It's a maternal image of God that resonates with many of us: God as a mother hen, trying desperately to gather her wayward chicks under her wings.
Growing up on a farm, I have firsthand knowledge of hens' sometimes tender, sometimes fierce maternal instincts. Every once in awhile, if our female ducks laid too many eggs to easily brood all of them, my dad would place some of the eggs under a broody chicken with no eggs of her own. Not only did the hen accept the eggs, but she eventually accepted her strange, web-footed babies, even when they did inexplicable things like hop into the drainage ditch for a swim while Mama, feathers a-ruffle, paced in alarm at the water's edge. One summer two of our chickens brooded a cooperative nest in an old equipment shed, hatching about two dozen chicks between them and raising them all together. And one of our little bantam hens, annoyed by the presence of our chicken-indifferent barnyard mouser Tigger a little too close to her babies, suddenly launched herself at the unsuspecting feline, riding Tigger's back and pecking viciously at her head until the cat hightailed it away from the chicken coop and the triumphant hen jumped off to rejoin her cheeping brood.
Those are happy hen stories. But, nature being red in tooth and claw, things aren't always sanguine in the poultry yard. With very few exceptions, most hens will not accept the chicks of other hens; if a hen with very young chicks dies, the other hens will chase away or even kill the orphaned babies, while half-fledged chicks able to fend for themselves are still ostracized by the other chickens and live furtive lives on the margins of the flock, raggedy and stunted and vulnerable to predation.
So when I think about Jesus comparing God to a hen and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to her chicks, I also think about the perils of the chicks who've wandered beyond the protection of their mother's wings, and find themselves in a cold, hostile, dangerous world. But unlike the finite reach of a mother hen, the saving reach of God spans far and wide -- beyond the width of a wooden crossbeam, back into the past and forward into the future, into infinity. And that is good news.
Artwork: "Black Hen With Chicks" by Gabriella Denton, at New Mexico Creates .