Mother hen? It seems odd that Jesus would refer to himself this way, doesn’t it?
“How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Matthew 23:37
We’re used to the image of the king and warrior. “Our Father who art in heaven.” We’re not used to hearing feminine images when thinking about God. In fact, some people get quite angry if you dare use a female pronoun to refer to God.
“God is great, God is good, and we thank Her for our food. Amen.”
Does that ever give people pause and raise eyebrows when my children and I pray that prayer at restaurants or in the presence of other family members or friends.
“God is not a woman. God would never be a female. It’s just not possible. It’s not natural. It’s not right.”
And yet . . . here is Jesus referring to himself as a hen, a mother bird. Here’s the passage in Luke:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He 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. 33Yet 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.’ 34Jerusalem, 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! 35See, 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)
This mother bird is facing some very vicious foxes.
Herod and the Pharisees are seeking to have Jesus killed for the way he is causing trouble throughout Galilee. He is filling people with thoughts about God as accepting all people, loving the unlovable, the unclean, the contaminated, the annoying. It’s not enough that Jesus is saying that all these undesirable individuals should be allowed into our churches, into God’s kingdom. Now Jesus has to go and call himself a mother hen. That’s downright offensive.
Nobody likes a mother hen. Mother hens are overprotective, interfering, overbearing. They cluck and pick and watch constantly. Nobody likes a mother hen.
Unless . . . you are a vulnerable chick in need of protection. Unless all your life you’ve been deprived of a mother’s care. Unless all you’ve known is the feeling of being abandoned, left to your own devices, stranded to face the fox all by yourself.
Then maybe having a mother hen would not be so bad after all.
Some years ago I read a story about Margaret Cundall, a retiree who offers sick children from Chernobyl an incredible gift – the chance to boost their health. The 9-and-10-year-old children, from Belarus, in Russia, which suffered 70% of the fallout from the nuclear disaster in 1986, take to Margaret like chicks running to a mother hen when she welcomes them in the summer. She is caring, physically demonstrative, and exudes warmth that draws the children to her.
When your life is filled with suffering and pain, it’s nice to have a mother hen. Caring, welcoming, warm. I think those are qualities I would like in the God I worship.
Did you know that mother hens have the ability to feel their chicks’ pain?
This is a quality called empathy, an ability that was once thought to be uniquely human. But recent studies suggest that animals may also experience empathy. “A new study has uncovered, for the first time, that mother hens are such attentive, caring parents that they ‘feel’ their chicks’ pain. In experiments, female chickens showed clear signs of anxiety when their young were in distress. [They] found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy – the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.”
Empathy. The ability to feel my pain. Being moved to protect me from pain. I think those are qualities I would like in the God I worship.
The hen and the snake.
Delmer Chilton, a Lutheran pastor and writer, tells the story of going to get eggs from his grandmother’s chicken yard one evening and hearing a racket. “A sudden raising of dust, flurry of feathers and scattering of hens and chickens, much screeching and squawking, and then, just as suddenly, things calmed down and an old gray hen emerged from the bushes with a large black snake in her mouth.”
Strength. Courage. Non-nonsense. A bold female risking all to protect her chicks. I think those are qualities I would like in God I worship.
Like that old gray hen, Jesus is not afraid of that fox, King Herod.
Jesus is not afraid of dying, and he sends a message back with Pharisees that Herod doesn’t even have to come after Jesus. Jesus will go to him, right to Jerusalem. Because that’s what a prophet does – goes bravely into the spaces of danger to confront evil.
But when he mentions Jerusalem, suddenly the tone of Jesus’ words shifts. They turn to words of sadness. He laments that the people of Jerusalem are like chicks that refuse to be cared for, looked after or protected. “You were not willing. Your house is left to you.”
Says Chilton: “All too often, we have failed to understand or respond to God’s love. All too often, we have turned God’s word of love into a life of hate; all too often, we have turned God’s call to repentance into pointing fingers and a call to arms. The sly fox of the world turns us away from that which is good and eternal and pulls us in the direction of those things that satisfy now but do not linger and live with us for an eternity with God.”
The mother hen sat crying in my office.
She was sharing with me the pain she felt knowing that she could not protect her daughter from the drugs and alcohol that had taken over her life. Her tears flowed as she recounted the many times she tried to bring her daughter back into the loving embrace of her family, away from the fox of addiction. But every time, the daughter made choices that pulled her farther and farther away. Instead having the protection of those holy wings, the daughter served time in jail, wasted away in strangers’ homes, and wandered the streets of the city.
But the mother looked me in the eye and said, “Pastor, I know God understands that I have done everything I can. I have to let her make her own decisions. I am at peace.”
Knowing what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t want protection. Knowing the pain that comes in realizing that you can’t save them, you can’t make them change, you can’t make them choose a different path. Knowing a mother’s pain and yet giving her peace. I think those are qualities I want in the God I worship.
After a moment, the mother added these words. “No matter what happens, my daughter knows my arms are always open to her.”
Arms open. Heart exposed. Wings spread. Feathered breast exposed.
The mother hen, like the mother bird who fluttered over the nest egg of the world in Genesis. . .
Like the dove that fluttered away from Noah’s hand over the receding flood waters. . .
Like the dove fluttering from heaven, hovering around Jesus as he emerged from the baptismal waters . . .
Like a mother bird, wings pinned to the cross, still sheltering us from evil.
You can have your king-god. You can have your warrior-god. You can have your father-god. Today, I’m opting for the Mother-Hen-God. The God who welcomes all her children under her wings, no matter how they behave, or how they look, or what annoying and inappropriate things they do. The God who opens her heart of healing. The God who feels what I feel, who validates me as a mother, who assures me that when I have made mistakes, when I have wandered from the right path, and when I have been overwhelmed by the foxes, those holy wings are still spread over me, protecting me, sheltering me, keeping me safe, loving me.
For another perspective on the feminine aspect of God and how it relates to women and faith, try: The Case for Recognizing Mother’s Day in Church
For a prayer litany for Mother’s Day, check out: Inclusive and Expansive Mother’s Day Prayers.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).
You can follow Leah on Twitter at @LeahSchade, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LeahDSchade/.
For more of Leah’s posts on women and religion, feminism, and gender, check out these links:
Top 10 Things Never to Say to Your Female Pastor
#MeToo, #ChurchToo: The Church is Facing the Truth About Its Sexism
7 Ways Your Church Can Support Your Female Pastor
Words of Advice for Good Men: #MeToo Meet #YouToo
Book Review: Preaching the Women of the Old Testament
 (“She’s like a mother hen; Nominated for caring nature,” Mark Welford, Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England), August 15, 2009; http://www.thefreelibrary.com/She%27s+like+a+mother+hen%3b+Nominated+for+caring+nature-a0205904357. Accessed Feb. 23, 2013).
 (Copyright 2011 Asian News International (ANI) – All Rights Reserved. Provided by Syndigate.info an Albawaba.com company. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Mother+hens+’can+feel+their+chicks’+pain’.-a0251104710. Accessed Feb. 23, 2013.)
 (“The Fox in Our Henhouse,” Delmer Chilton, 2013; http://www.livinglutheran.com/blog/2013/02/the-fox-in-our-hen-house.html#.USk5ZqUsmSo. Accessed Feb. 23, 2013.)