On Pharisees, foxes, and failings

By Rev Elizabeth Raine

MISHLEI SHU’ALIM (“Fox Fables”)

This work was written by R. *Berechiah b. Natronai ha-Nakdan who lived during the creative period of Jewish fable literature (end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century), and was printed in Mantua in 1557. The use of the name Mishlei Shu’alim, identical with a genre of fables mentioned in the Talmud (Suk. 28a; Sanh. 38b), is explained on the title page by the statement that the fox is the most cunning of animals, and therefore the cleverest. The number of fables included in this collection varies between 107 and 115 with the different manuscripts. They are written in the form of maqamat, in a clear, lively style; structurally each has an epimythium, the first two lines of which comprise the promythium as well (i.e., a proverb-like statement at the opening of the narrative).

In proverbial expressions the cunning and treacherous fox is often contrasted with the kingly lion: “Be rather the tail [i.e., the last] among lions than the head of foxes” (Sanh. 37a; Ab. iv. 15). Of one who belied his great reputation it was said: “The lion has become a fox” (B. Ḳ. 117a; comp. also B. M. 84b; Meg. 16b; Ned. 81b; Ab. ii. 15). The “fox fables” (“mishle shu’alim”), of which 300 were known to R. Meïr (Sanh. 38b; Suk. 28a), had no doubt escapades of the fox for their themes (comp. Ber. 61b; Esth. R. iii. 1; Eccl. R. v. 14; L. Levysohn, in “Jüdisches Volksblatt,” vol. iii.).

The fox was also employed in the magic of the time. The tail of a fox was suspended between the eyes of the horse to protect it against the evil eye (Shab. 53a); its tooth was carried to promote or prevent sleep, according as it was taken from a live or a dead animal (Shab. 67a, Rashi); while the passing of a fox on one’s left side was considered an evil omen (Sanh. 65b).

http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8378-jackal

The gospel reading this week has so many interesting points in it that it was hard for me to know where to start, or what to preach on. Luke has given us many wonderful contrasting images and concepts in this passage. For example, we have Jesus calling Herod a fox, but likening himself to a hen. When Jesus seeks to gather the children of Israel under his wings, they scatter. We find Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, the place that should be holy, but instead it is the place that kills its holy prophets. And maybe surprisingly, given the way Christians have been taught the think about the Pharisees, we have Pharisees who come to warn Jesus to flee from Galilee because Herod wants to kill him.

It is a complex passage, with many nuances. But three things clearly stand out – the nature of discipleship, the nature of true compassion, and the sacrificial actions of Jesus. These three things are all important themes in the gospel of Luke.

It is worth starting however, with the perhaps surprising appearance of Pharisees who come to warn Jesus of Herod’s plot to kill him. Christians have frequently been taught to think of Pharisees as hypocrites and the enemies of Jesus. While Jesus and the Pharisees did not see things eye to eye, we find in Luke and Acts that Pharisees are often in the company of Jesus and not always antagonistic. Jesus is often invited to the home of a Pharisee for dinner. In Acts 5:33-39, when the Jewish Sanhedrin wanted to kill the apostles, a well-known Pharisee, Gamaliel, counsels care in the treatment of the disciples. Some Pharisees had even become Christians (Acts 15:5).

The Pharisees were a diverse movement of people with a shared commitment to seek and serve God in their daily life, and who took scripture and its interpretation very seriously. But they did hold different points of view from another in serious matters of faith, and it is not surprising we find them debating Jesus on points of interpretation. I would like to suggest that their relationship with Jesus in Luke’s gospel symbolises not enmity, but the value of diversity and debate, traits that characterise a healthy religion. It was quite normal for Pharisaic teachers to disagree with one another, coming together to share their best arguments before the assembly before voting on a decision, and then recording the minority opinion along with the majority. It is worth asking ourselves the question as to whether we are prepared to immerse ourselves in scripture, debate its significance with one another, then discuss the best way of moving forward in our faith as a result. Have we learnt to disagree with one another but still find the common destiny we are called to, to do justice and mercy and worship God?

But I digress. Jesus’ answers the Pharisees concern by a message to Herod, which clearly shows that Herod offers no threat to his ministry and its intended conclusion. It is not the worldly Herod that threatens Jesus, but the religious establishment in Jerusalem.

Herod is presented as a ‘fox’, an image of a low and cunning man, a man of worldly ambition and values. More likely to destroy than build up. On the other hand, Jesus goes on to describe himself as a mother hen with chicks. The image of fox represents that which would destroy, and the worldly values of power and materialism. The hen, on the other hand, represents the embodiment of God’s love and distress for the people. The image of a bird is often used of God in the Old Testament. In fact, only God is ever described in this way. In Deut 32:11, God is likened to an eagle spreading its wings over its young. In many of the Psalms (Pss 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:8; 61:4; 91:4), the writers speak of God as providing shelter, refuge and safety in the shadow of his wings. But Jesus deliberately does not represent himself in the more traditional scriptural image of an eagle in this story.

Jesus instead represents himself as the mother hen, not a fox who destroys wantonly. It is the hen who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. It is the hen who offers her own body to save the chicks. She is prepared to die if necessary in this task.

