“Jerusalem Chicken”


Luke 13:31-35
13:31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

13:32 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.

13:33 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.’

13:34 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!

13:35 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.'”


Here’s a bit of Lenten brain exercise for you

A farmer is standing on one bank of a river, with a fox, a chicken, and a bag of grain. He needs to get to the other side of the river, taking the fox, the chicken, and the grain with him.

Howanimalmasks-fox.jpgever, the boat used to cross the river is only large enough to carry the farmer and one of the things he needs to take with him, so he will need to make several trips in order to get everything across.

In addition, he cannot leave the fox unattended with the chicken, or else the fox will eat the chicken; and he cannot leave the chicken unattended with the grain, or else the chicken will eat the grain. The fox couldn’t care less about the grain; he can be left alone with it.chicken-masks-printable.png

How can the farmer get everything across the river without anything being eaten?




  • The man first takes the chicken across, leaving it on the other side. 
  • He returns alone in the canoe and picks up the bag of grain. 
  • After bringing across the grain, he takes the chicken back to the original side, dropping him off, and picking up the fox. 
  • After bringing the fox to the other side, and leaving it with the grain, the man returns back to the original side, retrieving the chicken, and making his 3rd and final trip crossing the river. 
  • At no point was the fox left alone with the chicken, or the chicken with the grain.


Most of us have heard this one before, but do you know why it’s hard for some people to get initially? Because it doesn’t occur to us to carry the chicken around, to make the same trip twice. We don’t initially “think outside the box.”

But Jesus did.  And he was a master at metaphor.

In this morning’s scripture passage, who is it that comes running to tell Jesus he better leave because Herod wants to kill him? Some Pharisees. Seems odd. After all, the Pharisees we hear most about were not particularly fans or “friends of Jesus.” He called them hypocrites and was known to stymie them with tricky questions their legalism couldn’t answer. They maintained what was often an antagonistic relationship with each other, or at best, a sort of watchful truce…but apparently, there were those among them who believed in him, even if they did so secretly.   And speaking of Herod – what is WITH him? Still hatin’ on Jesus from a distance after all these years…

Everything Jesus is doing in the scripture today has to do with him establishing God’s Kingdom here on earth. He is clearly on a unique mission; he’s been working his way toward Jerusalem for a while now, healing people on the Sabbath (to the irritation of the Pharisees and the annoyance of Herod) and trying to explain to followers what the Kingdom of God is like, using parables – mustard seed, barren fig tree, yeast in bread, and so on. It’s all part of a bigger picture, and he knows what he has to do. So, in a nutshell, when Herod says, ‘Jump!’ instead of asking, ‘How high?’ Jesus replies by calling Herod a fox and says – maybe with a sarcastic subtext- ‘Aaah! You want to kill me? Don’t bother me now! I’m busy healing and freeing and teaching (aka bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth) today, tomorrow AND the third day so I can die, ok? And I have to go on and get TO Jerusalem today, tomorrow and the next day so I CAN die, because (sarcasm) prophets can only die IN Jerusalem. Not outside it. So, see ya when I see ya.’

Then Jesus goes into this very non-sarcastic, heartfelt lament about his unrequited love for the people of Israel – God’s love, his love, it’s all intermingled – how he has yearned so many times to protect the Israelites as a hen spreads her wings over her chicks to protect her brood…’ but they won’t have it. They push him away; they don’t let him in. Nonetheless, the wheels of the cart Jesus is driving have been set in motion, and nothing can stop it. He weeps over it all.

It’s lonely and frightening to be the only one aware of the big picture. And that’s significant.

I get that it’s significant. And when you pause for a moment and think about it, it’s really moving. And,  I’m always intrigued by animal metaphors in the Bible. But…why a chicken? Why not an eagle? They’re noble. Or a lion or some big cat or hawk or something. Heck, even a turkey buzzard is inspiring in flight if you don’t get too close. But a chicken? How does a hen fit into the big picture? Is it because Jesus has already alluded to Herod as a FOX? Chickens are pretty benign creatures. Pretty defenseless against almost anything, especially a fox.

Then I stumbled on an article by Barbara Brown Taylor in the Christian Century that affirmed I had not been concerned about the chicken in vain.

I haven’t been to the Holy Land, but Barbara Brown Taylor has, and she makes reference to the chapel of Dominus Flevit. It’s on the western slope of the Mount of Olivimgres.jpges, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. Its name means Jesus wept, or the Lord has wept or the Lord weeps. Tradition claims this chapel marks the spot where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The chapel itself is built in the shape of a teardrop, and there is a big window with open ironwork partially covering it that looks out onto the skyline of Jerusalem.





Embedded in the front of the chapel altar is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb looks like a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the seven little yellows chicks around her feet. The hen is flared up and out as much as she can be; the effect is a bit cobra-like, as menacing  as a hen can be. Do not mess with her chicks.


The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin, which translate into English as, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The last phrase – the “and you were not willing” part, is set outside the circle of the other words, in a pool of red directly underneath the chicks’ feet.

When I read about this, I felt vindicated about my chicken metaphor fixation. There is a mosaic hen outside Jerusalem that dates back to antiquity. The protective hen was a significant enough image to have been created in the first place, and to remain unto this very day.

[In the interest of full disclosure, the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away, and when I searched out a few more things, I discovered that this ancient chapel really only dates back to 1955. It’s BUILT over the ruins of a 7th-century church, from which some mosaics still remain…it’s not clear from anything I read whether the chicken medallion is that old or not. But I still think it’s pretty cool.]

Jerusalem has always been a hugely important city. Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is insignificant. The Temple is there, the hub of life, a place of beginnings, prophecies, teaching, honor, the very dwelling place of God. When Jerusalem obeys God, all is well with the world. If it does not, there is a definite disturbance in the force, like a gravitational wave that threatens to unhinge everything. We know from the scripture text that Jesus has Jerusalem on his mind. If Jesus had been standing near this particular spot, he would have had the same view, not identical of course, but awe-inspiring in it’s own time. And he would have understood the full significance of hens and foxes.

Barbara Brown Taylor says this about the delicate balance concerning Jerusalem, faith and obedience:

If the city were filled with hardy souls, this would not be a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, it is filled with pale yellow chicks and at least one fox. In the absence of a mother hen, some of the chicks have taken to following the fox around. Others are huddled out in the open where anything with claws can get to them. Across the valley, a white hen with a gold halo around her head is clucking for all she is worth. Most of the chicks cannot hear her, and the ones that do make no response. They no longer recognize her voice. They have forgotten who they are.
If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them.

 So of course it is fitting for Jesus to have chosen to compare himself to a hen. He’s forever thinking outside the box, turning things upside down, flipping our expectations end over end. Losers get the prize, the last become first, it’s children and little people who end up on top while the kings and scholars land on the bottom. The God of all creation comes to us as a bastard child born among a bunch of barn animals; this God-Man rides into town on a donkey, not as the King of anything except perhaps the unexpected.

There she is, this mother hen, this Jerusalem chicken, standing between her chicks and anyone who means to do them harm. She has no defense. She assumes what is simultaneously the most vulnerable and the most powerful position in the world: wings spread wide, chest out and unprotected, drawing herself up to the full height of her chicken stature, a sacrificial position. If the fox wants her chicks, he will have to kill her first.

Which is exactly what he does.

On a hill outside Jerusalem.

Alone, but in full view of all the foxes and chicks.

WE know this is not the end of story. But this is Lent, and we still have wilderness to travel.

Thanks be to God.


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