or a charming rogue like the foxes in the children’s songs and folk tales that we know. He calls him a fox because he is an opportunistic killer like the one who came prowling around our barn. I take Jesus’ saying that way because he goes on to say more to the Pharisees about the work he has come to do. He tells them that when he’s finished there, he will move on from Galilee, but not because he’s afraid of Herod—but because he has a further mission to carry out with respect to the people of Jerusalem. And Jesus uses an image to describe his intentions toward Jerusalem and her children, which could not contrast more sharply with the intentions of men like Herod—they are like foxes who prey on the people whom God loves, but he is like a mother hen, who wants only to gather them underneath her wings, and keep them together and keep them safe.
Jesus is going to Jerusalem because he has to, because he is a Jew and Jerusalem is the place toward which all the desire of his people is bent. All their hopes for justice and peace, for unity with one another, for the vindication of their people and their peculiar religion against the nations that oppress them, are focused Jerusalem. Because that is where sacred revelation says that God has chosen to make his name and his glory dwell. This invests that place with an extraordinary sacred power. This results in giving the people who possess that place, and control access to it, political and economic power. And one could be forgiven for assuming that Jesus’ purpose in going to Jerusalem is to confront those people and challenge their power. Certainly it appears that the chief priests and scribes who controlled the temple in Jerusalem looked at him that way. I think we can suppose that a great many of the people who followed him from Galilee had the same idea.
But this passage in Luke seems to say that Jesus’ business in Jerusalem is not with her rulers, or at least not with them alone. He is not going there to overthrow them, or reform their institutions, or take the reins of their power. Jesus goes to Jerusalem not as one who is seeking to get anything, power least of all; he goes as the prophets before him went, as one who is sent. It is power that sends him, the power of the Holy Spirit of God. In response to the desire of the children of Jerusalem, their longing for the presence of God, Jesus is coming with the power of an answering desire. It is the same desire that came to Abram with the invitation to a covenant relationship, and the promise of children as numerous as the stars. It is the desire for a people, who will live together in the land that the Lord will give, in unity and justice, and holiness and peace. It is the desire of a mother to gather her children under the shelter of her wings.
Jesus already knows from his experience in Galilee that God’s offer through him of forgiveness and love, of the healing medicine that breaks down walls of fear and exclusion and creates a beloved community, is perceived by lots of people as a threat. He is astute enough to understand that the people of Jerusalem probably won’t care to hear about it; they prefer their little privileges over their less fortunate neighbors, or their resentments over their more fortunate ones, their fantasies of violent revolution, and party quarrels, and winner-take-all struggles for political and economic power. And yet he is going anyway, even though he knows he is likely to suffer the fate that always seems to wait for prophets like him. Because the desire of God will not be denied. It must make its appeal, even though its only weapons are words of truth, and the love that never gives up hoping for an answering response from the beloved.
It is a presidential election year in our country, and the candidates are abroad, appealing to the people. And their message is strikingly similar, whichever party they seek to represent: “Put me in the White House,” they say, “and I will seize power from your enemies and give it back to you.” They may have differences of opinion about who the enemy is. For some it is the billionaires, the Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs. For some it is the socialists and government bureaucrats. But all are agreed on one thing, which is the greatness of the people, who are the innocent virtuous victims of some predatory class. It is hard to deny the appeal of this message. Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do to get out of the mess we’re in was to change the people in control of the levers of power? Wouldn’t it be grand if we didn’t have to change the way we think or the way we live in any fundamental way?
Prophets like Jesus confront us with the emptiness of this dream. That’s why we tend to kill them—because we don’t want hear about our own responsibility for the violence and injustice and waste that goes on in the world. And we don’t want to know that God has a different dream, a dream of safety for all of us, and unity beneath the cover of her sheltering wings. Most of all we don’t want to know that we have the power to turn in the direction of that dream, and that our turning is the turning of the world. But God’s desire will not be denied. The one who comes in the name of the Lord holds that power in trust for us, and offers it with unconditional love and absolute humility. And he asks nothing from us but acceptance of his gift.