This metaphor of Jesus as hen would have been a stunning image for Jesus’ contemporaries.

It certainly suggests that Luke saw Jesus as entitled to act in the place of God (5:8-10, 24; 8:25). But over and against the desire of God and Jesus stands the lack of desire of the children of Jerusalem. Acting as it were, in the place of God (see Deut 31:11), Jesus has extended to Jerusalem’s children the maternal offer of protection and safety. He wishes to give, in spite of the fact that they do not wish to receive. He does not rage against the city, or condemn it, or repudiate all its people. Rather he regards it tenderly, and there is great compassion in his words.

This picture of a hen gathering her brood under her wings is a deeply moving portrait of God. It offers us an additional understanding of God that is not exclusively in terms of masculine symbols such as father and king, as important as those are, but also as a compassionate mother hen with deep affection and tenderness for her brood. In many ways, it is a subversive image, at odds with the eagles and lions of empires and worldly kingdoms. God’s kingdom and the way of Jesus turn expected ideas and conceptions about how things should be upside down.

Jesus will go to Jerusalem to fulfil his destiny as son of God and Messiah. Jerusalem is at the heart and centre of Israel, both in worship, and in the scriptures. However, Jerusalem also has a tradition associated with it, the tradition that Israel has persistently rejected the prophets that God sent to them. Luke has already hinted at this tradition, in chapter 4:23, where Jesus is rejected at Nazareth; and in chapter 6:23, where Jesus notes that Israel’s ancestors hated and reviled the prophets. For example, Jeremiah was condemned and barely escaped death in Jerusalem. Another prophet, Zechariah (Luke 11:51; II Chron. 24:20-22) was killed in Jerusalem. Jesus anticipates what is to happen to him at the hands of Israel’s leaders in Jerusalem, and in a soliloquy he addresses the city.

The irony that Luke wants us to note is that this city, this Jerusalem, this temple, this house of God, the most sacred space in Israel, becomes the scene of persecution and murder of prophets. Luke started his story by telling us that Herod sought to kill Jesus. But we find as the story unfolds we find the real threat to Jesus was not Herod, but Jerusalem. How is it that this holy city of David, the religious capital of Israel, has the reputation as the city that kills prophets, and will demonstrate this soon by crucifying Jesus? Why is it that so often the religious establishment is the place that has conflict with prophets and those who would challenge the status quo and champion the marginalised?

Luke presents us with a choice between being a faithful movement reflecting the values of compassion and nurturing, a movement that speaks against the institution of empire, or an institution that ridicules its visionaries, defends itself and therefore puts its future at risk. We can choose, as a church, to follow the example of Jerusalem (which would soon be destroyed by the Roman Empire) or Jesus. We can listen to our prophets and visionaries, and question what really matters to the faith, or we can be ‘good citizens’ of the institution. We can embrace vulnerability and suffering, or we can collude with the destructive side of power and authority.

Last Saturday week at the Presbytery meeting, we were discussing this very thing. Research has showed that for a church to grow, or transform, it needs commitment & openness to hearing other perspectives and new ways of being. It needs to be open to the prophetic voice. It needs to identify as a movement and reinvent itself to create new missional opportunities. Are we up to the challenge? Only time will tell.

When we choose to travel the road to Jerusalem with Jesus, we are called to walk with other human beings on life’s journey, and to minister to them in various ways. This means helping others where we can, setting time aside for sharing the joys and sorrows of others’ lives, and taking action on matters that affect people. It means being prepared to challenge the status quo, and being prepared to be called into discipleship that is characterised by testing, suffering, loneliness, and persecution by the empire.

Living in a fallible world as we do, it is very easy for us to become hardened to the needs of others, or to be judgemental and condemnatory in our approach to others. It is easy for us to conform rather than ‘make waves’ like Jesus did. It is easier to be good citizens of the empire than of the kingdom of God.

We can be reassured though, that God never forgets us in our struggle to be faithful. God unfailingly shows us grace, compassion and love, shown clearly in this passage, by the words and actions of Jesus.

As the church we are called to bear witness to this grace, compassion and love, not just in the words we say, but in the very essence of our lifestyle and way of living.

Despite the warning and threat of judgement that is contained in this chapter, the last word of Jesus is an invitation to repentance and a call to life. The one thing needful is that people and leaders turn from killing and crucifying, from stoning and persecuting. The final word is a call to turn and greet the messenger, with the cry, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Thus, God, through Jesus, issues us a call to turn from the ways of death to the ways of life.

It is this witness to Christ that sustains and supports the work of the gospel in every congregation. It is our faith and trust in God, and his love and grace towards us, that keeps us moving along the road of discipleship, as we offer service, support and prayer for each other and for the community.

May we give thanks for God’s gracious presence.

May we together work as a compassionate community, and a community that is a celebration of God’s ways, and may we continue to rejoice in Jesus, the model who is before us today and always.

Photo of Rev Elizabeth Raine

Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth was minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, between 2018 and 2023. Elizabeth retired in December 2023 and has moved to Dungog in the Hunter valley, with her husband Rev Dr John Squires.

Over the years, Elizabeth has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

More from Rev Elizabeth Raine