“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
- Matthew 10:16
Such an enigma, this statement. Jesus is commissioning His disciples for the first adventure in ministry on their own. Sheep in the midst of wolves? That’s not an image the evokes much confidence. While trying to avoid becoming dinner for the wolves, the disciples were to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. This is not exactly a rousing rallying call to follow Jesus, but then, Jesus isn’t your average leader.
Let’s think about the imagery Jesus used. Wolves are fierce predators – top-level, to be precise. Top-level predators are those that are not prey to another species. In other words, nothing hunts wolves but human beings, and we don’t generally hunt them for food. In contrast, sheep have no natural defenses against any kind of predator. They flock together for protection, but frankly, even when the sheep are in a flock, they are easy prey. Besides running away, there is not a lot a sheep can do to defend itself. That’s the image Jesus gave His disciples.
The contrast between serpents and doves is similarly stark. From the beginning of the Bible (Genesis 3:1), serpents are portrayed as crafty and manipulative, wise enough to trick and mislead others. Doves, on the other hand, were symbols of purity and integrity in antiquity. One of the challenges of being pure in heart is looking for the humanity in a human being, and when we do so, we are easily influenced or even exploited. Think of children.
And yet, we seem to have come to a time when every Christian needs to see themselves precisely as sheep among wolves, maintaining wisdom and innocence at the same time. At a quick glance, the wolves appear to be winning, but appearances can be deceiving.
We have to be wise about forces in the world right now. Precisely because we trusted that human nature could be educated out of sin and selfishness, sin and selfishness abound everywhere we look. In the same way, because we accepted the diminution of spiritual forces, for good and for evil, evil seems to be riding roughshod over the souls of our society. Do you know what riding roughshod is? At least as far back as the seventeenth century, horseshoes were forged with spikes on the bottom. Originally, developed for travel in snow and ice, spiked horseshoes became brutal weapon when used in battles.
When we look around at all that is encouraged and facilitated in our society – the confusion, the hatred, the dishonesty – we can see what souls that have been ridden over roughshod look like. Our hearts should ache for anyone who’s believed that evil is good, wrong is right, and lies are truth. The lust for power and the destruction of our humanity are on full display nearly everywhere we look, wolves consuming lambs that lack sufficient wisdom to run.
But even as I type these things, I know – know – that in the end, God will prevail. Already, there are signs of revival and renewal, signs of new life, if we pay attention. Jesus was warning His disciples that people in the world would try to destroy them, that Satan is both cunning and calculating, and they need to have the spiritual sense to recognize both. When we look at the verse above in the larger context, we see that Jesus was sending them out to “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.” Nothing reveals a wolf like the presence of sheep.
Christianity is counterintuitive. The solution is the opposite of what seems sensible to us. Who sends sheep out among wolves? The God Who empowers sheep to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons” sends them out to be among wolves. Jesus was telling His disciples not to be naïve about the world in which they lived, and we should not be naïve either. Still, even now, we are sent to be among wolves for the purpose of saving them. Our world has been upside down since the man and woman ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden.
I’m late in writing and meeting myself coming and going these days, and I’m not sure I’m being clear. But what I want us to realize is that, no matter how things appear on the surface, God is acting, and evil will not prevail. All around us, the plans of the powerful and wealthy seem invincible. Our children have been educated out of any measure of good sense. Institutions that we trusted to protect us, sometimes including the church, now feel threatening.
When we see the wolves circling and the serpent is whispering that we are about to be devoured, remember that you follow Jesus. You are a disciple of the King of kings, a child of the Most High God. My friend and colleague, the late Jim Turley used to say, “Last I heard, Jesus is still Lord.” That is wise as a serpent but innocent as a dove. Though wolves howl and gnash their teeth, sheep that follow the Good Shepherd are safe with Him.
I’m not naïve. With the exception of St. John, all of Jesus’ disciples died horrific deaths, most in far-flung places away from family and friends. Even so, they still live today in a world we can only experience in prayer and in worship and then only when our hearts are pure. But that is our true home. The single, most important thing we can do with our lives is to live them so we’re pointing toward home. Filled with the Spirit, we need to get after the business of ‘proclaiming that the Kingdom is at hand,’ attesting to its proximity when we “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” Jesus’ next sentence is telling. “You received without paying; give without pay.” What you have received from Christ is what You will give to others, so open yourself to receive all the life, light, love, and power that are available to you because you are born of God.
Evil will eventually be thwarted, even if it appears to be carrying the day. Satan danced when Jesus died, then he raged when Jesus rose. But Christ Jesus is still Risen! Let’s live in the victory of the Resurrection in joy and confidence. In this way our lives will be beacons of light, pointing the way to the throne of the Crucified Lamb.
It’s hard not to be afraid when the wolves are circling, but if we keep our eyes on Christ, we’ll see where He’s at work. Then, we will hear Him call us to join Him in bringing light to the darkness, hope to the despairing, and the dead to new life. Good things are happening. Great things! But they’re awfully hard to see unless we’re looking with the light of Jesus.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau