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(Part 102)


July 11, 2014
Today’s gospel: Matthew 10:16-23

“so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”
(Mt 10:16b)

Can one be a serpent and a dove at the same time? The two could not be more diametrically opposed. The serpent is a representation of Satan, while the dove is a representation of the Holy Spirit. Shrewdness if often associated with worldliness, where one always remains ahead of the game, where no one is able to take advantage of you, where one knows the ins and outs of the intricate ways of life in a fallen world. On the other hand, simplicity is associated with unworldliness, where one does not compete for the trappings of power and position, where one is quietly composed but not sensational, where one is easily satisfied with the simple blessings of life.

But Jesus tells us to be both. His premise is this: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves” (Mt 10:16a). We are the Lord’s flock, the sheep of his pasture. But we are thrust in a world dominated by the evil one, where wolves and lions wait for someone to devour. So what are we to do? Even as we maintain our childlike innocence and our Christian simplicity, we are to be wise as serpents.

The serpent has had its reputation for being wise from the time of creation. Or perhaps a better word would be “cunning.” “Now the snake was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made.” (Gen 3:1a). He was so cunning that he was able to deceive the woman in Eden. He even directly contradicted God regarding what God had said that eating the fruit in the middle of the garden would bring death (Gen 3:3-4), and the woman believed him.

But wisdom is a gift from God (Is 11:2; 1 Cor 12:8a). “For the Lord gives wisdom” (Prv 2:6a). If you seek wisdom, then “the knowledge of God you will find” (Prv 2:5b). If you allow wisdom to enter your heart, “then you will understand what is right and just, what is fair, every good path” (Prv 2:9).

When we take what is a gift of God, and use it for something contrary to God’s ways, then it is transformed negatively. Wisdom that is pure becomes shrewdness that is worldly or cunning that is diabolical. Thus, the gift is to be retained, while the negative use is to be discarded. Even Jesus commended the dishonest steward for acting prudently (Lk 16:8). Prudence, a fruit of wisdom, is to be extolled, while dishonesty is not.

So Jesus points us to the wisdom of the serpent, and tells us to be just as shrewd, because we live in a fallen world. But we are to retain the purity and simplicity of being a holy child of God. We are not to be simpletons, but we are simply to be wise stewards of what has been entrusted to us by God­our life, our talents, our abilities, our resources.

How are we to be shrewd and simple at the same time? We need to be realistic and not naïve. There will be bad things happening, but we simply trust in God.

  • “But beware of people” (Mt 10:17a). Do not be too trusting. Know that there are many bad people around who are just waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of you or to do you ill. But at the same time, do not judge or condemn them. Believe the best about people, but know that people can manifest the worst of fallen humanity. Be discerning.
  • Know that “they will hand you over to courts” (Mt 10:17b). Today there are hate speech and anti-gay discrimination laws which are being used to sue and imprison Christians for speaking against homosexuality or refusing to give service to gay couples.[1] When this happens, “when they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say.” (Mt 10:19a). We have our Paraclete, our Advocate, our defender the Holy Spirit. Jesus says God “will give you another Advocate to be with you always” (Jn 14:16b). And what will the Holy Spirit do? “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name­he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Jn 14:26).
  • Know that even “brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.” (Mt 10:21). Love your parents, siblings and children anyway.
  • Know that “you will be hated by all because of my name” (Mt 10:22a). But despite that, if we cling to Jesus, then “whoever endures to the end will be saved.” (Mt 10:22b).
    Know that they may “persecute you in one town” (Mt 10:23a). You do not have to suffer such persecution if you can avoid it, so “flee to another” town (Mt 10:23b).

Now let me propose another way by which we can apply the call of Jesus to be wise as a serpent but innocent as a dove. This has to do with white lies. White lie? Is that about situations where people claim it is all right to lie, that it is not a sin? Are not all lies sins? Should we not tell the truth in every circumstance?

Well, consider the following scenarios where I believe it is all right, even good, to lie.

  • A German harboring Jews during the Nazi period is asked by the SS[2] whether he knows of any Jews in the vicinity. He can lie and say no, in order to save the lives of the Jews.
  • A Christian traveler to Libya or Sudan, who is smuggling some Bibles for believers inside those countries, is asked by authorities if he has any Christian articles or literature, especially the Bible, with him. He can lie and say no, so the Bibles would not be confiscated and destroyed.
  • A Catholic priest enters Saudi Arabia presenting himself as a businessman, with fake documentation, in order to clandestinely celebrate Mass for the faithful.
  • A person who is seriously injured in an accident together with his wife asks the nurse if his wife survived (she did not). The nurse can lie in order to spare him the added trauma that could cost him his life.
  • A mother in a poor family who is apportioning a meager meal among her young children is asked by them if she won’t eat as well. She says she is not hungry.
  • A young grandchild sings a song (off-key) or presents a drawing (just a mishmash of lines) to her grandparents, who then are profuse in their praise of the song or the drawing.

There can be many more such scenarios and examples. But you get the drift. In these situations, to lie is to be wise as a serpent, but at the same time to be innocent as a dove is to have no intent to deceive for selfish purposes, with the lie told out of genuine concern and belief that it is the best for those concerned.

The serpent was shrewd in maneuvering to bring down the woman God created and deprive His creation of the perfection of Eden. The dishonest steward was shrewd in marking down the amounts owed by people to his master, to gain their favor in view of his impending loss of his job. We too are to be shrewd in our persistence to attain to our goal, life on high with Christ, thereby reversing the effects of the fall. We too are to be shrewd in making friends with the world we are to evangelize, thereby earning the praise of our Master.

We do all these with the wisdom that is of God, and simple faith in Jesus.

* * *

For reflection and/or discussion: Do you always tell the truth, even if it might cause difficulties for you?
For prayer and action: Be pure in all your thoughts and words and actions, looking to Jesus who is the Truth.

* * *

Notice: The above is taken from my new book, “Forty Days of Challenge in the Christian Life,” just recently issued. The book will tackle 40 difficult teachings in the Bible and explain what these mean. Do get your copy.

* * *

[1] This is not about discrimination, but conscientious objection, such as a committed Christian not allowing a gay couple to stay at his B&B, or refusing to give photography services for a gay wedding, or a Catholic adoption agency refusing to give babies for adoption by a gay couple, etc.
[2] Schutzstaffel (“Protective Squadron”), the armed wing of the Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler

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