Luke 13:34-35 became one of my favorite texts twelve years ago when I heard a specific interpretation of it at a Bible study. So going into today I assumed I’d write about that beautiful interpretation my sweet and naive brain once absorbed way back when. The issue, though, is that I did some research on the interpretation, and apparently it’s nonsense. So before I get into the story of my disappointment what followed thereafter, here is the text:
“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 13:34-35).
It’s a complex text on its own, but when I first read it a teacher made it sound even more dynamic. He told me that when a farm catches on fire, a hen gathers her chicks under her wings and sacrifices herself for her babies. Literally, she’ll remain standing and spreading her feathers, while she’s engulfed in flame, protecting her young from the smoke and the fire. Isn’t that so beautiful and such a perfect image of Christ sacrificing for the church?
Well, I couldn’t find that interpretation in any of my commentaries, so eventually I Googled it. It turns out that Snopes had already done the research for me, and they learned that hens, and birds in general, don’t do that. The story was actually first published by the Illustrated Gospel Series in 1945 as a (fictional) illustration of Christ’s (real) sacrificial love. Since then people have claimed that the National Geographic published a similar story, but National Geographic regretfully denied ever witnessing anything of the sort.
Learning that Luke 13 did not actually allude to the sacrificial hen imagery felt a bit like tripping and falling on my face. After a brief mourning period, however, I stood up, brushed myself off, and started looking for answers about Luke 13 in a way better source: the Bible.
The last line of Luke 13:35 states, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This phrase shows up a few other places in the biblical text, and is rooted in Psalm 118. Looking at the context of Psalm 118, we have the writer enduring persecution and rejection from all of the nations, but the Lord strengthens and restores him (v. 1-21). Then we read, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v. 22), meaning that they raised him up from out of the quarry, out of the depths, to be elevated and exalted. And the Psalm ends in praise to the Lord.
So in Luke 13, Jesus doesn’t allude to a sacrificial hen, but rather points us to Psalm 118 and the story of a man who experiences persecution from all sides and whom the Lord ultimately raises and exalts. Jesus connects himself to the one who the nations reject, and he claims his identity as the stone that the builders rejected, who becomes the cornerstone. In essence, Jesus associates himself with a gigantic and complex narrative that would have been familiar to his readers and contextualizes his role within the world.
I loved that sacrificial hen interpretation for years. However, looking at that story in contrast to the connection to Psalm 118 shows how easily we can limit the biblical text from the big and beautiful message that it intends to convey. With the sacrificial hen story, we end up with a dead mother hen surrounding her baby chicks. We don’t see any redemption, any resurrection, any resolution. When we read Luke 13 in conjunction with the Psalm that Jesus actually wanted us to think of, though, we see the full narrative of an individual who is rejected, who is beaten down and persecuted, and who, through the faithful love of God, is ultimately raised up and honored so that all proclaim, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”