Foxes and Birds: Uncomfortable Discipleship

18 Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side. 19 And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. 20 And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. (Matt. 8:18-20)

What does Jesus mean by saying that foxes (ἀλώπεκες) and birds of the air (πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ) have places to rest while the Son of Man does not? Why foxes and birds of the air? Why not cattle and rattle snakes? I don’t know about you, but when I read the NT I always wonder whether or not the authors are drawing from the OT; more times than not they are. So what, if anything, does the OT say about foxes?

Foxes (ἀλώπεκες) are said to walk on desolate mountains (Lam. 5:18). “Little foxes” (ἀλώπεκας μικροὺς) “ruin the vine” (Song 2:15). Samson uses foxes (ἀλώπεκας) to burn down the Philistines’ fields. But perhaps the most pertinent passage comes courtesy of Ezekiel where he calls false prophets foxes (ἀλώπεκες)1:

1 And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, 2 Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel that prophesy, and say thou unto them that prophesy out of their own hearts, Hear ye the word of the LORD; 3 Thus saith the Lord GOD; Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! 4 O Israel, thy prophets are like the foxes in the deserts. 5 Ye have not gone up into the gaps, neither made up the hedge for the house of Israel to stand in the battle in the day of the LORD. 6 They have seen vanity and lying divination, saying, The LORD saith: and the LORD hath not sent them: and they have made others to hope that they would confirm the word. (Ezek. 13:1-6)

Jesus had just warned against false prophets in Matthew 7:15-20; is it merely a coincidence that he now mentions foxes? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. It’s also worth noting that Jesus called Herod Antipas, who wanted to kill him, a “fox” (ἀλώπεκι) in Luke 13:32. Foxes are generally not depicted in the most positive light.

“Birds of the air” (πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ) are referred to as scavengers or devourers quite often in the OT2 (Gen. 40:17 [cf. 40:19]; 1 Kgdms. 21:20; 3 Kgdms. 12:24m3 [1 Kgs. 14:11]; 16:4; 20:4 [21:24]; 2:14; Isa. 18:6; Jer. 15:3; Ezek. 32:4). We find this usage taken up in both Matthew and Luke’s recording of Jesus’ parable of the Sower/Soils when he speaks of the birds of the air devouring the seed that fell by the wayside (Matt. 13:4 cf. Luke 8:5). He later explains that those birds represent the “evil one” (Matt. 13:19) and before this he tells the disciples that they are “much better” (KJV) or of “more value” (ESV) than the “birds of the air” (Matt. 6:26 cf. 10:31).

In Jesus’ parable of the Mustard Seed (Matt. 13:31-32) he also mentions birds of the air (πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ) nesting in the large plant that grew from the small seed. Interpreters are divided on how to understand the birds in this parable. Do they represent the Gentiles and thus the Gentile mission (cf. Acts 10:12; 11:6)? Do they represent evil (e.g., merely professing believers in the midst of true believers) in the kingdom? Or are they just birds that represent nothing?

While I’m taken by the possible allusion to either Daniel 4:10-12, 20-21 or Ezekiel 17:22-23, I’m not totally convinced that either Jesus or Matthew had these consciously in mind. There are some points of parallel with the branches/trees and birds so I can see how others can be convinced of this, and given the other passages in Matthew related to the Gentile mission I’ll admit that this is a tenable position, but for the moment I have to side with Snodgrass in saying that seeing the birds as Gentiles is perhaps “going too far.”4

I tend to think that Jesus has carried over the meaning from his earlier parable of the Sower/Soils and that the birds nested in the tree represent evil in the kingdom. It’s not insignificant that Jesus immediately gives another parable and speaks of yeast, which is often a symbol of evil in Scripture (e.g., Exod. 12:15, 19; Matt. 16:6, 11–12; 1 Cor. 5:6–8; Gal 5:9), and it’s interesting that in the parable the woman “hid” (ἐνέκρυψεν)5 the yeast in the flour. This is not an uncommon theme in Matthew’s Gospel—wolves are disguised as sheep; tares are sown among wheat—so while the yeast here could merely represent growth, I find evil a better alternative.

