Shrewd As Serpents — Simple As Doves
“… like sheep in the midst of wolves … shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”
Any sheep caught in the midst of wolves face grave danger. Jesus warns his apostles of the difficulties they will face in proclaiming the kingdom. But he is our Good Shepherd, so what safety instructions does he give? He uses two additional animal images. First, he says, be shrewd and careful, like a serpent. This may sound odd, since the snake is usually the bad guy in Scripture, on the side of the wolf, not the sheep. For the apostles to become like the serpent would seem to be caving to the pressures of the evil surrounding them. But the second part of the sentence clarifies it—they are to be clever like the serpent, but remain innocent of evil, like a dove.
The sheep sent on mission need to be shrewd in order to outsmart the wolves that surround them. Playing with the image a little, we can say they are sent to bring the wolves into the sheepfold. But they must be careful not to take on the ways of the wolves to such a degree that they lose their mission and identity. Their simple innocence prevents that and is part of the witness of their mission. The rest of this passage talks about the persecution that will result, but that they must not allow to sway them from their witness.
Jesus’ instructions can be hard to carry out in real life. We may tend to go to extremes and lean more toward the serpent part or the dove part of the instructions. If we’re shrewd, we live our Christian life in a way that helps our contemporaries to see the relevance of faith. But if we go too far in learning from the ways of the world around us, we can lose our identity and our mission. However, the answer is not to go too far the other way and become naive doves. In that case we might keep our faith, but nullify its influence and power by a poor witness that alienates our contemporaries.
Jesus, you sent me to live my faith in a world that often seems antagonistic to you. Sometimes I do feel like a sheep, with no teeth and claws to protect me—not even legs that run very fast! But you are my Shepherd, so I do not fear. I know you will provide for me whatever I need to do the mission for which you sent me.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
Daughters of St. Paul. (2011). Ordinary Grace Weeks 1–17: Daily Gospel Reflections. (M. G. Dateno & M. L. Trouvé, Eds.) (pp. 248–249). Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media.