When we read a scripture passage in our Monday night Bible study group, my first questions are always, “What do you notice? What grabs you?” Here are the things that jumped out at me in this text:
Pharisees are the ones warning Jesus to save himself. Why?
“It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” Is this a rule? What’s that about?
Fox/hen imagery: hen as vulnerable, defending her chicks, willing to become the fox’s prey in the hopes—not guaranteed—that at least some of her chicks will survive.
A few more questions surface: Why is this a Lenten reading? What does any of this have to do with us?
So at the beginning of this passage, some Pharisees warn Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Given how Pharisees tend to be portrayed in the New Testament, we might assume they have ulterior motives. But as we know, the threat turns out to be real. Maybe we shouldn’t paint all Pharisees with the same brush. It’s good to remember not to stereotype. Maybe these are decent individuals and they are honestly concerned for Jesus’ welfare. Whether they agree with his ministry or not, they may not wish to see him killed.
I think either of these readings is certainly possible. We don’t have enough information about these particular Pharisees to know what’s going through their minds. But there may be a clue in Jesus’ response 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.’”
This response cracks me up on one level, because it’s almost as if he’s consulting his calendar. “Let’s see, today and tomorrow are all booked up with casting out demons and curing people, so I can’t leave right away—maybe Tuesday?”
Yet in the next sentence he reasserts his intention to continue on to Jerusalem, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” That sounds like a death wish, like he’s got some martyrdom complex. Or perhaps just a solid commitment to his mission, with a pretty good idea of how it’s all going to turn out.
What is it about Jerusalem that it becomes the go-to place to kill prophets? It is, of course, the center of Judaism, the location of the temple or House of God. We’ll come back to that house image later. Anyone who wants to speak truth to power about how the high priests are colluding with Rome, or about political and economic oppression, has to come to Jerusalem to deliver the message. So Jerusalem as the seat of Jewish power would also be the seat of authority for killing prophets.
I want to be clear that I’m not talking about anti-Semitism in speaking against the Jewish seat of power. If we think of Jerusalem metaphorically as the center of our own soul, or the center of our own church or community, Jesus has to speak to us right at the core of our being—right at the center of our power—about whatever we’re doing that’s dysfunctional, that takes us away from God. This isn’t just about Jews; it’s about being human.
When the tent of God was first built in the Old Testament, it was so that the Israelites could live closely and in right relationship with God. God was in their midst, guiding them, loving them, protecting them. They brought their best selves into such holy space. They confessed whatever their sins were, offered God a sacrifice on the altar, and healed that relationship. It took a certain amount of self-reflection and humility to admit they had made mistakes, but forgiveness meant that right relationship was restored, and they could emerge from that tent healed, whole, and free to be that best self from that moment forward.
Over time the tent of God turned into the temple, with the best wood, the best gold and silver, the finest and richest of everything. It became an institution, a political power in its own right. Sacrifices weren’t enough: there had to be taxes as well. The mission of protecting the widow and orphan was nixed in favor of getting in bed with the Roman oppressors and utilizing the tax opportunities to tax poor families right off their land in order to support the expenses of an occupying army. Priorities had become muddled.
And here comes Jesus, casting out demons and performing cures—which is what God is all about.
Here comes Jesus, preaching and teaching that God loves every single person, even the ones too poor or sick or marginalized to be seen and valued in the community.
Here comes Jesus, inviting every individual—even those at the very height of power—to open themselves to change, redemption, and healing.
This is the work of God. Not all the fancy wood, silver, and gold. Not all that taxation and political power. The contrast between God’s priorities and the Temple’s priorities is clear right in this moment. And Jesus is intent on making that point to those at the heart of religious and political power in Jerusalem. The Pharisees and Herod are uncomfortable with this truth. They are trying to push him away. So perhaps that answers our question about the Pharisees’ motives in warning him away. “Stay in the provinces with that song and dance. Do not bring it to Jerusalem. We don’t want to hear all your idealism, all your peace, love, and justice routine. We don’t have time for it. We would kill you sooner than take in that message. We would rather kill you than change our ways or give up our power.”
Jesus knows this is going to be their response. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he says, “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’s a striking image. Jesus has already cast Herod as the fox, and now we have Jesus as a vulnerable hen, under attack, willing to protect her chicks even if it means sacrificing herself to become dinner for the fox. It’s a divine feminine image, and far from being omnipotent it is weak, vulnerable, but full of love for doing the right thing, for protecting the powerless even unto death.
And the worst of it is, the chicks won’t even come under the hen’s wings. Listen again: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” You were not willing to come under divine protection. These chicks apparently think they can protect themselves—that they don’t need God.
I think that’s the crux of the problem: when we think we’re strong enough to protect ourselves, we stray from the nurturing love and care of that divine mother hen. We try to develop our own armor, and it’s either not enough or it just gets us in trouble.
In this season of Lent, we are invited to reflect on what armor we carry and to put it down, because it keeps us away from authentic relationships with God and with each other.
Somewhere in your past, someone hurt you. It’s part of the human experience: we all get hurt. Maybe it was as simple as a punch in the arm, or maybe it was much more profound. But you get punched in the arm enough times and you develop strategies to keep from getting hurt again. The next time someone goes to punch you in the arm, they discover that you are wearing armor. The next time someone tries to abuse you, you have come up with ways to separate yourself from fully experiencing that pain.
