Embracing the Paradox
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves."
Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
June 16, 2023, Words By: Lina Thompson, Image By: Banksy
This week’s lectionary passage from Matthew 9:35-10:8 is one of those passages that is a little scary — no matter how many times you read it.
In it, Jesus paints a picture for the disciples about what it looks like to be a follower and what they should expect “out there” in the world, especially the hostility they will face.
Jesus charges them to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is near. He also instructs them to heal the sick, cast out demons, and live simply and humbly among the people. He even teaches them what to do if folks don’t receive their message, basically, they should walk away.
But the verse that most captures my attention is Matthew 10:16.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves;
so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
What an interesting perspective, especially now through the eyes of Pentecost and Jesus’ call to be witnesses.
I feel the tension though, don’t you? Between Jesus naming the hostility and danger (sheep and wolves), and him sending us “out there” with just an image of serpents and doves to help us?
Many of us, including myself, have experienced how relationships in our lives have changed over the last 4-5 years, even with those closest to us — our families, friends and our faith communities. The discussions about the gap between the rich and poor in this country (the US), the hostility that is present whenever conversations about “race” occur, the rise of Christian nationalism, and so much more, have all made living in community difficult. I have been in many conversations where it turns awkward, ugly, or even hostile — whether it’s at the dinner table, the city council meeting, or even with a friend trying to seek understanding.
What Do We Do?
Here, Jesus raises two animals before us, serpents and doves, as symbols of a way forward. It’s both thought provoking and confusing. This simile invites us to embrace a particular way of existing in the world, one that reflects the formation of disciples — God’s people who, filled with the Spirit, discern with wisdom and approach life with humility.
Wise as Serpents
How do we navigate a complex world? Are we guided by wisdom and thoughtfulness in our actions and decisions? Can we resist the urge to pass judgment or defend our positions, instead seeking understanding and dialogue? Are our hearts open to perceiving beyond the surface, attuned to the promptings of the Spirit?
Innocent as Doves
Doves typically symbolize peace and gentleness. Are we able to embrace authenticity, vulnerability, and a posture that diffuses hostility and violence? Do we seek peace in our interactions?
We will face hostility due to our faith and our alignment with Jesus, who calls us to stand with the poor and disenfranchised. Jesus never promised an easy path.
While the strategy of embodying wisdom like serpents and innocence like doves may seem insufficient when confronting wolves, we must resist the temptation to respond with hostility ourselves. Engaging in a cycle of violence only creates more violence.
Instead, we are called to embrace wisdom, humility, vulnerability, and peace-making. That is the way of the Spirit. That is the Incarnation.
When was the last time you felt “provoked” to take a stand?
What would it cost you to be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove?