Jesus sends out the twelve, to preach to the Lost Sheep of Israel. However, he sends them “as sheep,” and amidst the wolves.
In the world of the metaphor, who am I? Am I an Apostle sheep, or a Lost Sheep, or a Wolf?
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
In the verses just prior to this reading, Jesus is is giving instructions to the twelve. They were pretty basic. Go to the lost sheep of Israel and tell them that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
And when you’re not telling them; show them. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons:
Oh and by the way…don’t take any money. Depend on the hospitality of those who will hear your message.
For anyone that has ever preached, think about the fact that your bed and board are going to depend on your ability to preach your way into the house….
But these were simply instructions. Our reading begins with a warning.
“Behold, I send you out as sheep. We know about sheep. They are dumb, they are willing to walk into danger…they need a shepherd, they frighten and scatter easily.
In the midst of wolves. We knew about wolves, they are hungry, attacking things that move in packs. They are sneaky and dangerous.
Notice the I. Jesus takes responsibility. I am sending you…
Now comes the advice, the wise counsel.
I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. So be wise as serpents. When did Serpents become wise? In Genesis 3, when we first hear about serpents, it says: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.
Crafty and wise. It is a fair translation to change wise to “Clever” in it’s most positive way. Crafty works.
Consider the serpent. No legs to run with, no wings to fly. All they can do is make Esses in the dirt. Not a first rate system of defense. Some have venom, most are benign in their bite.
So how does a serpent behave? He hides, he watches, out of necessity he must be cautious. Serpents don’t charge headlong into dangerous situations. Clever, Crafty, Wise.
And be innocent as doves. We know some things about doves. They share their nest, they don’t steal corn like crows. They stick with their mate and care for their young. We think of them as pure, which is why they are a fitting symbol for the Holy Spirit. Doves are also a symbol of Hope as in the story of the Flood, and a symbol of peace. Pure. Pure of heart. Above reproach.
Apostle James and Soren Kierkegaard remind us that “Purity of Heart is To Will One Thing.” Be single minded about your task to herald the Kingdom of Heaven and be pure. So…when you go out, Don’t go out looking for trouble.
Jesus seems to be saying…
“Be shrewd as serpents… beware of men.” Don’t go out and conduct yourselves in such a way that no one would ever know that I warned you about what men will do to you. You may be sheep among wolves, but you are not to be naïve and gullible. As one commentator says, “The first wisdom of serpents is simply the prudent realization that they are amid wolves.”
So be shrewd… for the sake of the Gospel. It fascinates me when I consider how Jesus, the Great Storyteller combines these two things. To be shrewd for your self is Evil, and to be innocent is to be Foolish, or Gullible, but it is the combining of the two that makes you a suitable warrior, when you are taking the Word out amidst the wolves.
And how will you measure success? Well, Jesus tells them, men will drag you into court, and you will be beaten. You will be placed in front of angry and anxious rulers and you will need to defend yourself.
There is not a lot of ambiguity in this new lifestyle. Jesus is giving them the grimmest outlook possible. But he also reassures them. Consider the idea of being place in front of the Governor and told to explain yourself. “What’s with all this healing and raising of the dead?” And tell me more about the “Kingdom of Heaven.” I thought what had a Kingdom going here already. You know…Caesar and all. This is a perfect opportunity to begin waffling. Think about knowing that the rest of your life is likely to be defined by your response.
I am reminded of a quote that floated around in the seventies. “If you were charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?”
Here comes the grace…Don’t worry about it. Our Father will put His words into your mouth.
And who is going to bringing you up on charges when you are out preaching and healing? Everybody. Not just the people in town, everybody is a candidate. Parents, siblings, children.
And how long do you have to do this? It’s made pretty clear that you will be betrayed to the death. At the very least…you will be hated. But the one who stands firm to the end…will be saved. You have to stick with this while you are being hated…and up until the moment of death. Salvation is given to those who endure… no matter what comes.
Is this a Metaphor, or clear language? (As I am fond of saying…since I don’t really understand, I’ll try to explain it to you.)
I struggle here, I don’t want to be suspicious of everybody…or anybody. I still struggle with something that was said to me by a friend years ago. “You know what your problem is Dennis…you like too many people.”
For me…step one is understanding what the Gospel says and means. The second step is to see how it speaks to me, right now, today. Isn’t that the point…the timeless truth of the Gospel? So how do I see myself in the metaphor?
I first believe that I am called out, as we all are, to spread the news of the Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t feel called to raise the dead and heal the crippled. So this is easy going for me. I have no fear of being whipped, or beaten or put to jail.
