Ours is an age of fear and anxiety. Who will do us in, the terrorists, the politicians, or the bankers? We are assaulted every day with the message that “somethings gonna’ gitcha if you don’t watch out”. Is it all going to fall apart? Adrienne Rich, in one of his poems writes that it only takes a bit of ice on a road or a few cells dividing out of control to steal away our loved ones. We’ve become so accustomed to the daily litany of what might destroy us that we’ve haven’t noticed how that fearfulness changes the patterns of our lives.
Fox and Hen
I guess some similes have been around a very long time. Two real classics show up in the five verses of our Gospel reading for today. This little passage begins with a warning to Jesus from, of all people, the Pharisees.
31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Jesus’ message was a problem for both the political and religious authorities of his day – still is. But what was certain was that Herod could, by a stroke of a pen or a simple command, bring Jesus’ ministry to a screeching halt. Hadn’t he cut short the work of John the Baptist – not a pretty picture. So I couldn’t help but wonder about the motivation of these Pharisees. Was it a lie? Were the Pharisees just messengers sent by Herod in order to intimidate Jesus? Or was this public knowledge that had come to their attention? These could have been true followers of Abraham and the Prophets who as encouragers of Jesus’ ministry were genuinely concerned for his safety. For some of them, finding a way to encourage Jesus to leave their community would certainly serve their interests. Maybe it is a reminder to us that we need to be careful not to casually lump people together. Jesus receives their warning as from a friend while probably having his own thoughts as to where the cunning danger lie. You would expect that the impact of the message was to strike fear into the heart of Jesus and his band of followers.
A couple of years ago Pete Steinke reminded us of Paul Tillich’s three dimensions of anxiety. Tillich noted that human beings must confront the anxiety of non-being, by which he meant death, the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of unpredictability and uncertainty. Pete was describing a gathering of former classmates when one of them, a philosophy professor, had asked: “What fears have you conquered over the years and what new ones have you acquired?” After some embarrassed silence several things were mentioned in the ‘fears overcome’ category: like claustrophobia and arachnophobia, like fear of abandonment and even the dark. The newer fears were things like being overmedicated and left slobbering in a nursing home wheel chair, a recurrence of cancer, and having to think about one’s mortality. Interesting how those last three illustrate Tillich’s trilogy.
Fear can be a wake up call, arousing our awareness of danger. It can also do just the opposite – overwhelm and paralyze us. With extreme fear the chemical secretions of our anatomy, though initially producing intense vigilance, flood our brain and rivets our attention on the threat. Fear takes over, over-whelming our ability to be imaginative and reasonable. Fear causes us to lose the ability to see beyond the threat.
As I read this verse it put me in mind of the Travelocity commercial that begins with the pointy hatted gnome looking like he is sking, that then reveals that he is watching a TV screen and singing “ I’ve got to get away from here…” Would you think that Jesus might have been thinking the same thing? Jesus drew on some resources that were not only available to him but to us as well.
32He (Jesus) 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.”
Now grizzly bears, cougars, killer whales can be pretty scary. The fox doesn’t have such a fearsome reputation in human lore. A fox isn’t the scariest creature you could encounter. But, as one person suggested, they can put a serious dent in your backpacking if you don’t pay attention – just how far can you hike with only one boot?
We’ve got to believe that Jesus knew exactly what he was saying when he called King Herod “that fox”. Most certainly he was acknowledging the way in which Herod, with a simple decree, could in quick and ugly fashion end his ministry. And yet he didn’t characterize him as a roaring lion or a wolf but as an annoying petty thief – clever, capable but in the final analysis not really terrifying. Jesus knows that the greatest threat to his work is getting side tracked from his mission of proclaiming that God’s kingdom is at hand, available to all including those who society has written off; the widows, debtors, tax collectors, little children and sinners. Pam Fickenscher picks up on Jesus’ fierce maternal love for those who most need to hear his message. But sticking with his brood, these little ones, lost ones, discarded ones, increases his vulnerability to the likes of foxes like Herod.
