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This Sunday's readings: 2nd Sunday of Lent

by John Pridmore

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Genesis 15.1-12,
17-18; Phillipians 3.17-4.1;
Luke 13.31-end

IMAGES OF ANIMALS are not as abundant in the New Testament as in Shakespeare, but in Sunday’s Gospel we have two of them in the space of a few verses. They could not be more contrasting. We have Herod the fox and Jesus the hen. Fox and hen, like cat and dog, are ancient foes, as many a tale tells us. (“There was once a little red hen that lived in a house by herself in the wood. And over the hill, in a hole in the rocks, lived a sly, crafty old fox . . .”)

It is Luke’s witty way to juxtapose the two images. Herod is the fox, the creature who likes nothing better than chicken for supper. Jesus is the mother hen, who loves her silly chicks, and does all she can to protect them from predators.

First the fox: although he makes few appearances in it, Herod Antipas has a pivotal place in Luke’s Gospel. The purpose of the gospel — Luke’s Gospel and the Christian gospel — is to make us ask just one question, and it is Herod the fox who poses it. “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” And Luke adds, in an understatement as weighty as it is laconic: “He tried to see him” (Luke 9.9).

Herod asks who Jesus is and seeks to see him. The business of evangelism is to invite that question and to encourage that quest — that’s all. Herod had heard the gospel preached by the one he had beheaded, the gospel of John the Baptist, who told people to look at Jesus and who then got out of their way so as not to impede their view of him (John 1.29).

Herod is still wondering who Jesus is, when he is brought before him at his trial (Luke 23.8). It seems that he equivocates to the end. That being so, we are bound to wonder whether Herod wanted Jesus dead, as the Pharisees claim. Such clarity of purpose seems out of character.

If so, the Pharisees’ warning is not a word of friendly advice, but a much more mischievous suggestion. To use another animal image, this is the serpent talking. Luke told us that this slippery customer would be back (Luke 4.13). For Jesus, the advice to clear off and lie low is the same temptation to avoid the cross with which he struggled in the wilderness.

The sayings that Luke alone attributes to Jesus have a haunting resonance all their own. “Today and tomorrow” are the days when the signs of the coming Kingdom are to be seen. The day after tomorrow, “the third day”, will be the day when the work is finished.

To be sure, talk of “the third day” hints at the resurrection, but Luke is here speaking the language of St John, for whom “It is finished” is a cry from the Cross, not from the empty tomb (John 19.30). Jesus’s destination is Jerusalem, and his doom is to suffer what Jerusalem does to its prophets.

“I must keep going — today, tomorrow, and the next day.” Such is the path Jesus took at his baptism. The path is much the same for us who stumble after him. Somehow we have to keep going. “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4.9), but we’re not there yet. For George Herbert, “rest” was the one jewel God declined to bestow on his creature. So God keeps his child in “repining restlessness”.

Let him be rich and wary,
   that at least,
If goodness lead him not,
   yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
“The Pulley”

God give me grace to persevere.

First the fox, then the hen: Jesus says that his feelings for Jerusalem, his longing to save its children from the judgement hanging over them, are those of the mother hen trying to shelter her chicks from danger. Why are we so embarrassed by this image? We need to probe our reluctance to admit the image of the hen alongside that of the lion and the lamb as an icon of Christ.

Is it because we don’t think much of chickens as role models? Yet Jesus implies that we can learn from them. Is it because we don’t think them much to look at? But so they despised “the man of sorrows”, the one who had “no form nor comeliness”, the one from whom “we hid as it were our faces” (Isaiah 53.2,3). Is it their helplessness? But the hen destined for the pot is no more helpless than the lamb led to slaughter.

Or are there obscure, unexamined, and deeply unhealthy gender issues festering beneath the surface? Is our hang-up about this particular avian image the same hesitancy that makes us shy about thinking of God as mother?

Texts

Genesis 15.1-12,

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?”

So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.”

Philippians 3.17-4.1

17Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. 1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Luke 13.31-35

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He 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. 33Yet 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." 34Jerusalem, 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! 35See, 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."’


 

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