“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
Jesus defines two things for his followers; their reality (sheep among wolves), and the proper response to reality (wise as serpents and innocent as doves).
The reality description goes without say for most of us. Goodness seems overmatched and on the run just about everywhere. The stream of daily news offers ample proof of that every night. I don’t need to rehash that here.
It’s the response that Jesus lays out that I find most important. Wise as serpents and innocent as doves. First the fact that Jesus pairs these things and then goes on to give the serpent top billing. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
The wise serpents I’ve known have been anything but innocent and the doves have been anything but wise. Rarely do you find these two things together.
In fact, in the church especially, there is almost an implicit expectation that doves will disown their inner serpent. In the world, vice versa. We like things neat and clean. More than anything else, the expectation that things be neat and clean has done more damage than all the serpents and all the wolves combined.
Jesus was always bringing opposing concepts together. Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves. The mark of faithful discipleship (authentic living) is found in the interplay between opposing realities. Not in how well one reality dominates the other.
The truth is not in the sheep, nor is it in the wolf. Not in the dove, nor the serpent. Sheep, wolf, dove, serpent; all are blessed. The truth is in how well these opposing realities coexist and find a home in us. How well we integrate and incorporate them into our lives.
Could it be that Jesus is saying that this is the mark of faithful discipleship? That this is what Jesus expects from us?
Or in other words, in these polarized times when orthodoxies everywhere have run amok, faithful people, by the standards Jesus lays out, are marked not by how much they reject, but by how much and how many they can manage to bring together.