Where are the wolves who need to hear the Word, but will hate and kill me for bringing it to them? Who are the wolves that I need to be wary of?
The apostles are sent out as sheep, to find the Lost Sheep. They all look alike. It is the sheep that will reject them, and the wolves that will attack them. And sometimes the lost sheep act like the wolves.
When I am out in the World, I often, but not always, get a pretty good sense of who I suspect of Wolfiness. It is the sheep that fool me. Sometimes it is clear who the Lost Sheep are. I see them in my work with the hungry and the homeless. They look just like me…but we have different circumstances.
Perhaps the wolves are closer than we think…and just as sneaky as always.
Church and family share a common characteristic. They are hard to rip apart from the outside. When someone attacks my brother or sister of the flesh, or my brother or sister in Christ, I defend them…we all do. We circle together and form a unit and keep the bad guys out. No…to destroy a family or a church community you have to do it from the inside. It is that insidious and hateful work that sneaks up on us, draws us and and we don’t recognize that we have become a part of it. It’s called Judgement…or to use the vile word that my mother taught me was the one thing I was allowed to hate…Gossip.
Little factions spring up until we find ourselves focusing on ways that we can be better or smarter or holier than someone else until we lose track of the fact we are connected through the saving Grace of God. I need to be cautious of the wolves there. They often start by impeding any progress or new thinking with the simple words. “That’s not how we used to do things here.”
I consider also the timeless call to be as innocent as doves. To be single-minded, and to know that it is not my will or words or skills that I need to worry about, it is the reminder that the words will be put into my mouth, as long as I know when to shut-up.
One final reflection about these wolves that I need to fear. This is perhaps the one I fear the most.
I was discussing the serpent and the dove with my wife at dinner. What are their characteristics? How do we know them? We talked about how the Serpent needed to hide himself, and be cautious of going out into the open.The wolves were not on my mind at that time. In my mind, in the world of that metaphor, I am a sheep.
A few minutes later the conversation changed, and she thanked me for picking up the Organic Lettuce. I had told her earlier in the day that I would be going to the grocery store, and if she needed anything, she should text me by a certain time.
When I arrived at the store I checked my phone on the way in. Nothing. So I picked up a few things, and checked out. As I was putting the bag into the car, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I got in the car, started up, and checked my phone. There was the text. Please pick up Organic Lettuce. I was already done. She had missed the deadline, I didn’t feel like going back in. I put the car in reverse and went about four feet before I stopped and thought, parked and went back into the store.
“You know I almost didn’t get it.” I said, and told her the story. “What I wanted to do was tell you that I was already driving home (which was kinda true.) “I know that you would have understood if I told you that.”
“Something like that just happened to me too.” She said. “I was in the grocery store last Sunday on the way home from Church, getting a few things for dinner.”
Now my wife always remembers, unlike me, to take her own “Save The Planet” cloth bags for shopping. “I had unloaded everything” she continued “ and had already paid. When I started to re-load, I saw an onion at the bottom of the bag that I had failed to unload and pay for. I stood there thinking…No one knows…there are people in line behind me….it’s only one lousy onion…everything is overpriced anyway…and I almost decided to steal it. But I stopped, and said ‘Hold on here” and pulled out the onion. The cashier rolled her teen-aged eyes, and she rung up one onion on a separate sale. Out comes the debit card again…
We both agreed that it is letting little things like this slide that lead us into greater problems.It’s the old slippery slope. Doing a little wrong gives permission for greater ones.
Reflecting on the story, I see myself as one of the sheep. That might be a bit pretentious, as this discussion was aimed at the Apostles, which I decidedly am not.
In a way, I am called to do as they did, but not exactly. We seem to be long past the time when believers went about raising the dead.
Am I to understand that in post-Apostolic times that all of the believers are to spread the Gospel, telling our own stories of how God moves and shapes our lives? Or, as St. Francis says….tell the Gospel with your deeds, as that will be the only sermon that some will hear.
Or do I need to only see myself as one of the Lost Sheep of Israel…waiting for the Word to be brought to me… helping me to understand.
Or a bit of both. I will leave it to you to decide what kind of sheep you are.
Still, I cannot, I should not, ignore the fact that I have to be mindful of the seemingly innocent lies. I have to be wary of accepting false prophets and watered down Gospels. Wary of believing that all of my Christian responsibilities are met, by showing up to Church once a week.
And although I don’t feel like a wolf , I know God wants me to consider it.