Like a Mother Hen

… as a hen gathers her brood under her wings … Luke 13:34b

God is like a mother hen. I’ve been seeing that image popping up more and more in hymns and prayers written in the last half century. Given the changes that have taken place in society and the lens of “gender” that now so predominates discussions in the culture, it is understandable that many in the church would want to emphasize the feminine metaphors for God that are found in the Bible.

I have absolutely no objection to the use of any Biblical language in the church’s hymns or liturgies. My objection comes from separating the Bible’s metaphors from the story that it is trying to tell.

None of the Biblical authors were trying to answer the abstract, philosophical question, “What is God like?” They weren’t interested in finding language that solely describes an individual’s inward spiritual experience of the deity. They were trying to tell us, rather, what God was doing – what he did in the past, what he was doing during the age of the writer and what he would do in the future. God’s character becomes known in God’s activities. I can know that God is faithful because he has shown himself to be faithful. I can know that he is loving because he has shown himself to be loving. The Bible is far more interested in the question, “What has God done?” than in the question, “What is God like?”

It is within this framework, then, that we should hear Christ’s bird metaphor in Luke 13.

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 outside of 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.’” Luke 13:31-35

Standing in the background of this passage is the whole history of God’s covenants with Israel, especially Israel’s hostility to God’s prophets with their message of repentance and judgment during periods of national crisis. When Jesus says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” he is looking back at Israel’s history. As the writings of the prophets attest, the people of Israel repeatedly faced threats from foreign powers. Israel was only vulnerable, the prophets proclaimed, because the people of Israel rejected the only one who could save them. Their sins put them at risk, and their repeated refusal to repent doomed them. So in came the Philistines and the other petty kingdoms that surrounded Israel. In came the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Chaldeans. In came the Greeks and the Seleucids and now the Romans. God sent the prophets to turn Israel from its sinful ways, but God’s people rejected the word of the prophets and stoned those whom God sent.

Now, Jesus knows, Jerusalem once again stands on the precipice of destruction. Jerusalem faces an existential crisis even greater than those it faced during the age of the prophets. Jerusalem’s very existence as the place chosen for God’s name to dwell is at stake. God sent Jesus, and John before him, to offer his people one last chance for repentance and national salvation. Jesus knows that he will live to enter Jerusalem with shouts of acclamation, but he also knows that the leaders of Jerusalem will ultimately reject him as they did the prophets who came before him. Jerusalem will seal its fate with its murder of God’s chosen one.

You see these same themes reappear when Jesus laments once again for Jerusalem as he prepares to enter the city in Luke 19.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” Luke19:41-44

The city of Jerusalem dooms itself by rejecting and killing God’s messiah. Jesus himself will subsume Jerusalem’s representational, sacrificial and royal functions in his death, resurrection and exaltation. But Jesus still laments Jerusalem’s coming destruction.

It is in this context, then, that Jesus declares that God has wanted to protect Israel like a bird defends its young. Have you ever walked near geese protecting their chicks? Run for your life if you don’t want to get pecked. Geese are scary.

And while the word ornis is grammatically feminine, isn’t it simply a bird? I’m afraid the word “hen” might be misleading. I am not certain that we are supposed to think of either modern domestic chickens or even female birds in the language of Jesus’ lament. In English, ornithology is the study of all birds. The dictionaries I consulted suggested that in ordinary Greek an ornis could be a male, female or non-gender-specific bird. In gendered languages, “masculine” and “feminine” only refer to conventions of grammatical orthography, not to social or biological gender. The pronoun translated “her” is also feminine because Greek pronouns correspond to the gender of the nouns they to which they refer. Is there anything in the text itself, then, that demands we think of only a female bird when we hear Jesus’ metaphor? (Seriously, I am open to learning something new.)

It seems to me that Jesus is emphasizing how birds protect their young, not the broadly maternal qualities of hens. I don’t think it’s terribly useful to contemplate the parental habits of various bird species, and thence to infer general truths about the nature of God.

Jesus has one point to make: Through his prophets, God has expressed his desire to deliver a penitent Israel from its enemies, and he is doing so again in the ministry of Jesus. Nevertheless, God’s children will reject him once more as they nail his chosen one to a cross.

God still wants to gather his people under his protective wings. The word for “gather” is related to the word for “synagogue”, and I think we’re supposed to hear that similarity. God still lovingly watches over his assembly, his synagogue, his church.

Like the Israel, Christ’s church is broken. Some of its institutions are very broken. Even where the church’s intractable sin threatens its existence, God still holds out the offer of repentance. Unfortunately, not everyone will heed the warning or answer the call. Ultimately, when an institutional expression of Christ’s church no longer serves God’s purposes in the world, its house will be left to it desolate. Its walls will be torn to the ground. Not one stone will be left upon another.

Nevertheless, human sin will never defeat God or thwart his purposes for the world. The cross of rejection that sealed Jerusalem’s earthly fate also lead to Jesus’ victory over sin and death. God will continue to do his work of salvation. Even those who reject our Lord will see his final victory come to pass.

Let’s sing with joy, then, to the God who always watches over his people with the fierce intensity of a bird protecting its young, until the day Christ comes again, to be welcomed once more with shouts of acclamation. Let us pray for ourselves and for others, that we might together take refuge in Christ alone, that we might be preserved in faith and love and enabled by God’s grace to stand unashamed before him on the great day of Christ’s appearing. Amen.