“The Fox and the Hounds”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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 outside of 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.’”(NRSV)
“Go and tell that fox for me,” says Jesus, that I’m busy, and I don’t have time to worry about you.
The murderous fox is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Antipas governed the northern tetrarchy of Galilee, and he lived in his capital city of Tiberius on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.1Now, maybe Herod does want to kill Jesus. It seems to me, though, that either Luke gets confused, or he’s throwing shade at the Pharisees. I say that because during Luke’s account of Jesus’ trial, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, whom Luke places in Jerusalem at the time. (This whole scene is unique to Luke’s gospel.) And Luke says that Herod is “glad” to see Jesus. In fact, he’s been eager to meet the rabbi because he wants to see him perform one of his famous signs.
How is it, then, that before Good Friday – the day when Herod finally gets to meet Jesus – the Pharisees tell Jesus that Herod is looking to kill him? There are some disconnects in this story, aren’t there?
Assumptions are sandy soil. Having said that, one way to account for the Pharisees’ warning is to assume that they intentionally misrepresent things. They use Herod to express their own disdain for Jesus, and their own desire to get rid of him.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus violates ancient and sacred traditions of the faith. He angers those who believe that to defy the law is to defy God. Because their anger is building, and because they know that Jesus also represents a potential threat to Herod, it’s easy to imagine the Pharisees lying to Jesus, telling him that Herod is out to get him. Besides, everyone knows that Herod ain’t no saint. Like all tyrants, he’s quick to ridicule, vilify, or even execute opposition. Remember, it’s Herod Antipas who executes John the Baptist for meddling in his personal life. So (And mixing metaphors feels natural in all this confusion!) if Herod is a fox, the Pharisees are like hounds on Jesus’ trail. And I think Jesus knows it.
It also seems to me that Jesus’ response speaks more directly to religious community leaders than it does to Herod. “Listen,” he says, “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 outside of Jerusalem.”
Jesus’ words make the most sense to those who understand the implications of prophecy, and specifically Jewish prophecy in and around Jerusalem.
The lament itself is directed toward Jerusalem. That means Jesus is speaking to both Herod and the Pharisees. And his words make the most sense to those familiar with the biblical image of a mother bird gathering a brood under her wings. They speak to those familiar with Psalm 118, which Jesus quotes: “‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
The fox is a legitimate concern for Jesus. So are those who hound him with their fear. And Jesus faces all of them with loving defiance.
Let’s back up a bit. In Luke 9:51, Jesus “set[s] his face to go to Jerusalem.” All along the way, he’s preparing himself spiritually, emotionally, and physically for his week in Jerusalem. All along the way, he’s doing grueling, prophetic ministry. “What stress I am under!” he cries in 13:50.
It’s interesting, right after Jesus “set[s] his face” for Jerusalem, the disciples confront a Samaritan village that refuses to welcome them. “Lord,” they say, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus will have none of their pathetic vengeance. As he does with Peter, who draws his sword in Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes his disciples. Afterward, he goes on a kind of tear, repeatedly calling his followers to lives of courageous faith and action – even when that means going against the religious and political powers that be. In doing so, he draws down upon himself an all-consuming fire of religious and political judgement.
By the time the Pharisees hit him with their disingenuous warning, Jesus has strengthened himself with singularity of purpose, fearlessness of heart, and purity of faith and love. He has committed himself to overturning the prevailing arrangements of religion based on merit and government based on greed and revenge. Jesus is creating a new community to inhabit a new kingdom. And this kingdom is not insulated from social, political, and economic realities. This kingdom is defined by ethics as well as theology. In this new kingdom, the last are first and the first last. The poor are rich and the rich poor. And the high and mighty crash into humility through their own flimsy arrogance and cannibalistic violence.
This strange little story about Jesus facing the fox and the hounds calls us to follow him on a path of Christlike, prophetic ministry. It’s often a difficult and slow-moving path; and these days, it can feel less and less effective, less and less relevant, and less and less like blessing. Nonetheless, our call is to choose to follow Jesus into ministries of justice, compassion, and service with and for, as he says in the Beatitudes, the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, and the excluded.
If the church is losing members and influence, it’s because we have forgotten (or even forsaken!) the truth that we don’t just follow Jesus in here but out there in the world. External realities must impact how we interpret scripture and embody Christ. If not, we’re proclaiming that the world doesn’t matter, and that we don’t care.
“You will not see me,” says Jesus, “until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” That you is plural. Jesus is speaking to all of us, the whole community. When we follow our own fears and desires, we lose sight of him. And we open ourselves to choosing the woefully false blessings of self-serving wealth, consumption, amusement, and perceived popularity.
Year C of the lectionary is difficult for many preachers because Luke’s Jesus is not gentle, meek, and mild. He challenges us – sometimes it feels like he dares us – to live lives of neighbor-loving, enemy-loving, creation-restoring, cross-bearing discipleship. That sounds like a lot of work and a lot of risk – because it is.
We all get caught up in wanting our lives to be our own. We all wrestle with temptations to feel entitled to personal ease and comfort, and to that individualistic detachment where everyone and everything around us is, potentially, a competitor to be conquered or a resource to be exploited. Through it all, though, and for our sake, Jesus calls us to live differently, to live the life of Beatitude blessedness.
When we commit ourselves to God, when we commit ourselves to justice, compassion, forgiveness, and service, we will still be acutely aware of the fox and the hounds who are always nearby. Like the devil in the wilderness, they’re always looking for “an opportune time” to tempt us to act selfishly and fearfully. Jesus shepherds us right through all the predatory selfishness and fear. He leads us into purpose, joy, and hope that the fox and the hounds don’t know and can’t promise.
And in following Jesus, even to Friday, all along the way, we will see, hear, taste, and share the real presence of God’s eternal kingdom.