At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He 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. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 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! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In our passage today, Jesus describes himself with one of the most comforting and beautiful images of the divine in all of Scripture: A mother hen longing to bring her stubborn chicks under the shelter of her wings. But it really is an odd image for Jesus to have chosen, especially if he was building on other bird imagery for God from the Old Testament. As theologian Daniel Defenbaugh has said, “the most common [bird] reference is to Deuteronomy 32:11, where God is compared to an eagle that stirs up her nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings over the people of Israel, but… if this is indeed the allusion that Jesus wishes to make, then why did he draw on the example of a mother hen?” (Daniel G. Defenbaugh, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 2 (Lent through Eastertide), pg. 72)
Defenbaugh offers an explanation that I never would have considered. Perhaps Jesus’ description of himself as a bird longing to brood over her chicks recalls that Deutoronomy bird imagery of an eagle brooding over her nest because that word for brood in Deuteronomy is the same one used in the Genesis 1 creation narrative, where the Spirit of God broods over the waters. Maybe, first and foremost, Jesus’ use of this bird language is about creation, a new creation that he came to embody. But again, why not simply use that image of an eagle from his own tradition to paint a picture of God’s brooding, winged Spirit hovering over chaos to create something new? Why invoke the creation bird language and then call yourself a mother hen instead of an eagle?
To understand why, we must first understand that the eagle image was used in another context in Jesus’ day: as a symbol of the Roman empire. I learned this week that “in ancient Rome, the eagle was known as the king of birds. It was a symbol of imperial power, and therefore represented courage, strength and immortality. Most famously, the eagle… featured on the standard of the Roman Legions. The standard bearer… would carry the eagle into battle.” (“The history of the Roman eagle.”) The eagle image had become a symbol of the dominating military forces of Rome, of the way of violent subjugation, the way of social control, the way of lifting up one group at the expense of another.
It’s not lost on me that the founding fathers of our own country chose an eagle to represent America’s values at our nation’s inception, making no secret of the ways they were modeling our new nation after the Roman empire. And we don’t need to look further than the American obsession with power-over-domination and violence to see the ways this is true today. President Biden has doubled down on the American commitment to violence even in his recent State of the Union address. He proclaimed that “the answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police… Fund them. Fund them. Fund them…” he said. (Fola Akinnibi, “Biden Scorns ‘Defund the Police’ as Cities Rush to Spend on Cops With major U.S. cities already increasing police funding, Biden’s criticism offers a preview of Democrats’ midterm election positioning.”) This sparked “raucous applause that brought both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to their feet,” and caused a nearly impossible-to-unite congress to agree on at least one thing: that the way forward as a nation is to pour even more money into an institution of policing that has never been about protecting communities and has always been all about controlling and lynching Black, brown, and poor bodies in order to protect the private poverty of wealthy white people. Let me tell you, friends, there is a short distance between the institution of modern day policing that our nation’s leaders are clamoring to over-fund and the Herod who was after Jesus in this passage. For Herod was essentially a Roman chief of police that, as theologian N.T. Wright put it, had been “promoted from nowhere to keep order at the far end of [Roman] territories.” (Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, pg. 172.) For all the things we can say the eagle represents for our country even today, we know its lineage is steeped in the ways of violence that go back all the way to this moment with Jesus in Luke chapter 13.
So it makes sense that Jesus is refusing to use the eagle as the symbol for what he came to create. For what the eagle stands for in the Roman empire could not be more antithetical to Jesus’ ministry. From the beginning, when Jesus preached his first sermon, he had chosen the way of peace. He stood in the tradition of Isaiah, proclaiming from the front of his hometown synagogue Isaiah’s words of resistance to caging and oppressing people, saying that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Throughout his ministry, I imagine Jesus keeping other words about embodying peace in the face of empire from Isaiah before him. I wonder if he laid awake at night with images from Isaiah 2 in his mind’s eye, images of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, melting down weapons of war, domination, and violence to fashion tools used for gardening and cultivating life.
The mother hen imagery is birthed from Jesus’ commitment to create a kin-dom that resists the eagle empires of this world at every turn. The way of the empire’s eagle is to punish, but the way of Jesus the mother hen is to gather every single chick back under her wings. The way of the empire’s eagle is to dominate and control, but the way of Jesus the mother hen is to long for her chicks to come home according to their own free will. The way of the empire’s eagle is to dispose of those who step out of line, as chief-of-police Herod was trying to do to Jesus, but the way of Jesus the mother hen is to relentlessly seek the chicks who resist coming to their mama, beckoning them to come under the warm feathers of her wings that are always waiting for them.
Modern day prison and police abolitionists know that when they peacefully call leaders to defund the police and fund life-affirming services of care like housing, robust mental healthcare, and community-led safety programs, they will be tear-gassed and arrested by the very forces they seek to dismantle. In the same way, Jesus knows in our passage today that his commitment to stand against the empire of Rome will lead to his death. Even so, Jesus says in response to the warnings about chief-of-police-Herod who is out for his blood, “You can’t stop this mother hen. I’ll keep calling y’all to divest from this empire and invest in ways of peace until you put me on a cross. I’ll keep being the mother hen who seeks to welcome home and include and provide care as long as the forces of domination will let me stay alive, which I know won’t be long. For I am Jesus, the mother hen, who is hovering over this chaos to bring forth a new creation where systems of dominance collapse and my nurturing wings of life enfold everyone who decides to come on home.”
We know from Jesus’ own Lenten journey that this way of the mother hen will not make us popular. But the choice is ours. Jesus longs for us to relentlessly shed every form of violence and domination that is killing us to find shelter under Christ’s wings of true peace-building. Let us not be the little birds Jesus’ laments who stubbornly refuse the refuge of the mother hen’s wings. Let us be instead the little birds who, even in the fear and chaos of these times, come under the wings of our Savior, defunding systems of violence and investing the entirety of our lives in the way of true and lasting peace. Amen. I now invite all who wish to sing along with our responding hymn, “We Pray For Peace,” sung by Ron Marshall. This is a special song written by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette in solidarity with our siblings facing war in Ukraine and with longing for all forms of violence and domination to end.