Let’s see. Here we have the living example of wisdom and kindness, Jesus, going around helping the poor and the rejected and sick and the lame and the blind and yet we are being in effect told that, far from being impressed, Herod is out to get him.
Surely Jesus has done nothing wrong. He is passing on eternal truths and helping people sort out their values. His parables awaken people’s consciences and towards the end of his ministry, an increasing number of those who meet him are starting to see him as the promised one, the Messiah. He is making his way gradually towards Jerusalem, the Holy City, the home of the Temple, the home of the Chief Priests and those wise Church leaders who know their scriptures so well that they will know the right signs to look for in the Messiah, whoever he may be. Where better or more appropriate for the Messiah to go?
To assume all or even any of these factors would give Jesus good prospects in Jerusalem was not realistic then, nor, I fear, would it have a good outcome even today. A concern for justice, forgiveness and peacemaking has never found universal favour no matter how helpful these characteristics might be to the community as a whole – and even the demonstration of sheer goodness and compassion is sometimes uncomfortable to those motivated by baser instincts. It is almost as if the light of goodness breaks through to reveal characteristics we might prefer remain in the shadows. Think for a moment how a company will discourage whistle-blowers, how a nation at war will treat its pacifists and just how many wills are contested when the targeted generosity of a benefactor is disputed.
Let me give you an example. A well known expatriate New Zealand philanthropist Sir Owen Glenn who made an international fortune in shipping and logistics was knighted for his numerous acts of charity, including funding the Business School at the University of Auckland and giving a large sum for Earthquake relief in Christchurch. Sir Owen recently contracted to give a considerable fraction of his fortune to help combat family violence. Some of his fellow trustees in the family trust he had formed are currently disputing his right to make such a donation. Even in the modern world, acts of goodness can and do meet resistance.
I know it is common to speak as if all Pharisees were enemies of Jesus, but in saying that we might have missed two points in passing. First, it was some Pharisees who brought the warning about Herod being out to get Jesus. Second I have read in a number of places that many scholars suspect Jesus himself was trained as a Pharisee. A title or career classification does not tell us enough to know someone’s true value. At the same time, in Jesus’ case it would be unwise to gloss over the threat that his teaching brought either to some of those wanting to preserve traditional Church teaching, to any who wanted to rule by force or to those who were seeking to keep in with the Roman invaders. To someone trying to impose rule by force, notions of the need for forgiveness would not have been welcome. To the financial barons of the time, the thought of not storing up treasures on Earth would be incomprehensible. To those who were proud of their status – which I guess would include Herod as well as some of the scribes and the Pharisees and leaders at the Temple, the notion of becoming a servant to all would be anathema, and to a large number who would have been proud of their status as God’s chosen people, and even fierce in their nationalism, the thought of treating neighbours from other cultures or religions as oneself would probably have been angrily dismissed out of hand.
Even the Romans, who for the most part were remarkably accommodating of those with other religions, would have drawn the line at any religion which did not allow its members to swear their first allegiance to the Emperor. Jesus, in teaching that only God is worthy of praise, would have been seen to be passing on a dangerous message incompatible with the Roman edict that before any other worship was given, praise first be offered to the Emperor. The Roman Empire at its best offered peace to those who accepted their authority, yet it was a peace enforced by totally ruthless suppression of the slightest sign of rebellion. Shortly before Jesus was born, the Romans had crucified some 2000 Palestinian Jews who had risen in revolt. Having read the arguments put forward by John Dominic Crossan, I can at least see why a number of modern Bible scholars are agreed that Jesus’ eventual crucifixion was because his words and actions were seen as a form of potential political rebellion by the Romans.
The intriguing imagery used by Jesus to describe Herod (Herod Antipas, that is) as the fox and himself as a mother hen wanting to gather chicks under his wings for their protection probably meant more to his hearers than it would to today’s urban dwellers. In terms of the helpless chicks the image of Herod as the fox, a sly, devious killer, certainly fits with the comments from contemporary historians of the day.
Like his father Herod the Great, before him, Herod known by his nickname Antipas had a reputation for being obsessed with power and his treatment of John the Baptist and others who crossed him make it easy to understand why the Romans would find in Herod a useful, bullying, front man. Herod Antipas the Tetrarch of Galilee divorced his first wife and instead took his brother’s wife Herodias. You may remember that it was this act which was said to have caused John the Baptist to incur Herod’s wrath by telling him marrying his brother’s wife was wrong. More concerned to curry favour with the Romans than to show concern for his people, he also commissioned the building of the city of Tiberius. As Tetrarch he had more limited power than his father Herod the Great, and tried to wrest control of territories that had been left to his brothers by appealing to Rome. Augustus blocked this move. Never too far from dubious acts Herod Antipas was later accused of plotting against Caligula and eventually died in exile.
Because Herod Antipas only makes brief appearances in the New Testament we cannot be sure of his exact role in the plotting against Jesus, but certainly Jesus appeared to have him summed up rather well by calling him –“ that fox”.
Jesus likening himself to a mother hen may seem a little more obscure. To those brought up in cities it may seem curious that such an apparently feminine and soft image be chosen. Certainly hens don’t strike most people as strongly protective birds. For those who have had something to do with hens in a rural setting, the image would have more meaning. In earlier years when fire was more common as a disaster a number of commentators have recounted how a mother hen in a burning hen house will spread her wings over her chicks and literally die protecting them. Presumably in retrospect, the continuing disasters that have since befallen Jerusalem – and for that matter, disasters that show every signs of continuing to happen, Jesus’ words fore-tell something of the approaching dangers. For example, for Luke’s first readers, it must have seen that Jesus was speaking of the fall of Jerusalem when the unsuccessful revolution against the Romans finished with the destruction of the Temple, wholesale torture and killing of many of the citizens and the driving out of the remaining population.
While the critics can reasonably ask how far with the advantage of hindsight Luke had edited his story, what we might also note is that although Jesus has been recorded as wanting to take the vulnerable under his wings to protect them, from what happened, we know that he was unable to do so. Nor do we have to look too far before we encounter other disasters in the making where somebody – many some-bodies – are going to be called upon once more to take the chicks under their wings.
Many Western nations are encountering a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. On an international scale the contrasts are even more painfully obvious. New Zealand has one of the highest per capita ratios of natural resources in the world. Others less fortunate can only look forward to despair.
From what we know, there was only one original Christ and no matter what your theology, it is not his physical presence which will still be there to take the vulnerable under his protective wing. If however we do accept the thrust of his teaching, the vulnerable can find his face in the faces of his followers. Just as Jesus in his day had Herod and other jealous or even fearful enemies with which to contend, there will be no guarantees that those engaged in Jesus’ continued mission will find universal support or popularity. If Jesus himself was unable to protect all whose problems were ahead for them in Jerusalem we should not be too discouraged that there are many we are likely to fail to protect. But the question should really be, if Jesus wanted to act in protection, can we who claim to follow, ignore those whose problems are directly in front of us if we will but look.
Remember it is more than just Jerusalem that is the focus of Jesus’ lament, it is the human condition. There are however, signs of hope. I read in an encyclopaedia the other day that the Salvation Army in this country has a much more obvious public image than we might expect from the relatively small numbers of their Church members. I would suggest that their reputation for offering a helping hand to those in need is well deserved. To the extent they are able to reach out to help those in trouble, it seems to me that they are expressing in action Jesus’ image of the mother hen for its chicks in trouble. I did not look to see what the same encyclopaedia had to say about my church but it is interesting to speculate what outsiders and in particular those facing trouble will make of our mission? From what you know of what we do collectively for the people of our community, our nation and our world, how would you describe us for an encyclopaedia?