Commentary on Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
When Pharisees warn Jesus to “get away from here” because Herod has it in for him — the same Herod who executed Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist (Luke 3:19-20; 9:9a), and who will play a role in Jesus’ trial (Luke 23:7-12) — we might expect Jesus to take the hint and high-tail it out of there.1
However, Jesus is not on a journey to get away from it all. He is on a journey to get into it all, specifically into the midst of Jerusalem, into the heart of the people of God — even when they are determined to destroy him (“because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”).
Jesus has been traveling through Galilee: casting out demons, preaching in synagogues, healing the blind and lame, stilling storms, dining with opponents, teaching parables. Not long before this (in narrative time), he “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51); now, he is determined to meet that goal.
Pharisees: Friend or Foe?
Is the Pharisees’ warning friendly or hostile? Modern readers too readily assume that Pharisees were legalistic, oppressive, religious authorities out to “get” Jesus because he violated Torah and taught the love of God.
However, Luke’s portrayal of Pharisees is mixed. To be sure, they raised questions about Jesus’ ministry and his interpretation of the scriptures. It is likely, though, that some of them were genuinely interested in learning from Jesus, traveling a distance to see him (Luke 5:17). They debated him (6:1-5), just as they would debate among themselves.
At times, Pharisees offered hospitality to Jesus, inviting him to dine in their homes (Luke 7:36; 11:37). However, they also criticized Jesus’ choice of dinner companions (Luke 15:2; 5:30). Jesus responds to their questions, but not in ways they welcomed (5:30-32; 11:37-41). Some were openly hostile, trying to trap him (Luke 11:53-54).
Jesus in Luke critiques the Pharisees for their hypocrisy (Luke 12:1), their neglect of justice and the love of God (Luke 11:42), their desire to receive honor and recognition (Luke 11:43), and their love for money (Luke 16:14-15).
Most honest readers will recognize similar characteristics in themselves.
Whatever the Pharisees’ motives, Jesus’ statements that he “must be on my way” and “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” suggest that neither Pharisees nor Herod can alter the divine plan.
What kind of Savior?
If Jesus heeds the Pharisees’ warning, he is likely to be seen as a chicken-hearted prophet who claims to do God’s work but then disappears at the first sign of trouble.
Even so, in this passage, Jesus lifts up the image of mother hen (Luke 13:34), despite several alternative biblical images of messianic expectation found in earlier scriptures:
- A lion, who uses strength to intimidate and crush enemies with a single blow, a military savior-king who promises safety and security in the face of border incursions and terrorist attacks (Hosea 11:10).
- An eagle, a spiritual hero or teacher of righteousness who soars above earthly dreariness, carrying followers to mountaintops of ecstatic experience (Deuteronomy 32:11).
- A bear, a powerful, prophetic savior who charges in to critique a culture that has lost sight of God (Hosea 13:6).
As Jesus laments over the precious city of Jerusalem, he names a very different sort of savior: a mother hen who loves her chicks so fiercely that she offers shelter beneath her wings.
And when the fox prowls, as he always does, the chicks are not left to fight for themselves.
The hen fights on their behalf, putting her life on the line to save them.
Jesus/God as Mother Hen
Insofar as shepherds and landowners are parabolic stand-ins for God, so too are housewives and baker-women — and mother hens.
Jesus in Luke compares God’s persistent seeking to a woman who sweeps the floor in search of a lost coin (Luke 15:8ff, part of next Sunday’s text). He compares God’s reign to leaven that a woman hides in bread dough (Luke 13:21, shortly before the lament over Jerusalem). Preachers may want to explore the bible’s use of female-gendered language to speak of God.
In the Old Testament, we read of “the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:19; Isaiah 42:14), a mother bear protecting her cubs (Hosea 13:8), and a woman nursing her child (Isaiah 49:15). Jesus’ lament echoes Isaiah 66:13: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
Imagination at work: Baby chicks
Jesus laments, “Long have I desired (Greek: thelo) to gather you…but you were not willing (thelo).” Preachers might note and reflect on two things that are obscured by the English translation: (1) to speak of “God’s will” is the same as to speak of “God’s desire”; (2) people of God do not [always] desire (or will), the same thing that God desires (or wills).
What is it like to have a mother hen for a savior? What is it like to be baby chicks in the face of a cosmic battle involving powers that kill? For many, it is tempting to ally with the fox, or at least to call for the farmer and his shotgun. But that is not the way of God.
It is crowded beneath those wings, given that God keeps inviting others into this barnyard kingdom. Still, the hen stays in the barnyard with all of them. When the fox comes, she is there.
She is not the savior we imagined, but the savior we need.
Vulnerability and death
Note the many references to Jesus’ death contained in the short passage (verses 31-34). These hearken back to the beginning of the day’s pericope with its reference to bad and fearful news: Pilate’s murder of Galileans as well as the tower that fell (Luke 13:1). Into this context of fear and death, the images of fox and hen heighten tension in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.
Death is what happens when foxes go after chickens. But death is not the final word. Nor is it the end of the story.
There is no need to get away from it all, because Jesus is present in the midst of it all.
1 Much of the following discussion draws on the author’s serialized Bible Study, Everyday Surprises: The Parables of Jesus, Lutheran Woman Today (now Gather), September 2004– May 2005.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy One of mighty power,
Your word is powerfully dangerous. Your word casts out demons. Your word heals incurable diseases. Your word devours empires. Your word transforms the fabric of the universe. Help us to stand in awe and fear of what your word is capable of doing. Give us courage to speak your word and wisdom to hear it, for the sake of the one whose very whisper can demolish sin, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is a balm, William Dawson