So what is Jesus communicating by saying that “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”? One of the more obvious answers is that his is an itinerant ministry that keeps him on the move. This is busy work and one can’t expect to get much rest when engaging in it. But he could have made just this point in any number of ways. Why bring foxes and birds into the mix? I believe that Jesus is making a statement on the comforts that false prophets and wicked leaders offer.

Again, the OT is instructive on this point. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel write about priests and prophets who tell Israel that there is peace when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11; Ezek. 13:16). This is comforting to the people in that they feel safe; it’s comfortable for the people in that they can persist in their wickedness without being called to repentance and change. Isaiah speaks of the people telling the true prophets to stop prophesying rightly and to start speaking smooth things and prophesying deceits (Isa. 30:10). The prophet Micaiah was hated for not prophesying good things about Ahab (1 Kgs. 22:8). The point is that false prophets tell the people what they want to hear; they offer them a superficial comfort.6

The situation is much the same in the early church. Paul warns Timothy of a time when people will no longer endure sound doctrine but will “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3, ESV). He also tells the church at Rome to “watch out for” and “avoid” those who cause divisions; they don’t serve Christ and by “smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Rom. 16:17-18) This is exactly the kind of thing that Jesus had warned the disciples against in Matthew 7 when he told them to beware of false prophets who come to them in sheep’s clothing. The false prophet doesn’t require much of their followers; Jesus does.

Following Jesus requires total devotion; it requires the renunciation of selfish desires; it’s uncomfortable! The disciple of Christ cannot rest on his or her laurels. Discipleship is a present task; it’s constant; it’s uncomfortable! Jesus wants this would-be disciple to consider this before committing himself to such a task. The would-be disciple offers to follow Jesus “wherever” he goes, but he doesn’t know that Jesus is going to his death. One wonders if he would have made the same offer with this information in mind.

But the more striking feature of Jesus’ response is that he approaches the would-be disciple in a way that is completely antithetical to the false prophet; he doesn’t tell the man what he wants to hear; he tells him to think about what he’s saying; he wants him to count the cost (cf. Luke 14:25-35). Jesus wants people to know that following him is not easy; it’s not comfortable; but the reward is far greater than following anyone else!


1 The ESV, NRSV, NIV, et al. translate the Hebrew שעלים as “jackals.”

2 OT references are to the (Rahlfs-Hanart) LXX; English book name/versification appears in brackets where different.

3 Readers not familiar with the peculiarities of the LXX version of 1 Kings (3 Kingdoms – LXX) will be interested to learn that “Unlike any of the other sections, γγ contains both additions not found in any extant Hebrew text and extensively rearranged text from within the section, and these Miscellanies are its most striking characteristic. Whole chapters are in different order. Sections are included more than once, some drawn from Supplements (MT Chronicles), while others have no known counterpart in the Hebrew Bible or the LXX… The additions to 12.24 are the longest interpolation. They include 14.1–20, which is not found in loco and is not found in chapter 12 in MT order. Further, the additions include a duplication of the verses from the beginning of chapter 12 already included ahead of the addition.” (Bernard A. Taylor, “The Old Greek Text of the Reigns: To the Reader” in the New English Translation of the Septuagint [eds. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007], 248)

4 Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 224.

5 The NRSV/NIV/NET translate this verb as “mixed,” which I think obscures the meaning. Besides, there were plenty of other verbs available that could have been used to make the point the yeast was “mixed” into the flour, e.g., ἐφύρασεν (see entry for φυράω in Johan Lust, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint cf. LSJ).

6 I like the NLT’s translation of Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11, which says, “They offer superficial treatment for my people’s mortal wound.”


3 thoughts on “Foxes and Birds: Uncomfortable Discipleship

  1. Excellent post Nick! I never would have considered reading the passage that way. I guess I’m still a rookie. How long did it take you to write this?

  2. EDH: Thanks! We’re all still rookies. This post in particular it took a couple of days since I was actually editing and splicing together notes that I had used when I taught on discipleship during my church’s recent retreat. I beefed up some references and took a closer look at the LXX for the post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s