“The Crucified God”
March 21, 2022
I need to confess that from the outset of reading this passage, I am thinking less of the hen and chicks right now than I am of the fox. That’s where this story starts—with Jesus calling Herod, the ruler of Galilee who is in collaboration with the Roman Empire, “that fox.” And thus, Luke pits the fox against the mother hen.
It’s interesting, because I’ve frequently encountered the opinion among American Christians that Jesus and the Bible are not political. In our Western minds, so formed by the assumed division of church and state, we impose the same division upon the stories we read in the Bible. We think: “These are stories that inform our faith and religious practices…they shouldn’t say too much about politics.”
Usually after a pastor talks a little too candidly about cultural or political issues like Black Lives Matter or by pointing out that Jesus was in fact a socialist…it’s usually then that I’ve heard the common refrain: “Whoa, that pastor is getting a little too political. I wish they would just stick to preaching the Bible.” I heard this very statement earlier this week from a friend at a different church, spoken with the assumption that if the pastor just stuck to the Bible then they wouldn’t wander into topics that the Bible doesn’t speak about, namely politics.
Well, I hate to break it to you…but Jesus and the Bible are incredibly political. Jesus and the authors of scripture didn’t have the same assumed division of church and state…they were one in the same. And don’t hear me wrong: Jesus was not partisan political…he very clearly ticked off people on all sides of the political spectrum. He had no home in any political party or cause, but his teachings and his mission were very politically driven. And of course this should be no surprise to us…because politics always involve and affect people…and Jesus loves people.
Our story today begins with some Pharisees coming to Jesus to warn him that Herod wants him dead. Now, if Jesus didn’t care at all about politics, then it’s pretty strange for the political ruler of Galilee to want him dead. And if you know anything about Herod, the arrogant, power-hungry vassal of the Roman Empire, then you know that he likes to kill people whom he deems political threats.
Jesus is a political threat to Herod. In his teachings, Jesus threatens the social order, the status quo that puts people with money and land and titles on top and keeps everyone else firmly under their boot. Jesus travels around proclaiming that he is bringing a new Kingdom, one that is in competition with Herod’s, one that promises to undo the fearmongering, the tears and the violence that Herod’s kingdom has unleashed. Jesus’ mission is to bring a new kind of peace, one that is not the Pax Romana, the false “Roman Peace” that is ironically enforced by military force. Prophets like Jesus, people who are willing to speak truth to power, are always a threat to people like Herod.
Jesus is bad PR for Herod, so Herod tries to silence him, the same way he silenced John the Baptist by beheading him and the same way we see authoritarian leaders silence threats today.
When Jesus is warned that Herod wants him dead, he’s not surprised, and in fact he gives a snarky reply, calling Herod a fox, signaling that he is not afraid of Imperial foxes like Herod…foxes like Herod can’t threaten anything that Jesus himself is not already prepared for: death.
Jesus may know that death is the only eventual ending for a prophet like him, who speaks truth to power. In the Roman Empire there are no other real options. He may know that death is where he is heading, but that doesn’t keep him from lamenting. After calling Herod a fox, he mourns for Jerusalem and for his people who are firmly under the boot of military and imperial powers. He laments how often the City of Peace is a place of violence. In a tender moment he laments, “Oh Jerusalem, how I often have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Jesus laments because he knows that Herod is not the only person who doesn’t want him. He knows that Jerusalem, his own people, will not accept him either. They want a military Savior, someone who will liberate Israel from under the boot of the Roman Empire and vassals like Herod. They expect God to send someone who will stroll into Jerusalem with all the swagger of a king ready to rip the fox to shreds with his bare hands and claim his rightful throne. The people of Jerusalem want the warrior God to come save them…and who could blame them? They need liberation, and war and bloodshed are often the only means by which we know how to liberate.
Jesus is not the person that the Israelites wanted God to send to save them. Jesus is no warrior. He takes up no sword. He has no military plans to overthrow the ruling government. Instead, and most strangely, he compares himself to a mother hen watching over her brood.
Recently I heard the story of a preschool teacher who decided to raise chickens with the children in her class. She had a chicken coop built at the school, and bought a flat of newly-hatched baby chicks which she introduced to the students. The children loved this, adopting the babies as their own, naming them and tending to them. Each morning, the preschoolers would excitedly run out to the hen house to check on and care for their baby chicks.
On one such day, the class went out to the coop to discover a fox had broken in. It was a horrible scene — every bird was dead. With a dozen traumatized preschoolers howling in grief, the preschool teacher hurried them away from the scene of the massacre. She spent the rest of the day comforting the children and, during nap time, tended to the destruction left by the fox. She called the entire episode “The Great Chicken Slaughter.”
When we hear Jesus compare himself to a mother hen, opposing a fox like Herod, we can’t help but expect an ending too similar to what happened to this poor preschool class. We’re witnessing it right now, all over the world. We witness foxes in power all over the world, in Russia, in America, in Hungary and Poland, in Sudan and Brazil, who care only about maintaining and expanding their power and their wealth at the expense of anyone who gets in their way. The fox devours the baby chicks, because it can. The baby chicks don’t have a chance.
What can a mother hen do to a fox who has broken into her home and threatens her children? This story is a poetic description of the cosmic contest between Herod’s toxic masculinity and God’s motherly care. Fox or hen? Murder or maternity? This story reverberates throughout history outside of its immediate context, pitting the feminine power of protection and vulnerability against the stereotypical masculine power of violence and control.
Put another way, this story addresses the question of where is God, when foxes are ravaging God’s children?
