Most of us probably don’t think about it very often, but English is really kind of an odd language. We have some strange ways of saying things that sound perfectly normal to us – until you stop to think about it for too long. For example, when the weather’s bad and it’s absolutely pouring buckets outside, we often say it’s “raining cats and dogs.” Why?? That’s so weird! Or if we’re feeling sick, we might say we’re feeling “under the weather.” Under the weather?? Like, when are you not under the weather? (Hopefully the weather you’re under isn’t cats and dogs!) Or when we meet someone special and we start developing romantic feelings for that person, we might say we have a “crush” on them. A crush?! I mean, what a violent way to say that you like someone! With sayings like these, it’s no wonder that English is such a hard language to learn.
Another kind of odd idiom that we hear from time to time without really thinking about it is the phrase “cutting a deal.” Have you ever wondered about that phrase? I mean, it makes sense that you can make a deal, or arrange a deal, or even negotiate a deal. But what does it mean for someone to cut a deal?
It turns out this phrase actually has some pretty ancient roots – and they’re reflected in our first reading for this morning. In this passage, we find Abram talking with God in a vision. God had already told him a while back that he would be the ancestor of a mighty nation – but Abram is (understandably) anxious and kind of doubtful about whether this will really happen; after all, it’s pretty hard to imagine being the father of a nation when you don’t have a single kid of your own – and especially when you and your wife are already well past your childbearing years. So God makes him a binding promise, a covenant.
God makes this covenant in a way that Abram will understand – through a traditional practice that was common at the time. And that’s where the reading starts to get a bit gross. God has him gather up a bunch of animals: a cow, a goat, a sheep, and a couple of birds. Abram kills these animals and then he full on cuts the three larger ones in half – and I’m not just talking across the middle, this was a lengthwise cut. When people in the ancient world talked about “cutting” a covenant, or cutting a deal, they were not kidding! They would then take the halves of these animals and lay them opposite each other, often with a little trough or depression in the earth between them, where the blood would run down. Each of the people cutting the covenant would then pass between the pieces, each of them in turn walking through all that blood.
By passing through the blood, what the signers of the covenant were essentially saying was: “May the same be done to me if I should break the terms of this covenant.” It’s certainly a graphic way of making sure that the deal would stick! Just like people living today, most, or at least many, of the people in the ancient world were practical and shrewd in their business dealings – they had to look out for number one, because no one else would. And if they were going to enter into a legally binding agreement, they wanted to make darn sure that everyone held up their end of the bargain – and that, if they didn’t, there would be consequences.
So, in the tradition of the time, God cuts this covenant with Abram. God promises him a homeland and descendents that would be as numerous as the stars. But if you look back at the reading, you might notice that the deal that God makes with Abram is a little different. After he gets everything set up with the animal pieces, Abram falls asleep as the sun is setting. And so then what happens? Who passes between the pieces, through the blood? It ain’t Abram – it’s not even human! “A smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” The writer of Genesis doesn’t spell it out for us, but both of these things are symbols of God’s presence. God passes through the blood not just once, but twice, taking the entire covenant – and its consequences – on God’s own shoulders (while Abram literally sleeps through it).
It makes little sense by human logic. But God isn’t cutting this covenant to be logical or shrewd or practical. God does it out of love for Abraham and his descendents. From the founding of the world, God has been looking for ways to grow closer in relationship with humanity. God has given us humans all that we have and all that we are, so God knows that we have nothing to offer in return, except what God first gave us. What God asks from us is our love – for us to live in love for God, for our neighbor, and for the world God made.
And God doubles down on this love in the new covenant – the covenant cut not with the blood of animals, but with the blood of Christ, God made flesh.
We see this love in our gospel reading. Jesus is teaching in the villages on his way to Jerusalem, when the Pharisees approach him and tell him to turn around and go home, because Herod wants to kill him. (A warning? A threat? Who knows) With exasperation, Jesus basically replies, “Look, I don’t have time for Herod; I am busy. I’ve got a lot of important stuff to do and not a lot of time to do it in. So if Herod wants to kill me, he’s just gonna have to wait.” But then, as Jesus begins to talk about Jerusalem, his tone becomes very tender. He grieves over the way that Jerusalem has turned away from God and killed the prophets God has sent – but instead of focusing on anger, Jesus speaks with love; he speaks with the love of a caring mother who just wants her wayward children to come home.
Jesus uses a couple of images here that paint a really striking contrast between himself and Herod. He calls Herod a fox – an animal known for being shrewd and cunning and predatory – and for Herod, it’s a pretty fitting descriptor. Officially, Herod was a leader of the Jewish people, but he mostly functioned as an extension of the Roman Empire. He had negotiated a place of power for himself in the overlap between Israel and Rome, cutting whatever deals would best serve his own interests.
Jesus could not be more different. Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote beautifully about this in an article I read earlier this week. She writes:
…a hen is what Jesus chooses, which — if you think about it –is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor
Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.
Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing.
This – Jesus the mother hen, wings spread wide on the cross – this is the blood of the new covenant. This is the blood shed for you, shed for me, shed for all God’s beloved people. This is the covenant of love that God has cut with all humanity.
Just like in the covenant with Abraham, God does it all – God even endures persecution and crucifixion at our hands – and keeps coming back with love that cannot be stopped by death. Christ himself makes clear that he didn’t come to condemn humanity or punish them; he came to save this world that God so loves.
This is God’s kind of deal-making. As with Abram, God comes to us, with language we can understand, speaking the same resounding message: “You are mine. And I am yours.” And, just as God reassured an anxious Abram, God reassures us: “I have done it all. And I will give you all you need and more. You don’t have to live like you’re on your own, always taking care of number one because you’re afraid no one else will. Mama’s here. And I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Note: I do not mean to disparage foxes or to encourage violence against them. Foxes are smart and cute af and part of God’s beloved creation. And also, I mean, I love cats — and those fuzzy little maniacs will gleefully murder anything they can get their adorable widdle paws on. 😻🦊