I would have gathered thy children as a hen gathereth her chickens
Jesus calls the Pharisees a lot of names in Matthew chapter 23. They are hypocrites – not practicing what they preach. They are blind guides. They are absurdly imbalanced moralists – ‘straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel’. They are whited sepulchers, they are serpents, vipers and murderers, the very apex of evil in the history of God’s people (v33-36).
Yet what does He call them at the end? Children. Chicks even.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37)
Notice first who Jesus claims to be in this verse. He is the One who has sent prophets to Jerusalem over the centuries. He is the One always longing to gather Israel. He is the One who feels an ancient, parental love for the people of God.
Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) because He has always wept over Jerusalem. Now He stands in its midst, an unschooled Rabbi, seemingly a ‘minority of one’ taking on the religious establishment. Yet notice the towering “I” He unleashes in this teaching: “How often would I have gathered thy children.” Jesus considers Himself the driving force of Israel’s history. Here is the Lord God among us, and what is He like?
He is like a mother hen. It’s an incredible change of tone in verse 37. We have had 36 verses of blistering condemnation. Yet in none of those verses does Jesus mention His divine identity. Those assessments might have been made by any religious observer with eyes to see it. The Pharisees themselves would have considered it a critique from below. But now Jesus invokes His ancient authority as Lord of Israel. In verse 37 He draws Himself up to His true height, and when He does so, how does He appear to the people? As a hen gathering chicks.
This is the true heart of Zion’s King. He has intense motherly concern for these snakes, these killers, these white-washed tombs. He longs to gather them. Whatever we have said about the warrant for harsh words and ridicule in this chapter we must recognize that the last word is grace. Jesus is not “writing off” these wicked men, He’s pursuing them. And the pointing of His finger serves the welcome of His wings. This should also be our heart if ever we offer stinging rebuke. The point is not to crush but to gather.
But these Pharisees will have none of it. And so the real condemnation of the self-righteous is not so much their resistance to the rebukes as their refusal of the relationship. It is grace that constitutes them as sinners – the offer of mercy which occasions their reprobation.
Our discussions about God’s love and God’s anger can become very abstract. This verse makes it personal. The love of God has shown up among us and His name is Jesus. He is the eternal Gatherer – the One who longs to reconcile all people to the Father. His anger is the response of love to wilful children who refuse His grace.
The Lord God of Israel does not stand behind both love and anger as though He wills one or other according to human worth or some divine caprice. God is love and His anger is only ever a response to the thwarting and refusal of this love. He does not become angry in spite of those motherly wings but because of them.
“Fly sinners, fly into those arms
Of everlasting love.”
— Charles Wesley, Jesus the Name High Over All