O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. (Matthew 23.37)
Just Won’t Do
Our first cat, Felix, was a peach. Our current one, Cody, is a pip. Felix came to us through a shelter. At six months of age, he was left on its doorstep without any information. He was the most gentle and caring cat we’ve ever known, and it was hard to conceive why his first owner let him go. But we had a clue. Any time we entertained, Fee would join right in, charming our guests no end—except when children were present. If anyone younger than 10 was around, he was nowhere to be found. No amount of calling and cajoling could bring him out. For the 16 years he lived with us, this never changed. His fear of kids was so deeply engrained we assumed his first owner’s children horribly mistreated him. Other than this, Fee was incredibly responsive and well behaved, which encouraged us to think he genuinely felt grateful to us for providing him a safe home.
Cody is a store-bought cat who came to us at six weeks. He was the runt of his litter and we sense he had a rough go of it, because he’s fiercely assertive and willful. After nearly two years, we’ve still not reined him in. Everything must be on his terms; if not, it just won’t do. He’s astoundingly prodigious and strong. He dissembles things by banging on them until their screws loosen so he can twist them free with his teeth. He’s figured out light switches, and when we’re up later than he’d like, he leaps up to flip off the lights. He’s fascinated by water and spends hours perched on the edge of the tub, pawing the faucet knob to start a small trickle. We’re constantly asking where his bottomless curiosity comes from. Unlike Fee, who couldn’t have been happier to have a home, Cody seems obsessed with what’s outside his home. Where’s this water coming from? What’s behind this mirror? And most disconcerting, as we live on the 42nd floor, how can I get past these windows and explore new things? No amount of reinforcement, positive or negative, is enough to quash his inquisitiveness. On the other hand, no amount of frustration on our part is enough to defeat our love for Cody.
Second only to the accounts of His anger with temple merchants and moneychangers, Matthew 23 provides us the most graphic depiction of Jesus’s frustration with religious malpractice. Informally titled “The Seven Woes,” it transcribes a searing, seven-point indictment of Jerusalem’s priests and lawyers, who twist Scripture to manipulate their followers without honoring its principles in their own lives. In verse 28, Jesus says, “On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” After He delivers His grief, Jesus looks at the crowd that will call for His execution within days. As frustrated as He is, nothing can defeat His love for them. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He laments, “you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (v37) It’s His last call for them to abandon their stubbornness and follow Him.
They hear Him, but His words don’t compute. Like Cody, they were born into circumstances that made them feel small and afraid. Now that they’ve got the run of the house, there’s no reasoning with them. Since what they have is all they’ve known, they concentrate on taking things apart, looking behind God’s established principles, and trying to loosen barriers shielding them from destruction. Unlike Felix, they have no appreciation for the love and security Christ offers. He longs to draw them together, to shelter them from harm and teach them a better way, but they insist on remaining ungathered. They’d rather run amok and face the consequences than submit to Christ’s leadership and be safe.
Under His Wing
Jesus compares them to chicks that defy their instincts by not clustering around the hen that gave them life and broods over their welfare. What’s missing from the picture, though, are the orphaned chicks that have flocked to her for nurture and protection. Although I hesitate to suggest another animal analogy—realizing it edges us still closer to turning a sobering scene into a Disney cartoon—when I read Matthew 23, I see Jesus speaking to a group of intrepid Codys, while the Felixes He rescued sit quietly, gratefully nearby. I wonder what they make of this? Surely, it saddens them to see their brothers and sisters persist in contrary disobedience. They must want to describe the unconditional love and attention Christ has shown them. Also, they surely understand the impulses driving the unruly behavior Jesus mourns.
Some of us, like Cody, only know one way of life. Our inflated sense of security invites us to think we're entitled to run the house even though we're desperate to explore new things. Christ offers us the chance to live securely and freely if we allow Him to gather us. Others of us, like Felix, come from unhappy pasts and yearn for someone to ensure our safety. Christ calls us to Him, promising unfailing love and acceptance. The most amazing aspect of this emerges when a Cody and a Felix forsake their widely dissimilar, yet equally ungathered lives and nestle together in Christ’s care. Differences in backgrounds and behavior disappear under His wing. Love and acceptance restore our equality. Christ longs to gather all of us—every chick and orphan, Cody and Felix—together, safe and secure in His love. But we must be willing to be gathered.
Felix and Cody—equally loved and safe, if not (yet) equally willing.
Postscript: O How He Loves You and Me
This simple little song says it all. (I’m uncertain of the artist. If my ears aren’t deceiving me, though, it’s performed by The Don Marsh Chorus and Orchestra.)