A few years ago, my wife and I had the great privilege to travel to the Holy Land for the first time. It was such a memorable trip, not least because the biblical story really came alive for us in unexpected ways by actually experiencing these places. We visited Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity; we traveled along the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized. We walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, visiting Capernaum, where Jesus preached his first sermon, where Simon Peter lived, and where Jesus called his first disciples. We hiked up the mountain to the chapel that now marks the place where Jesus may well have preached the Sermon on the Mount. And we spent several days in the Old City of Jerusalem, walking the Via Dolorosa, following Jesus’ last steps toward the Cross.
We also visited a spot just outside of the old city, on the western slopes of the Mount of Olives, where the Franciscans have built a little chapel, named Dominus Flevit, which is where historians believe today’s gospel story may have taken place. The chapel enjoys a stunning, panoramic view of the Old City.
One can well imagine Jesus standing there, looking down upon this city fraught with so much history, so much promise, so much tragedy, even then. I envision Jesus gazing down upon the houses and the streets of the city, where the men, women and children of Jerusalem, went about their lives, unaware of the world-changing events that were about to happen.
As today’s gospel lesson opens, the Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him that Herod is out for blood. There is reason to believe the Pharisees, of course, because Herod has already imprisoned and murdered Jesus’ friend, John the Baptist. But Jesus will have none of it. In an unusually snarky retort, Jesus responds: Go and tell that fox Herod that I will not be so easily distracted from the ministry of healing that is my call. And then, turning toward the city, Jesus cries out:
“Jerusalem, 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!”
The first thing to notice about this text is that it is a classic cry of lament. Jesus is grieving. He is grieving over the reality that God’s chosen people, symbolized by the holy city of Jerusalem, continue to ignore God’s words to them. They capitulate to the powers that be, they stand idly by in the face of injustice, they chase idols, they pursue destructive paths of living. In short, they do all the things that people do, that we do. And this grieves Jesus because he loves God’s people, and just like when a parent watches a child hurt himself or herself by wandering down some dark alley, it breaks Jesus’ heart to see God’s people so lost.
There is a deep sense of foreboding in this lament too. Beyond reflecting upon Jerusalem’s past and present, Jesus no doubt also knows what lies ahead: that his own fate is inextricably bound up with this city that kills its prophets. He knows that the Cross awaits him. And Jesus senses that the same hardheartedness that historically led God’s people to turn a deaf ear to the prophetic warnings of the past will inevitably lead them to reject God’s own Son.
Just as lament is an element of Jesus’ consciousness as he contemplates his journey to the Cross, so too must lament be an important dimension of the season of Lent for us. During this season we lament all the ways in which our lives are not quite what God intends. And such lament has both a personal and a social dimension. On the one hand, we lament our individual shortcomings.
But, just as importantly, we lament all the social sins that keep us as God’s people from living in community as we should: we lament a seemingly intractable gap between rich and poor; we lament an educational system that fails to reach many of our most vulnerable children; we lament a market-obsessed culture prone to commodify every aspect of human experience; we lament institutionalized forms of racism and sexism and other structural biases in social arrangements that are designed to preserve power in the hands of some and take it away from others; and we lament an environmental policy built around values of dominion and exploitation rather than careful stewardship of the natural order.
We lament, with Jesus, all of these social dysfunctions precisely because they push us apart as human beings, alienating us from ourselves, from our natural world, and from God.
To lament in these ways, I hasten to add, is not the same thing as beating ourselves up with guilt. Guilt tends to be its own sin; a helpless form of self-pity that is not constructive. To lament, on the other hand, is to feel the grief and the sorrow of our shortcomings, but then to allow these feelings to propel us forward in a spirit of change and transformation. True lament invites God into its sorrow in the hope that a new creation will arise from the brokenness.
The second thing to notice about today’s gospel passage is, of course, the beautifully arresting image of Jesus as a mother hen, longing to gather her brood under the protective embrace of her loving wings. Jesus claims this image of a mother hen for himself and squarely pits it against the competing image of Herod the fox. Hens and foxes.
With these two striking metaphors, Jesus invites us to consider two very different ways of being human in the world. The fox is cunning, deceptive, a predator, a creature who lives by violence, lying in wait, ready to pounce on the vulnerable at the first sign of weakness. The fox is out for himself.
The mother hen, on the other hand, is compassionate, caring, a nurturer, always looking out for the other. Her deepest longing is not for her own welfare but for those she loves. She longs to protect, to help those in her charge to flourish, to grow, to live into their full promise. But don’t underestimate the mother hen. For she is so fiercely loyal to her beloved that she will, if need be, lay down her own life for them.
“There are foxes, and there are hens,” Jesus seems to be saying. “I’ve staked my claim. Where are you?”
So, at the same time that Jesus is inviting us into a posture of lament during this season of Lent, he is also, with this captivating image of a mother hen, holding out hope for its redemption in utterly unexpected ways. For God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, just as God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. As the Herods of the world will soon enough discover, living the predatory life has its own self-destructive logic; and standing compassionately alongside the vulnerable turns out to have its own remarkably sustaining grace.
One final, obvious, but nevertheless very important point about this text. Jesus is here claiming a feminine symbol for God. A mother hen. So many of our traditional images for God are masculine: Kings, Lords, Shepherds, Princes of Peace, and so on. Our tradition has overwhelmed us with patriarchal symbols. How we imagine God matters, and it is refreshing for us to notice that Jesus himself is here identifying with the feminine, with the maternal.
Too often we think of God as some cranky, old man in the heavens, eager to condemn us for what we’ve done wrong. What if a more accurate image of God is this compassionate mother hen, longing to love us, to protect us, to gather us under her wings? What if God’s essential nature is not so much to dispassionately judge us, as it is to passionately love us? That is the glimpse of the divine that Jesus offers us today; an image of God well worth our prayers this Lent; and, one for which we can be deeply grateful. Amen.