At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He 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. 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.” 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! See, 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.”’
There’s something about an anthropomorphic story that most of us love – in fables, fairy tales, cartoons and children’s books where humans become animal characters. Perhaps it’s the sheer adorability, but some characters are far from being cuddly bunnies and cute kittens.
In our passage, Jesus calls Herod ‘that fox’ – not a flattering allusion. Many of us, accustomed to the urban fox, have, perhaps, more ambivalence to the creature. We know the unattractive features that are commonly attributed to the fox – cunning, quick-witted, ruthless, deceptive, self-centred, predatory. Machiavelli employs the metaphor of the fox and the lion to emphasise the need for the prince to combine cunning and strength. The legendary Japanese fox, kitsune, was said to have the magical capacity for shape-shifting; perhaps Herod too showed the ability to be whatever self-interest seemed to demand.
Isaiah Berlin wrote of The Fox and the Hedgehog in which he categorised his friends and others; the fox knows many things (perhaps the one who suspects meta-narratives) and the hedgehog holds to a single defining idea.
There is much of the fox in Herod – political cunning and ruthlessness and preying on others, but he is also a hedgehog – he has but one lens through which he views the world – self-interest and self-aggrandisement.
Jesus challenges that perspective and brings another animal into play – the mother hen who opposes cunning cruelty and deadly violence. If Herod is focused only on his self-ambition, Jesus too has a single lens: love. Herod and Jesus stand on opposite sides of a great divide and on the verge of decisive events. The challenge, the agonised call of Jesus, is to all who would hear. Where do our instincts, our commitment, our loyalties, lie? – with the cleverness, power, ‘success’, and exploitative achievements of those who follow in Herod’s path, or with the compassionate, gently giving, open-heartedness of God?
Mothering God, you long to shelter and protect us, to hold us closely within your love, not that we might be held apart from the world but that we might know that we are secure in your care no matter the risks to which we are called.
The Rev’d Dr Jack Dyce, Emeritus Professor of Nordic Theology, Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College, retired minister, and member of Port Glasgow URC.