Fox in the Henhouse

Fox in the Hen House (2008), oil and enamel on canvas, 24 x 30 in.,  by Michele Mikesell

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (Luke 13:34)

Whenever I read the story above of Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, I imagine myself nearby, watching him shake his head and listening to him sigh. Do you do that? It’s helpful to imagine ourselves in the text, but we should be willing to see ourselves as the accused, not merely innocent bystanders. We need to ask ourselves, How am I like the unreflective people in the city down below, who go about their daily lives, unwilling to be drawn to him?

It’s interesting that Jesus describes himself as a hen. A chicken is not a very noble creature. It’s weak and vulnerable, even comical. Just two verses earlier he calls King Herod “that fox.” What prompted this comment was a warning that Herod would try to kill Jesus (31). This Herod was Herod Antipas, the same one who had ordered Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist beheaded. Although Herod refused to pass judgment on Jesus when Pilate gave him the chance, Jesus too was executed. The story would be a tragedy, only Jesus, a trickster of sorts, was adept at inversion. He liked to turn things upside down. He says, “The last shall be first” (30). We use the expression “the fox in the henhouse” to describe a situation where a predator is given free reign with its prey. Jesus ends the passage with a promise that one day the victim will become the victor. The hen will rule the fox house.

In this case, the fox house was Jerusalem, but Jesus could have wept over any city, then or now, because of its unresponsive people. Why Jerusalem? Luke mentions Jerusalem ninety times in his gospel, while there are only forty-nine references in the rest of the New Testament. Some scholars believe Luke’s fascination with Jerusalem and its temple is best explained by the fact that it was written after the Jewish War (66-70 CE) in which Jerusalem was totally destroyed. Predictions about the city’s destruction may then be explained away as cases of vaticinium ex eventu—prophecy after the fact (e.g., possibly Luke 21:20). More likely they simply reflect the author’s desire to highlight those things, which appeared most important in hindsight. The apocryphal book 2 Esdras, which may have been written around the same time, has a parallel verse to the one above in which God says to Israel, “I gathered you together, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings: but now, what shall I do unto you? I will cast you out from my face”(1:30). The similarities are striking, only in Luke’s version it’s the unruly chicks who refuse protection.

The imagery is powerful. There’s a hungry fox on the loose. A mother hen is concerned for her chicks. Can you see the picture? The hen frantically flaps around the barnyard, trying to corral her errant brood. Why won’t they come? Don’t they see the danger? The fox licks his chops and creeps closer, eyeing the fluffy yellow morsels darting around. Their mother, now desperate to save them but unable to draw them to safety, does the only thing she can do. She offers herself to the fox. It’s what any good mother would do. I wonder, Do the chicks even realize what has been done to save them? Do we?

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