That Little Red Hen Was a Pharisee

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Can I tell you that I hate the folktale of “The Little Red Hen”? I remember it from my childhood, and I remember coming across it in little storybooks when my kids were little, and I always skipped it. I just don’t like it. I know the morals it hopes to teach are good ones (against laziness, for work and for cooperation), but the climactic delivery actually teaches a very unChristlike selfishness. It’s sort of a “one bad turn deserves another”-type thing. Here’s the story to remind you:

One day as the Little Red Hen was scratching in a field, she found a grain of wheat.
“This wheat should be planted,” she said. “Who will plant this grain of wheat?”
“Not I,” said the Duck.
“Not I,” said the Cat.
“Not I,” said the Dog.
“Then I will,” said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
Soon the wheat grew to be tall and yellow.
“The wheat is ripe,” said the Little Red Hen. “Who will cut the wheat?”
“Not I,” said the Duck.
“Not I,” said the Cat.
“Not I,” said the Dog.
“Then I will,” said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
When the wheat was cut, the Little Red Hen said, “Who will thresh the wheat?”
“Not I,” said the Duck.
“Not I,” said the Cat.
“Not I,” said the Dog.
“Then I will,” said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
When the wheat was threshed, the Little Red Hen said, “Who will take this wheat to the mill?”
“Not I,” said the Duck.
“Not I,” said the Cat.
“Not I,” said the Dog.
“Then I will,” said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
She took the wheat to the mill and had it ground into flour. Then she said, “Who will make this flour into bread?”
“Not I,” said the Duck.
“Not I,” said the Cat.
“Not I,” said the Dog.
“Then I will,” said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
She made and baked the bread. Then she said, “Who will eat this bread?”
“Oh! I will,” said the Duck.
“And I will,” said the Cat.
“And I will,” said the Dog.
“No, No!” said the Little Red Hen. “I will do that.” And she did.

What a graceless twit that hen is. I would like to rewrite the story so it ends like this:

She made and baked the bread. Then she said, “Who will eat this bread?”

“Oh! I will,” said the Duck.
“And I will,” said the Cat.
“And I will,” said the Dog.
“Come on in!” said the Little Red Hen. “We can eat it together.” And they did.

Of course that doesn’t work if you’re wanting to teach children if they don’t work and don’t help, they shouldn’t expect to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor. But it does work if you want to teach children that the world is full of people who don’t deserve their charity or help but that we should give it to them gladly anyway.

One point Christian married couples must continually re-learn is the difference between doing good for their spouse in order to get something in return and doing good for their spouse simply because it’s the right thing to do—because it glorifies God. I think lots of the stuff out there on his-and-her needs, love languages, and so on can be helpful, but too often it somehow sets us up to be yinning and yanging each other. I do this and you do that, and then we will bring balance to the force. I wonder where sin and grace come into play.

We don’t know these things intuitively. This is not the impulse of the flesh. The truth is that only Jesus can fill the reservoir of needs inside of us. The language of love we all (sometimes unknowingly) have is redemption, and only Jesus can speak it perfectly. As long as we are looking to anyone else to respond correctly to our good works, thereby energizing us for or enabling us to continue doing good works, the thing won’t work. For followers of Jesus, the ideal for service is giving without anticipating receipt. Of anything. I don’t know that it’s even possible for us to give without thinking of receiving, but I do know we should believe that such thoughts are anti-grace.

Grace leaves results up to God. Grace leaves “what people deserve” up to God. Grace leaves the thanks and the reciprocity for your good works up to God.

Because grace is the virtue that, when embodied in us, best enacts the Great Commandment—it is about God and others and only last, if at all, about us.

When was the last time you were scandalized by grace? When was the last time you pondered how personally discombobulating and religiously revolutionary the gospel is? Grace covers us screw-ups and the things we screw up. It is not blind to our laziness, of course, but it might as well be. It welcomes us to the table even though we’ve done nothing to earn a right there. In our sin we say “Not I” to God’s requirements every day, but in our clingy, needy way, we say “I will!” to his offers. It is grace that reserves a place for us at his table and says, “Come on in! We can eat together.”

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