The surprising answer given by the gospels is that God is in the coop with her baby chicks, siding with the weak, embracing their vulnerability by making herself vulnerable. “We all know that foxes kill hens and chicks alike. The mother hen may try to save her brood, but she will probably die in the attempt. We’re all vulnerable in the coop. Jesus doesn’t place himself above us; Jesus is fully with us in the threat. Yes, this text speaks of a maternal God, the divine feminine. Even more, however, it speaks of a profoundly human – and humane – Jesus” (Diana Butler Bass). It speaks of an endangered God, the weak and vulnerable one who died strung up on a cross as his most powerful political statement. The crucified God.
Unfortunately during the Lenten season the church usually just talks about how the cross deals with the problem of sin. And it does. On the cross, we see a God who, with his final breaths says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We see a God who is so incredibly in love with us that grace is freely given, forever and always, and we are invited into embrace. (As a side note, the cross has nothing to do with God’s wrath…Jesus is not paying some blood penalty for our sins…that’s horrible.) But the church rarely talks about how the cross deals with the problem of suffering. And that breaks my heart because I think the cross is a powerful symbol of God’s response to our suffering. It’s a powerful symbol that we need especially as our news feeds are daily filled with horrifying stories and questions like, where is God when her children are dying and what is God’s response to suffering like this?
As Jesus shows us, God’s response to suffering, the response of the mother hen protecting her chicks, is to side with the victims of history’s foxes, to become vulnerable like them, and to enter into the coop with them that the fox is sure to ravage.
An excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, powerfully illustrates the painful reality of God as Mother Hen. Wiesel is writing of his experience inside is a WWII German concentration camp, and in a particularly horrifying moment, he describes watching a young boy hanged from the gallows.
“’Where is God? Where is he?’ someone behind me asked….For more than half an hour [the child in the noose] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘Where is God now?’
And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is he? Here [God] is—he is hanging here on this gallows…’” (Elie Wiesel).
I get chills every time I read this passage. I get chills, not only because my heart quivers at the thought of something so terrible, but because the voice Elie hears from within himself resonates deeply with my soul. Where is God? This is where – hanging from these gallows. Hanging from this cross like a criminal. God is here, hiding away from Russian shelling in an underground Subway, protecting her children. God is here, pregnant and being carted away from a bombed maternity ward. God is here, a refugee fleeing civil war in Sudan, only to be stopped and beaten at the border of a new country that doesn’t want him. God is here, dangling from a lynching tree. God is here, shot dead in the street by the very people who were meant to protect him. God is here, lying dead in the cold winter snow, frostbitten because she had no home to stay in. And God is here, as both the mother and the father who must helplessly watch their child die, unable to do anything to stop it. This is where God is. Suffering and dying and mourning the death of her children.
Jesus’ death on the cross is a profound theological statement: it’s a statement that God is with us, even as we are dying and suffering; death and suffering have become a part of God’s very being, so that when we are suffering or dying, we are within God’s bosom. God knows what it feels like to suffer and die. God knows what it feels like to watch her son die brutally on a cross. God is with us in our pain and our grief, shedding the same tears and crying out in agony. God is with us.
And Jesus’ death on the cross is also a political statement. Jesus is publicly executed on a Roman torture device designed to display Rome’s power and instill fear in anyone who dares go against the Imperial machine. And Jesus willingly goes to die in solidarity with all the other victims of Roman oppression. Did he want to die? No, I don’t think so. Did God need Jesus to die? Absolutely not. But did Jesus know that death is where his path would lead him? Yes.
Jesus’ death as a state criminal is a political statement that God is always and forever on the side of the victims. Jesus throws his lot in with the vulnerable. “He extends spiritual shelter toward all threatened by the imperial fox. The outcast, the oppressed, the deluded, even the obstinate – these are Jesus’ brood” (Diana Butler Bass).
As our news feeds continue to report tragic events all around the world, we can be sure that we know whose side God is on. Based on the life of Jesus, we know that God is not on the side of Russia. God is not even on the side of Ukraine or NATO. God does not have some special blessing for modern day imperial powers like the US. God is not on the side of democracy or of authoritarianism. God is forever and always on the side of the victims, the oppressed, the underrepresented, the outcasts, the marginalized, the hated and the spit upon. And it is because this is who God is—
Our God is a crucified God. Our God is a God who prefers the feminine power of protection and vulnerability over the masculine power of violence and control.
Have you ever thought about the fact that Jesus began his life as a refugee, fleeing violence. Jesus grew up and became a homeless peasant preacher. And Jesus died as a criminal, stripped of every human dignity imaginable. Our God has thrown her lot in with the powerless, and has called us to do the same.
Because three days after Jesus is killed by the Roman machine, Rome’s display of power is proven to be as empty as the tomb; Rome’s power is revealed for what it is: temporary and grasping. The fox of Rome is shown to be powerless to overcome the eternal love of a mother hen for her brood. Because sacrificial and vulnerable love, the love that seeks to preserve and protect will always win out. The love that drives us into solidarity with the least and the last of these, is the same love that is woven into the fabric of God’s universe, the same love which sustains all of life, the same love which redeems unjust and tragic deaths with the promise of resurrection.
We, like the people in Jesus’ day, might wonder what we can possibly do to stand up against Rome and the atrocities of empires and powers. And Jesus’ response is unexpected: it’s a cross. A symbol of love and solidarity. A symbol of the power found in vulnerability. A symbol of God’s love poured out for her children.
Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow in the way of self-giving love. Because it just might have the power to change the world. Amen.