Foxes and Birds

A friend of mine and I have a long-standing debate about sermons. He prefers a straightforward approach, while I am more inclined to resort to symbolism. For instance, if he were in preaching on today’s Gospel, he would content himself with saying, “Jesus was homeless because he surrendered himself totally to his mission of preaching; he expected his disciples to be equally committed. We, too, should order our lives to reflect our absolute allegiance to the Gospel message.” And that’s that.

I, on the other hand, begin with the principle that nothing in Scripture is haphazard, for everything has its purpose, including the foxes and birds: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests.” There must be a reason Jesus specifically mentioned foxes and birds, for they have very different connotations. The Bible confirms the common use of the word “foxy” to describe someone who is cunning and cruel. For instance, when Jesus learned that King Herod wanted to kill him, he said, “Tell that fox. . . .”[1] Similarly, in the Old Testament the prophet Ezekiel said, “The [false] prophets are like foxes among ruins.”2 In the Song of Songs, too, we read about “the little foxes that spoil the vineyard.” And so on. Birds are different in that they represent what is pleasing to God, as when sparrow and swallow symbolize the joy of being in the temple of Jerusalem: “Even the sparrow find a home and the swallow a nest for brood; your altars, O Lord of hosts.”3 There are many such statements: “Like the bird set free from the fowler; the snare was broken and we are set free”4 and “Fly like a bird to the mountains.”5 All in all, they add weight to Jesus’s assurance to his disciples: “You are worth more than many sparrows.”6

What can we make of these two as contrasting resting places for the Son of Man? Well, foxes burrow in the earth, and so they symbolize the earthbound man. He is so concerned with the things of this world that he cannot raise his eyes to heaven, someone for whom power or greed is the ruling passion. I may note here that the three systems most important in the last hundred years have all been forms of unbridled greed or abusive power: Marxist communism, Nazism, and laissez-faire capitalism. These represent what Saint Paul meant when—in today’s second reading—he warned us: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.”7 Certainly, Jesus will not lay down his head among such men. That raises the question of why Jesus would not liken himself to birds, who have their nests in the air, in “heaven,” so to speak. You would imagine that, as such, they would be apt symbols for people who “live by the Spirit.” But Christ avoids the comparison because he has not yet ascended to his Father; before he can find his “nest,” he must proclaim the kingdom in weariness and want, he must heal the sick, he must die in ignominy. Only then will he have a place to lay his head in the bosom of the Father, like those sparrows and swallows nesting in the temple.

In a way, we, too, may echo the words of Jesus, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air their nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”8 Like him, we must eschew “foxes,” i.e., people who have a consuming greed or a lust for power. Nor can we yet nest among the “birds,” i.e., the heavenly Jerusalem, for “here we have no lasting city; but we seek a city which is to come.

[1]Lk 13.32.  2Ez 13.4  3Ps 83/84 4Ps 123/124 5Ps 10/11 6Matt 10.31 7Gal 5.17 8Matt 8.28 9Heb 13.14