Doves AND Serpents
"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." (Matthew 10:16)
The Greek words used by Matthew in this text are intriguing. The term he uses to describe how we are to be like serpents is φρονιμοι (phronimoi) or "prudent", "wise", "shrewd." The word used to describe the dove-like behavior we should demonstrate is ακεραιοι (akeraioi) or "pure", "innocent", "harmless".
While the peaceful, beautiful, heartwarming dove is probably not a surprising image for us, the serpent might seem rather shocking. After all, most of the time snakes show up in the Bible, it's not a good thing. St. John Chrysostom had an intriguing take on Christ's inclusion of the serpent imagery in this passage. It is an interpretation I've come across in other spiritual writers as well, notably St. Francis de Sales in The Art of Loving God. I can't say for certain it was John Chrysostom who first suggested it, but his is the earliest instance I've personally encountered. He writes:
What cleverness is the Lord requiring here? The cleverness of a snake. A snake will surrender everything and will put up no great resistance even if its body is being cut in pieces, provided it can save its head. So you, the Lord is saying, must surrender everything but your faith: money, body, even life itself. For faith is the head and the root; keep that, and though you lose all else, you will get it back in abundance. The Lord therefore counseled the disciples to be not simply clever or innocent; rather he joined the two qualities so that they become a genuine virtue. He insisted on the cleverness of the snake so that deadly wounds might be avoided, and he insisted on the innocence of the dove so that revenge might not be taken on those who injure or lay traps for you. Cleverness is useless without innocence.
Francis de Sales goes even further to connect this image to our relationship with Christ himself as his very Body, the Church:
When they are attacked, [serpents] expose their whole bodies in order to preserve their heads. We, too, ought to do likewise, exposing everything to danger when necessary, in order to preserve within us, safe and untouched, our Lord and His love. For He is our "Head," and we are His "members,"" and that is the prudence that ought to be joined to our simplicity.
And so, this entreaty from Jesus appears to be a call to prioritize our lives and to practice sacrificing what we can never hope to keep (i.e. all our "stuff") for that which, embraced according to God's will, we can never possibly lose (i.e. eternal life).
I think it's important to conclude today's post with the Lord's own words in the verses that follow the quote I shared at the beginning. Jesus goes on to situate all this in blunt, even potentially harrowing detail. But we must not be driven to despair! Pay close attention to the role he promises the Holy Spirit will play amidst such terrifying prospects. Never forget - this entire life is fleeting when compared with the eternity awaiting us all beyond the veil. We WILL live forever. The question is where?
Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes.
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master; it is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Be-elzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.
So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:17-39)