This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent. The Scripture it references is Matthew 10:16-23.
“Wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
It’s a strange pair of images, isn’t it? I’m not sure whether, most days, I feel more like a serpent or a dove, but I’m pretty sure it’s hard to feel like both at the same time.
So what is Jesus saying here?
I suspect that actually he’s talking about power. Wisdom – or cunning – gives one a certain amount of power. The ability to see how to influence things, to think through consequences of particular choices, and so forth, it means you can have clout, in whatever circumstances that you’re in.
And we know that power isn’t inherently bad – after all, God is all-good and all-powerful – but it can be easily misused.
So I think what Jesus is saying here is, have power, accept and be comfortable with your own power, be prepared to use it; but don’t use it to do any harm.
This is, I suspect, one of the things that we struggle with most in the church. Either side of this equation without the other is out of balance. Being cunning without any concern not to harm leads us to being dominating, manipulative, using people for our own ends rather than serving them. Being concerned not to do harm without embracing the right use of power leads to passivity, shrinking back from creativity or action, being paralysed with indecision.
And I’m sure that you’ve seen both of those problems in play, at different times.
So being both serpent-like and dove-like is about the balance point, the attitude which holds on to both of these things without neglecting either. Be enough like a serpent to put your knowledge and insight into effective action. Be enough like a dove to do so with care and concern for those around you.
It’s worth reflecting on, as we are mindful in our own interactions, whether we manage to get the balance right.