“... so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Second Sunday after Pentecost. Matthew 10:16) is a sentence of Scripture that I keep coming back to again and again. Each time I am struck by its wisdom and absolutely challenged by it’s almost impossibility as I seek to find a third and holy way of holding both images!
The first time I remember being referred to this text was when I was having a painful conflict in a work place – I felt the need to protect a worker from what I believed was a misuse of power by the leader. I was so engaged and enraged that I confessed to my parish priest that I felt my inner “mother rhinoceros” ready to charge. Of course I knew that was not entirely wise! He pointed me to this phrase “to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves”. It helped although it made matters more complex (which of course they really were anyway) in the short term. And many times since when I am caught between my need to protect myself and others from harm or being taken advantage of and my need to act not only in strength but compassion also, I come back to this phrase.
To be counselled to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent or gentle as a dove is not straightforward advise for it requires entering the dilemma and holding two different perspectives until a third or more comprehending and comprehensive solution suggests itself. Cynthia Bourgeault put it this way: “the interplay of two polarities calls forth a third way, which is the ‘mediating’ or ‘reconciling’ principle between them ... that in turn generates a synthesis at a whole new level ... creating a new realm of possibility.”(Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, Shambala Publications, Boston, 2013 page 16) for me holding the apparent polarities of crafty, subtle, wisdom and innocence together is clear sighted compassion.
So let us enter into the text, as best we can all this time later, and with our own particular concerns and interests. At this point in the dialogue Jesus is having with his disciples he is preparing them for the mission field, he is sending them out into the world to be as sheep among wolves. And he knows what is waiting for them – persecution from outsiders and conflict and potential division from within the group. In response to being reminded that they will be like sheep among wolves Jesus says to be like serpents and like doves. (As one commentator put it he hadn’t seen that many different species of animal mentioned in one verse since the animals went on the ark two by two!!)
There are so many things to consider but without getting too sidetracked it is humbling and sobering to remember that being a follower of the Christ, trying to live out the teachings of Jesus, has always been understood to mean being vulnerable in the face of the powerful. And the advice, the protection, was to have the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove. Jesus was probably referring to a rabbinical saying (Song Rab 2:30) which said “God said to Israel: In respect to me, be pure as doves but with the nations of the world be cunning as serpents.” But as always he takes conventional wisdom and adds new depth and breadth.
What is the wisdom of the serpent, given that serpents have pretty bad press in the Bible? In that more general part of the world (Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia and Greece) in ancient times serpents were associated with eternity, pure desire, fertility, and healing. In the Genesis story the serpent, although clearly introducing temptation and inviting the use of power for self interest, is described as cunning, subtle, persuasive, crafty and wise. I have come to think of the wisdom of the serpent as being more than just intellectual knowledge and objective observation but a more crafty nuanced worldly wisdom – seeing and understanding how things really work, who is who and allied with whom, what is really at play, and what is to gain or lose.
On its own the wisdom of the serpent can be destructive and self interested. There is the wisdom of Jesus in pairing that sort of wisdom with the innocence of the dove. Remembering that the dove is an image for the coming of the Holy Spirit as well as a harmless common bird. It is certainly about purity. That is we are being encouraged to harness the gentleness of compassion rather than the blindness and avoidance of ignorance or denial. Brought together into the one way of seeing and acting we have a potent and yet still vulnerable way of being the followers of Christ.
So how does this relate to the world we operate in where we often feel like sheep among wolves? If we were to try and apply it to the protests that are erupting across the world we might reflect that protesters are as vulnerable as sheep surrounded by well armed and unfortunately sometimes dangerously directed forces. To bring the wisdom and compassion of the serpent and the dove to this situation might be to be trained in non-violent conflict negotiation, to be well connected with observers and legal representatives ready to defend, to be strong yet compassionate in response to potentially strong violent feelings and provocations.
If we were to bring the wisdom and compassion of the serpent and the dove to the world’s great problems such as pandemics, famine, poverty, destruction of our shared environment then we would not give up hope and dam entire nations and species to suffering and extinction but rather we would put all our ability to discern, all our craftiness, all our knowledge of how one thing impacts on another and of who benefits from current arrangements, to the good use of problem solving. And we would do it with warmth and hopefulness and joy and righteousness.
If we were to attempt to bring the wisdom and compassion of the serpent and the dove to the situations of conflict we have within the church local and the church across theological and cultural divides we would find ways of listening and speaking our respective understandings of the truth without ruling each other in or out of God’s favour (as though we can anyway!). We would use our wisdom to listen not only to what is being said but what cannot be spoken and our response to our neighbour would be one of compassion. Not naivety or denial. Too often the church has confused forgiveness with forgetting or overlooking the wrongdoing and harming of others, especially the vulnerable, that has happened in our midst.
And while it is not always easy to decipher if we remind ourselves that we are looking for a holy third way when we feel tied in knots about intractable relationship issues and traumatic memories and painful losses then we might find a way through our lives that does not deny the pain or the gift, that is capable of forgiveness seventy times seven and yet does not ignore risk and the need for self protection and respect. When we seek wisdom and compassion rather than rightness or winning then we may indeed stumble into a holy way of being.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, help us find a whole and holy way of being.