The Fox and the Hen

Rev. Harrison gave this sermon on Sunday, February 24th, 2013. The text for the passage is Luke 13:31-35. Have a great week!

The Fox and the Hen

There’s an old logic puzzle: You’re carrying a hen, some corn, and a fox, and you need to cross a river. But the boat you use to ferry yourself across can only handle you and one other thing. If you leave the fox on the bank with the hen, the fox will eat the hen, if you leave the hen with the corn, the hen will eat the corn. How do you get across? You’ve probably heard it, before. You’re supposed to bring the hen across first (leaving the fox and the corn alone on the other side), then take the fox over, and bring the hen back, leaving the fox across and returning the hen to the first shore. Then bring the corn, so that fox and corn are at the destination, and then go back and get the hen.

But there’s a comic I read recently proposed a novel solution. It’s a lot less tricky. First, you bring the hen across. Then, you go back and get the corn. Finally, leave the fox there. What were you doing with a fox?[1]

In our story in Luke, some Pharisees come to Jesus with a warning. They tell him that he needs to leave, because Herod is planning to kill him. It’s not really clear whet kind of warning this is, considering that the Gospel authors don’t always treat the Pharisees with the greatest respect. It could be a friendly warning, the Pharisees trying to protect another rabbi from Herod, our it could be something more sinister, the Pharisees passing on a threat, hoping that it would intimidate Jesus. There’s not really a way for us to know. What we know, is Jesus’ response to Herod’s ultimatum.

You know during the famous “Battle of the Bulge” in World War II, US troops became surrounded near the town of Bastogne, in France. The German commander sent the surrounded forces a message, reminding them of the situation and demanding their unconditional surrender. General McAuliffe, the Army general in charge of our forces sent a one word reply: “Nuts!” I think Jesus’ response to Herod’s threats were something like that.

“Go and tell that fox for me,” he says, ““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.”

Quite simply, Jesus has a mission to fulfill, and he will not be stopped. Jesus knows he has a date with destiny in Jerusalem but he’s not there yet, and he has work to do. He has come to establish his kingdom. It’s our mission too. There are demons to be cast out, there are broken people to be made whole, and he will be doing it, come what may. The Pharisees warning, whatever its intent may be, might have an effect on someone else, but it won’t slow him down.

So Christ rejects the threats of that fox Herod. He is here to resist the Herods of the world, and so in response to that fox he declares himself a hen. It makes you wonder, why a hen? Why not something fierce and strong and more powerful than a fox? Why not the Lion of Judah? Or a mother bear separated from her cubs, as Hosea wrote? Why a hen, the fabled prey of foxes, incapable, slow, and weak? That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence…[2]

But I guess it’s what we should expect. Jesus has a way of turning our ideas on their heads. He challenges our notions about what is powerful, and where our victories lie. His wisdom is folly and his victory is defeat. And so he does it again. To counter the fox, he becomes the hen.

Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, and us to his brood. It’s an image we don’t see as often in the Bible, though it’s present nonetheless. God loves us as a mother loves her child. Our Lord’s love is fierce and unwavering. Though we scatter and run, it never falters, but longs to gather us in. It’s watching your baby get on the bus for his first day of kindergarten. Or boot camp. It’s getting in the passenger seat with a fifteen year old driver, mashing your foot against the floorboards but putting your life in his hands nonetheless. It’s saying, “he’s no good for you” but still letting you borrow the car keys anyway, and holding you in her arms when you come home with a broken heart.  It is love. Plain and simple. It’s the heart that is strong enough to let us go, but breaks with each step we take away from her arms.

“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!”

This love, is what the hen will bring to face the fox. Jesus knows that his final destination is Jerusalem, and he knows what will happen there, and he goes anyway. The hen sees the fox prowling outside the coop, and her chicks scattered across the yard, and strides to meet him head on. Jesus longs for us the people of Jerusalem to hear and repent, and come to him, but he knows that his destiny is the cross. On that day his work will be complete.

The third day I will finish my work, he says. His statement makes it clear, his dying on the cross is no less a part of his work than the teaching, and vice versa. His life and his death go together; they are both about establishing the kingdom of God, neither can be understood without the other. This goes for us too. The work of ministry and the cross go together, in his life and in ours. We can’t free captives, deliver the oppressed, and cast out demons without the people who benefited from those injustices getting upset. Wherever there are scattered chicks, the foxes are not far off. If we really and truly follow in Jesus footsteps, our path will lead to Calvary.

But to skip straight to Calvary offers us little as well. Christ’s death and resurrection mean nothing if we do not know that he did it for us, if we do not hear the good news he preached. Suffering for its own sake has no meaning at all. It is only when our suffering is like Christ’s, a gift freely offered that others might live in freedom, that it is worthwhile. Jesus’ gift to us is his love, he loves us enough to show us a new path, and he loves us enough to walk down that path and hope that we might follow.

Herod and the Pharisees thinks that death threats will stop him, or at least slow him down. They think that they have the power in this situation, and that Jesus should back off or bow down, but he will do neither. They don’t realize the power that Jesus has, the power of love. They don’t understand that his destination is the cross, so he has nothing to fear from them, for perfect love casts out fear.

He spreads his arms wide on the cross, dying that we might bear witness to his Kingdom here with him. And on the third day his work is completed, in an empty tomb. The power of love holds within it the power of life, a power that death cannot fathom, that the fox cannot understand. In his resurrection we are redeemed, we are gathered, we are loved, with the fierce and passionate love of a mother for her child. It’s a love that hates to let us go, but will always welcome us home. And when we finally grasp it, when we finally stop hiding in our Upper Rooms, behind our locked doors and closed hearts, we will be able to say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” and we will understand.

[2] Taylor, Barbara Brown. “As A Hen Gathers Her Brood” The Christian Century, 25 Feb 1986, p. 201. Accessed online:


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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