“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, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”
In the Gospels of Matthew 23.37-39 and Luke13.34-35, Jesus spoke an apparent riddle to his audience that is a bit perplexing to make sense of on the surface. Four statements that do not readily suggest a coherent interpretation are given:
1) Jerusalem kills the prophets sent to her.
2) Jesus wanted to gather Jerusalem like a hen her chicks.
3) The desolation of their house.
4) Jesus’ absence until they say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The connection between these four pronouncements is not readily apparent on the surface. What does killing prophets have to do with hens and their chicks? What does that have to do with the desolation of the “house?” And what connection is there between all of these and Jesus’ statement about their no longer seeing him until that acknowledge He was blessed as one sent with the name of the Lord?
One way to offer a coherent reading of Jesus’ riddle is to consider the possibility that Jesus’ speech has a small chiastic structure. Pronoucements #1 and #4 are connected to each other along two lines: (1) Prophets are are sent and come and (2) the death of the prophets, which is implied to happened to Jesus by his statement “you will not see me again…” In the outer ring of of the chiasmus is a proclamation of the murderous behavior that Jerusalem has and will have towards those sent to her. While Matthew and Luke differ as to what circumstance Jesus said these words, they both agree that Jesus’ words occur in a circumstance where Jesus speaks of the Pharisees murdering the prophets (Matthew 23.29-36) of or is threatened by the Pharisees to be murdered by Herod (Luke 13.31-33).
On the other hand, the inner ring of the chaismus between pronouncements #2 and #3 do not readily suggest themselves in our English translations. However, a little bit of knowledge of Jewish culture can shed some light on a possible thematic connection. First, Jesus uses the word the relatively rare word ἐπισυνάγω to describe the way hens gather chicks. While it is not a technical word itself, it is lexically associated with the word for the Jewish gathering for instruction in the Torah, the synagogue/συναγωγή. Then, houses were a metaphor regularly used to describe the schools of Rabbinic instruction, like the houses of the Rabbinal teaches of Hillel and Shammai. Together, this suggests that Jesus riddle is connecting to Jesus intentions to be a teacher of Israel yet his rejection has left the house/Rabbinic bereft desolate. Given that in both Matthew and Luke place this speech where Jesus is directly/indirectly addressing the Pharisees, it makes sense for the inner ring of the chiasmus to be connected by the idea of Rabbinic instruction.
Putting the two rings of the chaismus together, it would imply that Jesus saw Himself as a prophet who was sent to teach Israel and would, in the end, be rejected. Jesus portrayal of His intentions like a mother hen would serve as a contrast to the intentions of the Pharisees in their pedagogical authority. Whereas the Pharisees ultimately have hearts that ultimately seek to murder, the heart of Jesus is to protect those who would receive Him. Jesus’ words are an echo of Isaiah 31:5
Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts
will protect Jerusalem;
he will protect and deliver it,
he will spare and rescue it.
NT Wright suggests that the image of the hen is about protecting her chicks from a farmyard fire in order to turn away the divine wrath that Israel is about to receive.1 Yet, the context of Isaiah 31.5 portrays a different picture, where the protection of the Lord is contrasted with those who trust in human strength (Isaiah 31.1-3). Similarily, Jeremiah 17.5-6 provides an example of the regular warning that trusting in humans rather than the Lord would lead to them to be people who lived in the desolate regions (ἔρημος), just as Jesus spoke of the house being desolate (ἔρημος also). Rather than the image of the hen being that of one who protects from the coming wrath, it is an image of God’s provision and protection that Israel should place their trust in. However, because they have not chosen to trust in and learn from the one who God has sent, their dependence upon human strength will fail them.
One of Jesus’ consistent criticisms of the Pharisees is that they seek to be adored by people (Matthew 6. and for people to lifted up as a trusting figure, such as a rabbi, teacher, and father that leads them to place burndens upon those they teach rather than provide help and support to those who they teach (Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18, 7.1-5, 23.1-12). Their use of the Torah was regularly done to give them exemptions from God’s commandments (Matthew 5.17-20, 15.1-9).The world of the Pharisees was ultimately centered upon human power and authority that was used for self-aggrandizement rather than trusting in and obeying God and reflecting His caring, nurturing, shalom-making love. In the end, they would murder and threaten murder to retain their power. Beyond that, to the extent that the Pharisees were secretly involved with a rising Maccabean-like zeal in resistance to Roman power, they would be further placing their trust in human strength.
