Second Sunday in Lent: Foxes and Hens, 21 Feb. 2016
I’ve been struck by two images in our Gospel reading today: the fox and the hen: ‘Go tell that fox [Herod]…’ Jesus says to the Pharisees who warn him his life is at risk. And then later Jesus says over Jerusalem ‘how I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood.’
Foxes and hens. The use of different kinds of animals to describe different peoples’ characteristics is common throughout the Bible. *Think of the lion of Judah. The lion evokes images of Judah’s power, strength and nobility; or conversely think of Israel in the psalms described as a young wild ox: powerful, but stubborn and ill disciplined. Unsurprisingly given the agricultural world from which it comes, animal images come thick and fast in the Old Testament: eagles, camels, donkeys and so on. But, oddly, the New Testament’s use of animal imagery is narrower and more defined. I don’t want to overstate it, but broadly speaking there are two types of animals that Jesus refers to when he describes people: a negative type and a positive type. Let’s start with the negative.
Herod is a fox: why? Presumably he is a sly cunning creature, a predator whose destructive urges can overwhelm him, like the proverbial fox in a hen house leaving behind just blood and feathers. *Later in his ministry Jesus again uses a negative animal image when he describes the Pharisees and Scribes as ‘a brood of vipers’: again, presumably Jesus is drawing on ideas of hidden, deadly cunning – the sort of lurking danger that instead of confronting you, sinks its teeth into your heal when you don’t see it and poisons you. And of course by the final period of Jesus’s ministry that’s exactly what the Pharisees and Scribes are doing: working behind the scenes to poison the authorities against him. *And thirdly, another negative image is that of the wolf, so powerfully explored in John’s Gospel where Jesus speaks of the wolves entering the flock to pick off the vulnerable and the weak. It’s presumably a warning of how Christians can suffer persecution from without, but also Jesus reminds us wolves can wear sheep’s clothing: predators can even enter the Christian community, a phenomenon we’ve seen so awfully in cases of clergy child abuse.
So on the one hand we have Jesus using negative animal images. People can be likened to foxes, snakes and wolves. Notice what’s common about them: they are neither domesticated nor tame. They are wild animals, dangerous predators, each more or less at the apex of the food pyramid. But put alongside these negative images *a set of positive animals that Jesus also uses to describe people: doves, lambs or sheep, and here hens and chicks. Notice what’s common about these three: these animals are safe to be around, and even more than that they are pro-social – they bring about a public good. They have been, as we say, domesticated.
Domestication is the process by which through selective breeding humans have brought out traits in animals that are beneficial for humans. Doves and hens have been selectively bred over tens of thousands of years for their placid nature and their remarkable daily production of eggs. (Daily ovulation is not natural!). Sheep too have been selectively bred over many generations for their wool to provide waterproof insulation for human clothing, and also for their milk and for their meat. And in each case (more or less) these animals have become safe to be around. Though I wouldn’t recommend it, these animals can in fact, live in your house. This is what domestication means: they can be kept in your ‘domus’, the Latin for a home. Similar to domestication, by the way, is taming: the process whereby an individual wild animal is rendered safe among human company, safe to live in your house.
So, Jesus appears to refine the wider Old Testament range of animal metaphors down to just two contrasting sets of images to describe two different kinds of people – some people are wild, dangerous predators; others are tamer domesticated creatures: safe to be around and even fruitful in what they bring about for the common good.
Now, I’ll come back to theology in a moment, but let me step aside into some popular biology. *There is a theory (of some truth) that we in fact have three brains. An American neuro-scientist, Paul MacLean, proposed the idea that our brains are in fact an accumulation over time of three systems. The oldest part of the brain, right at the centre, sometimes called the hind brain, regulates basic biological processes like breathing, but also responses to pain and aggression. It’s here that the basic automatic responses happen that keep any animal alive. We share this primitive structure with many simpler animals, so it’s sometimes called the ‘reptilian brain’. Importantly, this is the first and fastest part of the brain to respond to external stimuli.
Around it is, in evolutionary terms, a younger second brain: the limbic system; this part of our brain is where more complex things happen, like emotions, and it’s where nurturing activities originate, like parenting. We share it with many simpler mammals, and so it’s sometimes called the ‘old mammalian brain’. This part of the brain is a little slower to respond.
And lastly, around the limbic system is the most recent part of the human brain to develop: the neo-cortex. This is where much more complex activities happen: like rationality and language. This is sometimes called the ‘new-mammalian brain’, shared with higher mammals like primates and dolphins. This is the slowest part of the brain to respond.
Think of this scenario: someone walks up to you and shouts in your face. The first thing that happens is that the old part of the brain makes you step back and shield yourself; then the second part of the brain kicks in with an emotional response; and then lastly the more reflective logical part of the brain wakes up to interpret what’s going on, deciding whether you’re under attack from a stranger, or whether a friend has merely surprised you because it’s your birthday.
The somewhat oversimplified 3 brain model reminds us that we humans have evolved very slowly from primitive creatures, and that we haven’t so much left behind earlier parts, as developed and built upon them. (*Or at least some of us have; but of course Homer is not unique – as Paul reminded us in our readings – for many of us our belly is still our god, our basic desires often control us, we who are instead called to be citizens of heaven).
Those of us who believe in God think that God has been behind this slow evolution: that mysteriously God has been at work drawing out of simple primitive life, more complex forms. *Out of reptiles have emerged mammals; out of mammals have emerged humans. You could say then, that God has been domesticating species over hundreds of thousands of years to create a form of life that reflects the divine nature. And that process of domestication has not stopped. It continues in the Jewish-Christian tradition, for in Scripture we see humans still being domesticated – or, as we would normally put it, being educated – in what it means to be truly human.
In the Bible we see humans slowly discovering and developing rules around violence (try to forgive, and if not at least try to limit your killing); rules around sex (try not to let it dominate you, or at least contain it in stable mutually-affirming relationships); and rules around consumption (don’t hoard your food or your wealth: if you have it, share it). The story of Scripture is in part a story of God’s slow process of domesticating the human race, selectively encouraging certain pro-social traits. And this reaches its apex in the revelation of Jesus: this is the kind of thing that a human can look like, a life that reflects divinity.
Often we use the word ‘salvation’ for this process without realising that one of the meanings of ‘salvation’ is ‘to make safe’ – in other words to make us safe to be around. Not that this is already accomplished, as switching on the television will quickly reveal to us. The domestication of our species is still on-going. And in each one of us daily, we are still managing our primitive urges either to aggressively dominate or to timidly run away; to hoard things for security even if it means that others lack things; and so on…
We are in Lent; it’s a time of the year when we symbolically re-enact Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. In Mark’s gospel – and in there alone – the story of Jesus in the wilderness ends with a peculiar sentence, ‘and he was with the wild animals’. Jesus’s presence with them makes them safe to be with. It’s a nod to the ancient story of God walking in the Garden of Eden where neither the animals, nor Adam and Eve, scurry away in fear nor need to defend themselves with aggression. This is a future hope of a domesticated humanity projected back into a mythical past. *Similarly in Isaiah there is a vision of lions lying down with lambs, and children playing by serpents’s holes. It’s a dream of what life might be like when humans stop behaving as predators. The Christian project is about God saving us: making us safe, and it’s a message that each Lent we are asked to take even more seriously that we would normally do.