GOSPEL: Luke 13:31-35
Neither Herod’s plotting nor Jerusalem’s resistance to maternal love will deter Jesus from his sacrificial mission.
31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus,] “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.’ ”
We are blessed with such a richness of biblical imagery, and as images and metaphors go – chickens don’t really do it for me. But Jesus says it to illustrate a point clearly. We know what the relationship is between a fox and a hen. And I know even if the hen is fiercely protecting her chicks, the scenario will likely end badly for the hen. Jesus’ love for Jerusalem is going to be unrequited. And he knows it. He knows this will end in death, just as so many before him who dared to stand against the powers of this world. And yet he opens his arms and presents no defense.
But what about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? The prophet Hosea also gives us the feminine and maternal image of a mother bear protecting her cubs. Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.
I do try my hardest not to make Jesus sound sarcastic and a bit snarky – but some of his responses and quips recorded in scripture are just too good. Some of the Pharisees, perhaps concerned for Jesus’ well-being, perhaps just interested in passing along destructive gossip and to get Jesus to clear out – tell Jesus to run!
Herod wants to kill you! Save yourself and get outta town if you know what’s good for you. And Jesus, says, no sorry, I’m busy, come back later. I’m busy with my work freeing people from what ails them and what binds them. I’m busy trying to embrace these people, never mind if they’re rejecting me.
The different sort of power that a maternal image calls to mind – a vulnerable love that is strong enough to survive not just rejection, but death. Perhaps your own relationship with your mother didn’t feel like that, but now that you have your own children you understand more. Perhaps you struggle with your relationship with your children, but love remains at the root of it. This talk of motherhood is also difficult for those who have longed to be mothers – but Jesus also shares the lament of crushes hopes and unfulfilled longing.
When I explain the cross, this is what I have in mind. There are many ways to understand our salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, some prefer to think of it as an exchange. God takes Jesus’ death to pay the price for our sin. Others think of it in terms of victory – God is victorious once and for all time, over Sin and Death. Those explanations begin with the resurrection. But our salvation begins at the place of vulnerability, dying with arms stretched out. Barbara Brown Taylor says it perfectly.
“This is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.” If you mean to love someone unconditionally, and are willing to sacrifice your life for theirs – this is how you stand. If you mean to take a stand for a different way of being than winning by power and might and clinging to your own life – then this is how you stand.”
The work that Jesus does today and tomorrow, a euphemism for everyday – is the work of freedom, love, and compassion. Jesus will complete that work, that work doesn’t end with the cross, it is perfected in the cross. Jesus makes an allusion to the resurrection on the third day, but work of salvation is God’s will. It is God’s will that all would know His love, the love of a mother, of a father, for their children. When Jesus prays thy will be done, he does so knowing that the love of God he is bound to show is an unconditional, sacrificial love. And what are the acts of sacrificial love? Putting another’s needs above your own. Feeding them and comforting them. And the final act of sacrificial love? Laying down ones own life, for those you love.
Julian of Norwich, a mystic and anchoress living in the Middle Ages authored the earliest known surviving works by a woman. She writes, “We are brought again by the motherhood of mercy and grace into our natural place, for which we were created by the motherhood of natural love. A mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest. It is nearest because it is most natural. It is readiest because it is most loving. And it is surest because it is most true. We realize that all our mothers bear us for pain and for dying. But our true mother Jesus—all love—alone bears us for joy and for endless living, blessed may he be! He sustains us within himself in love and hard labor, until the fullness of time. Yet it is necessary for him to feed us, for the most precious love of motherhood had made him a debtor to us. A mother can give her child her milk to suck, but our precious mother Jesus can feed us with himself. He does so most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life. [Julian of Norwich, in Revelations of Divine Love, ed. M. L. de Mastro (Garden City, NY: Image, 1977), 191-93.]
Embracing the maternal love of God is not the same as pronouncing God as female – just as praying Our Father, does not mean that God is male. But the love of God, which is deeper and wider and broader than anything we could imagine – and encompasses and surpasses our metaphors and similes. Because we use pronouns, because Jesus spoke about our relationship with God as Father, our brains naturally go to picturing God as male. Certainly, God took on human form – as Jesus of Nazareth, but the Triune God remains without gender.
Living into the gendered role of mother, and all the cultural baggage that brings is exhausting. And I waited a long time for the chance to be a mother. But the role of protecting the weak, showing vulnerable love, and nourishing those who we care for is not just women’s work. It is the work of a Christian. The trick is to know that we are called to this work, as we are called to live like Jesus did, while understanding that we are mere chicks ourselves. Another paradox.
We are both called to stand up for those who are weaker than us – and show vulnerable love – and at the same time, find refuge for our own weakness, a dwelling place for our small frail selves, and return to God’s care. Jesus calls us home, calls us back to the place we are loved and nurtured. He calls to us, despite our unwillingness, despite out outright refusal. This is the root of all maternal and paternal instinct, whether you have biological children or not. We can twist this instinct into a selfish one, pretending to take a stand, while amassing power for only ourselves. Making a show of nourishing and protecting others, when we are just in it for what we can get out of it. This is why we pray the psalms. Why we observe Lent. Why we daily need reminded to return to the protection and cover of God. Amen.