Jesus calls us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves

Immediately following the sending out of the Twelve (Matt 10.5-15), Jesus declared: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10.16 NRSV) – or in the words of GNB:  “Listen! I am sending you out just like sheep to a pack of wolves. You must be as cautious as snakes and as gentle as doves”.

Over the last week these words of Jesus have caught my imagination. To my surprise – and my shame – I discovered that in all the 43 years of ministry, prior to my retirement, I had never preached on this passage of Scripture. So I turned first to Frederick Dale Bruner’s  classic commentary on Matthew, entitled The Christbook (Eerdmans, 2004). There I read:

This is the motto of mission. Missionary disciples’ coats-of arms consist of four panels, with one animal in each panel – a sheep, a wolf, a snake, and a dove…..

We may be disappointed to be called ‘sheep’ (Wouldn’t ‘tigers’ be better?). Sheep are not the most impressive creatures in the animal kingdom.  Yet the challenge of discipleship is precisely to give up the world’s standards of heroism…. Jesus does not say that we are to ‘become’ sheep, but more fundamentally we are in fact going out ‘as’ sheep – into the midst of wolves. This ‘sheepishness’ is due to the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ work… We are not primarily fighters, we are not allowed to be haters, and we cannot even use the arsenal of invective that revolutionary movements find necessary for motivation… Disciples are not to see themselves as engaged in conquering crusades.

His (Jesus’) portrait of sheep amid wolves teachers disciples their vulnerability, but his portrait of snakes says, ‘Don’t be stupidly vulnerable’. Disciples are not asked to imitate everything in snakes; their stealth or poisonous attacks, for example, only their intelligence… The first wisdom of serpents is simply the prudent realization that they are amid wolves…

But lest the snake imagery encourages a Christian guile or a too prudent cleverness, Jesus paints in doves to complete his mural… Doves are in the world of birds what sheep are in the world of beasts – peaceful, harmless, and non-violent. The animals on the seals of great states are almost invariably impressive creatures: lions, eagles, bears, and other fearful-looking beasts. The main animals on the seal of mission are quite different: sheep and doves.

I consulted two other major commentators.  According to R.T. France (The Gospel of Matthew, 2007):

The vulnerability of sheep is enhanced by their proverbial stupidity, but disciples are not to be like that… As a result of the Eden story, the snake was proverbial for cunning, and the term used here (phronimos) is the same as that used for the ‘craftiness’ of the snake in LXX Gen 3.1.  Disciples under threat are not to be helpless and gullible, but must maintain the initiative… In popular thought snakes are to be feared rather than admired… So Jesus here offsets that more obvious connotation of snakes by a balancing image, the harmlessness of doves… They (the disciples) need the cunning of snakes without the venom.

While according to John Nolland (The Gospel of Matthew, 2005):

The wisdom called for from the disciples will involve anticipating danger and avoiding it wherever possible, but not in such a way as to undercut their mission priorities. The innocence called for will involve a consistent integrity that is prepared to suffer rather than compromise.

The question then arises: So what?  What do these words of Jesus have to say to us today?  Our present context in the West, at least, is very different from that facing the first disciples of Jesus, where persecution was very much a reality. Yet the underlying principles of wisdom and integrity are surely constant to any church engaged in mission. Wise leadership which is constantly looking for Gospel opportunities, which understands the importance of timing and of risk-management, enables a church to move forward in faith. Integrity, which is constantly seeking to embody Gospel values in the life of the church, which understands the importance of building up the body of Christ, enables a church to move forward in love.   Or to return to the context of mission in Matthew 10:  Jesus calls his disciples to go out and seek ‘lost sheep’ (Matt 10.6).  Sadly not all will respond to the good news of the Kingdom (Matt 10.7, 15). But this is ‘par for the course’ – as Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves. Or in the words of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove” (The Message).

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