I’ve been reading the book Educated, by Tara Westover, which is a memoir about growing up in a big family in rural southern Idaho with a bipolar father and a physically abusive older brother. At a certain point, after a particularly bad incident, Tara looks at herself in the mirror and decides that her father and her brother will never be able to hurt her again. This is an illusion, but it is her attempt to have some sense of control over the situation. However, the main effect is to cut herself off from her own feelings and her own soul. She puts on this armor of indifference, of power, but more and more she loses herself and her capacity to feel. I’m not saying she made a bad choice—she made a necessary choice in order to survive an untenable situation. But the cost to her own soul was enormous.
We don’t like to be vulnerable. We don’t want to set ourselves up for abuse or martyrdom. So we put on armor. We develop coping strategies. We try to gain some sense of power over awful situations. We do it as individuals, and we do it as church, as community, as society. We put up walls to keep people out. We build gated communities. We put armed guards in schools and shopping malls and tell teachers to start carrying guns. No one chooses to be the weaker party.
Except Jesus. Here he is, standing with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. Here he is, mother hen trying to defend her chicks when there’s a fox in the henhouse. Here he is, facing Jerusalem with all its power and corruption, and going anyway, even after being warned of the consequences.
When we tell ourselves that we have enough armor, enough power, to take care of ourselves, we cut ourselves off from God. We are like those chicks running around the henhouse, about to be scooped up and turned into an appetizer for some hungry fox. But we would rather hang onto our illusions of power than take shelter under God’s wing. We would rather not look at the trauma that caused us to don armor all those years ago than to examine the pain and move through it to healing, love, and reconnection with the divine.
This is what the season of Lent is all about. We may choose to give up something not randomly but because it clears space in our lives to reflect on our relationship with the divine and to figure out whether our armor is actually helping or hindering.
Reflecting on our defense systems and the illusion of our own power is humbling work. Twelve-step programs talk about admitting our powerlessness—that we are not, in fact, in control—and recentering our lives on a higher power. They also talk about recognizing who has been hurt by our behavior and then making amends. Talk about humbling! But powerful, too: the potential for reconnection and healing is profound.
This is the very work of healing that Jesus is doing when the Pharisees invite him to leave. When they approach him, he is “casting out demons and performing cures.” Casting out demons and performing cures—what is that but bringing to the light of day the very things hidden deep in our psyches that sabotage us, that keep us apart from God, that prevent us from having authentic and healthy relationships with each other?
When there is a mass shooting, as there was this week in New Zealand, some people say the answer is more guns, more armor, more defense. Jesus says the opposite. The answer is to love each other. The answer is to let that mother hen take us under her wing.
I read that when the killer approached one of the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, one of his victims said, “Hello, brother.” And then the killer shot him. “Brother.” Even to his last words, the victim affirmed that we are all connected. We are brothers and sisters.
In this Lenten season, let us affirm our deepest connections to God and each other and work to disarm anything within us that stands in the way.
Back around 1971, some ad executives at McCann Erickson came up with this feel-good song for Coca-Cola, and they filmed it with a bunch of young people of all backgrounds coming together in a field. Many of you were around then and could probably still sing some of the lyrics: “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony….” It’s this image of love and peace, living together, all getting along. It’s such a great image that the song was reworked without the references to Coca-Cola and released as a single. It sold millions. Coca-Cola actually waived its royalties and donated $80,000 to UNICEF. The song began to create its own momentum for the world it described.
We can choose the world in which we want to live. We can’t all live in love and harmony if we’re armed to the teeth, determined to die rather than give up our old ways. This is the contrast that Jesus is pointing out.
It’s up to us to choose the life we want to live: stuck in the past, stuck in old wounds, stuck in dysfunction and corruption—or freed to love, demons all cast out, healed and whole, reconnected with God and each other. Greta Thunberg, a teenager in Sweden, learned about climate change and decided to skip school every Friday to picket the Swedish parliament. One girl in braids—what can she possibly do to change the world? But she was like Jesus, speaking truth to power at the center of her government. This past Friday, an estimated 1.5 million students all over the world skipped school to rally and tell our leaders it’s time to change our ways. Our leaders are stuck in the old ways, and maybe we are, too. But these youths, these prophets speaking truth to power, are telling us it’s time.
A word in the original Greek is missing in our English NRSV in this reading. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “See, your house is left to you.” The missing word in that sentence can be translated as “desolate,” “forsaken,” “vacant,” or “abandoned.” Jesus is saying, “You can defend the old house, the old, corrupt ways, but ultimately that old house will have no soul left in it. That house of God will be empty. The living house of God is out here transforming people’s lives, being vulnerable and authentic, speaking truth to power.”
What does this Lenten reading from 2,000 years ago have to do with us? We have to be willing to be vulnerable, to change, grow, heal, take a stand, even if it means sacrifice. Go and stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters in solidarity after this tragic shooting. Go and stand at the seat of power and say we have to address climate change or our house—our home, this planet—will be abandoned and desolate. We have to be willing to speak truth to power, even when there’s a cost, because living in the old, corrupt ways is destroying us, destroying our societies, killing people, and ravaging the planet. This is how important our Lenten practice is. Take the time in this season to open yourself to healing so that we can all teach the world to sing about peace, love, justice, and God’s wings spread out to protect us. Amen.