Ours is an age of fear and anxiety. Who will do us in, the terrorists, the politicians, or the bankers? We are assaulted every day with the message that “somethings gonna’ gitcha if you don’t watch out”. Is it all going to fall apart? Adrienne Rich, in one of his poems writes that it only takes a bit of ice on a road or a few cells dividing out of control to steal away our loved ones. We’ve become so accustomed to the daily litany of what might destroy us that we’ve haven’t noticed how that fearfulness changes the patterns of our lives. We lock our doors, never let our children out of our sight – we can’t even let the dog out to run in its own yard for fear of someone tossing a poison meatball over the fence. We collect these stories of threat, letting them inform us what streets not to venture down, until finally we find ourselves stuck in what we hope is a safe zone, restricting our activities, our relationships, even how we share our resources with others. Is it possible that we spend so much time guarding our health, our possessions, our safety that we miss the point of being alive? But if Jesus is our model we dare not think that the safe path is necessarily the faithful one.
Jesus is so mission focused that even a king appears to be no more than an annoying fox – an unclean, dog-sized carnivore who cannot have the last word. And in contrast Jesus offers us this beautiful word picture of safety and security in speaking to those of his own faith community. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel declared that the role of the prophet is ‘to cast out fear”. In the 27th Psalm the Psalmist asks: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; what shall I fear?” And he goes on: “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” These are two of more than 300 references to fear in the Bible. In our Psalm passage those who induce fear are identified as slanderers, adversaries, breathers of violence and betraying relatives. To respond to their threats the Psalmist doesn’t stoop to simplistic platitudes. He understands that if there is to be any encouragement it must come from outside the heart of the fearful. Confident that the Lord is his light, salvation and stronghold, the Psalmist asserts:
“For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent, he will set me high on a rock.”
No matter the circumstances the threats the Psalmist faces are not able to shake his confidence in God. He has known God’s faithfulness. In the face of circumstances and threats that appear to deny God’s goodness, he trusts that which is beyond his ability to see and states his conviction that God will be faithful. In the service of prophecy the Psalmist employs poetry, showing how to leverage fear into energy, transform danger into possibility, and switch power from the scary present to the things that might be. “I believe” exclaims the Psalmist, “that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” This assurance is at the very heart of the Gospel. Our God is not only the author of all things, our God is also the God of promise.
That 34th verse is striking in its juxtaposition of images. 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.”
It recognizes the violent horror of prophets being stoned, a bloody practice to be sure. Then Jesus follows this image with the tender and compassionate description of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings, which speaks of warmth, protection, and love. Together they form a heart-rending lament for a city that has exhibited a pattern of misunderstanding and ill treatment for those whom God sends to it. God’s response to such a stubborn and misguided populace is not retribution but rather lamentation and persistence. God is not done with Jerusalem and its people. In fact, it is that very promise – that God in Jesus Christ comes to them still. God continues to engage and pursue these very ones who less dramatically have written off; the widows, debtors, tax collectors, and children and who have violently silence the corrective voice of God. It is the people of Jerusalem who will see God’s own willingness to suffer and die for them face-to-face come Good Friday. It is an extraordinary statement on the grace of God, and also a compelling proclamation that no place stands exempt from God’s tender compassion and persistent love. Those who seek to follow Jesus must learn to view the world with no less compassion, no less forgiveness, and no less love. And such love casts out fear.
In this season of repentance and reflection, we are called to examine the many ways in which we fall short of God’s intention for us. Too often we do not exhibit God’s grace to the world. It is unfortunately commonplace for Christians to be characterized as unforgiving, judgmental, fearful and hypocritical. Is there a lesson we might learn from Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem? When we begin to realize that God’s response to hostility and violence is not retribution, but rather lament and persistent grace, how might our relationships with the fearful, violent, and hostile world change?