Why be as Wise as a Serpent?

A person who is considered something of an authority on goodness once said “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Matthew 10:16. I understand the part about being as harmless as doves. I was taught in Sunday School to be as harmless as a dove. No one ever taught me how to be as wise as a serpent. As best I can recollect, I’ve never heard a sermon on how to be as wise as a serpent. I don’t think preachers quite know what to do with this verse. It is like Luke 22:36He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” Christian teachers have trouble reconciling the extreme versions of Christianity that they teach with these two verses.

Telling someone to be as wise as a serpent may sound odd to someone well versed in science. In biology, snakes are not smart. Mythology is another matter. In Chinese[1] mythology the dragon, which is very long like a snake, is very wise. In Egyptian mythology the upright cobra is a symbol of kingly authority. The Seraphim of Hebrew angelology are thought to be snakes with wings, that makes them dragons[2]. Satan was called a dragon which he would be if he was once one of the Seraphim. Then there is the snake in the garden of Eden story. It was the wisest of all the creatures. In mythology snakes are wise.

To be a good person one needs to be as wise in reality as serpents are in mythology. Good people are always in a minority and need to be extra wise to survive.

One of my favorite sayings is “Wisdom is like your lunch, you share what you have.” I have now lived long enough and am wise enough to know that I’m not very wise. Such as I have I’ll share with you.

From what I can tell. being wise is being able to predict the future based on present events. The farther into the future you can predict, the wiser you are. In the Bible being good and being wise are considered the same thing because in Biblical philosophy being good, righteous, upright etc. has the best long term outcomes.

When the Persians migrated philosophically from polytheism to monotheism they chose Mazda, the God of wisdom, as the all powerful God. They made all of the other gods his servants. Christians say that God is Agape, the kind of love that one has for people who are not family or a friend or a sexual partner. Agape is what causes people to love without expecting a return. That is why the translators of the King James Bible translated Agape as charity. Most English translations today just use the word love[3].

It doesn’t take much thinking to see that a God who is wisdom and a God who is love would be the same kind of God. It takes wisdom to love properly. If it is true that acting in a loving manner produces the best outcomes over the longest time frame then wisdom is love and love is wisdom.

The question for most people is not whether or not to be wise. Everyone wants to be able to predict the future so they can achieve the best outcome. The question is if being loving is wise. If it is, how should a wise person express their love. How can a person be both wise and as harmless as a dove? If it is so important to be harmless, then why is it so important to carry a sword? A question that I have is ‘if being wise is so important why is there only one verse about being wise?’

This is my answer. It may not be much but, like my lunch, it’s what I have. Jesus was talking to people who already respected wisdom. Several books in the Jewish scripture are devoted to wisdom. The people were not naïve. They knew the world was full of predators. Jesus used parables that were based on things his audience understood. He used planting crops and wedding feasts in his parables. He also told parables that used dishonest servants and travelers getting robbed on the road. His audience was well aware of dishonesty and violence. Being wise to dishonesty and prepared for violent thieves was something the people were already good at. Saying it once was enough.

The question is not whether or not to be wise. The question is how to do it in a way that produces the best outcome over the longest period of time. What behaviors will lead to the kingdom of heaven?

Jesus taught some things that appear very unwise. Turning the other cheek is an easy example. In the long run wouldn’t that just encourage people to be bad. If you always ‘give to him who asks’ are you not just encouraging bad people to prey on good people? Even forgiving, something that Jesus made very strict rules about, runs the risk of allowing bad people free reign. In the long run there is the risk of some very bad outcomes.

The way to reconcile wisdom and love is to think of how wise parents treat their own grown up children. Parents always want the best for their children. Parents will always try to help their children when they get into difficult situation that is not of their own making. They will even help them the first or second time they are in a difficult situation that is their own fault. Usually the worst thing that parents ever do to their grown children is allow them suffer the consequences of their own bad choices. Parents never want their children to come to harm but they know that sometimes they do. They know that sometimes it is necessary to allow them to come to harm so they can learn from their mistakes. One thing that good parents never do is allow one of their children to harm one of their other children. Doing that is not being ‘as harmless as a dove’. Good shepherds have both a rod and a staff.

So what does that mean in real life? When is it loving to allow someone to strike your cheek and offer them the other and when is it loving to use that sword you are commanded to carry to prevent them from striking you the first time? That is why you need to be wise. Different situations call for different responses. It is one reason Jesus also commanded that we not judge. He doesn’t mean to not use discernment, which is another word for being wise. He means don’t judge the morals of someone who handles a situation differently from the way you would handle it.

There is a time for everything: A time to give and a time to refrain from giving, a time to fight and a time to refrain from fighting, a time to trust and a time to be careful. Each situation is worth a sermon or even a book. It’s all part of being as wise as a serpent and and harmless as dove.

[1] Cultural influences were slower in those days but still happened. The traders have been going to China and India for a long time and ideas don’t take up much space on a ship or in a caravan.

[2] Seraphim is a word related to snake. It means burning ones. Snakes are also burning ones because their bite can burn.

[3] Using just love can be confusing. It may have been better if the translators had done the same thing with ἀγάπη Agape as they did with βάπτω Bapto. They could have left it untranslated and explained the meaning.


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