We are called to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” What does this mean? First, let’s look at the context. Jesus is commissioning His disciples to go out and announce the kingdom of heaven. He warns them that he is sending them out as sheep among wolves; therefore, they need to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10: 16) Persecution of the disciples and the church loom as a present and future reality. To be wise and innocent is a mode of being disciples in the world as we witness to the Gospel in dangerous times.
In our defense of the faith and witness we need to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” as we face opposition, danger, and persecution. The disciples are warned that they will meet danger before Jews and Gentiles, that is, all people. Before those in authority they will bear witness to the Gospel. In these situations they are not to be concerned with what they will say, because the Spirit will speak through them.
To be wise and innocent is a strategy of witness for disciples. This same strategy is to be acknowledged and used today. Though we may not come before tribunals like the early Christians that faced the Roman authorities and the leaders of the synagogue, we may have opportunities to make public witness in other contexts. If we are so privileged we must be like doves and serpents. The serpent is a symbol of wisdom (and also of cunning and craftiness as in the Garden of Eden), the dove of innocence. These characteristics mean that the disciple is not deceitful, but straightforward and wise, not foolish, in his witness. The disciple shows respect and gentleness to others. The disciple does not depend on himself, but on God for an effective and true witness. He is humble, lacking the pride and boasting so common in the world. He is like Paul before the authorities in the Book of Acts.
Disciples are not intent on showing off their skills in public or disdaining those who not only differ from them, but also persecute them. They are intent on serving the Lord by fulfilling the commission at the end of Matthew to go and make disciples of all nations. They are adverse to making a name for themselves as is far too common in our world today. Rather, they wish to hold up the Name of the Lord so that others may praise HIm and become disciples.
Disciples do not live in isolation. We are anchored in a community that has a commitment to making disciples for Jesus. The life of discipleship is one of engagement with others and solitude, but never isolation. We draw strength from our Lord in community as we hear the Word and receive the Sacrament of the Altar in worship. In no other way can we draw the strength necessary for witness and the defense of the Gospel. To be a Christian means to bear the Spirit who leads us to a powerful witness and defense for the sake of unbelievers.
Michael G. Tavella
October 5, 2019