Consequently, their aggressive, self-aggrandizing ways lead them to reject the ways of shalom/peace that Jesus instructs. For instance, they have trouble accepting that Jesus heals on the Sabbath and that he would forgive sins, suggesting that their hearts do not ultimately value human life and well-being, but that they have set themselves against the others. Jesus quotes from Psalm 118.26, which is a Psalm expressing a trust in the Lord in the face of mortal threats:
With the LORD on my side I do not fear.
What can mortals do to me?
The LORD is on my side to help me;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to put confidence in mortals.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to put confidence in princes. (Psalm 118.6-9)
Yet, there are those who reject and do not trust in God’s protection that the Psalmist is saved from:
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the LORD’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes. (Psalm 118.21-23)
Psalm 118.22 was used by the early church to describe the way people, most notably religious leaders, rejected Jesus. (1 Peter 2.7) So, when the words “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD” are heard from Psalm 118.26a, we see similar themes of trusting God and of rejection of the way of God’s salvation.
Furthermore, Jesus’ language of the house echoes Psalm 26.b: “We bless you from the house of the LORD.” Whereas the house was an idiom for schools of Rabbinic instruction, here house is used as a metaphor for the temple of God. This different use of the house metaphor represents the distinction in whose is trusted. By calling Rabbinic schools “houses” such as the houses of Hillel and Shammai, they ultimately placed their religious trust in human teachers, which Jesus forbids his disciples to engage in (Matthew 23.8-12). On the other hand, the house oas the temple of the Lord places God as the center of religious trust and hope.
At the heart of Jesus’ criticism towards the Pharisees and the religious leadership is their trust in human power and status. Their trust in human power revealed by their reverence for the social status that they could accumulate through their religious piety is a contributor to why they rejected Jesus as the Teacher send from God. This trust in human power would ultimately seal the fate of the religious leadership as a whole in Jerusalem over 3 decades later as the Jewish rebellion rooted in human power would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem 70 A.D.
So, in contrast to the self-aggrandizing ways that devalues mercy and compassion, Jesus’ portrayal of his own Rabbinic intentions are that of love and protection. Jesus’ gathering as a hen her chicks is a vision of an alternative “synagogue” with a different attitude of helping people with the burdens of life (Matthew 11.28-30; contrast with Matthew 23.4). The hen is not an image of protecting Jerusalem from the coming wrath as per NT Wright, but the very nature of Jesus’ ministry that the religious authorities in Jerusalem rejected. However, it is this rejection of Jesus that is instrumental in their coming desolation and destruction.
Yet, Jesus does not speak this with utter hopeless for the Pharisees and other religious leadership. He tells them they will not see him UNTIL they say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Such language suggests that Jesus will be vindicated in the eyes of some of them, when they were wrong to put him to death but that He was actually sent by God like the prophets before Him The foreshadowed vindication of the resurrection will provoke those who crucified Jesus to repentance (cf. Acts 2.36-37). Even with thier rejection of the One whom God sent, Jesus still leaves open the possibility that they will come to see and recognize Him in the future. Acts 6.7 states many priests in Jerusalem did come to believe and Acts 15.5 implies some Pharisees did come to accept Jesus, even as they rejected the entrance of Gentiles without circumcision and Torah-observance. Utlimately, some came to embrace Jesus as their Rabbi, which ultimately came through the instruction/discipline of the cross of Jesus (cf. מוּסָר in Isaiah 53.5).
In summary, Jesus’ description of himself wishing to gather Jerusalem like hens do their chicks is an image of a different synagogue/gathering of Israel’s people that ultimately as God through Jesus as the One He sent at the center, with mercy and compassion that seeks to protect defining the nature of this religious instruction. Even though Jesus was initially rejected, through His crucifixion He did become the Rabbi who taught and healed those who believed in Him, including of their sins. In that way, Jesus’ intentions to create an alternative synagogue with a different form of instruction is a fulfillment of the words of Isaiah 2.2-4:
In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!