Jesus’ Foolish Strategy for Mission
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)
To be honest, I don’t think this is a good strategy. If asked to apply this strategy, I think most of us would question the wisdom of His strategy. We might evaluate something by its safety and apparent effectiveness. There is nothing safe about this strategy and it doesn’t seem like it would be effective either.
What does it mean to say Christ sends us like sheep among wolves? How are we to be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves? How does this inform our mission?
Sheep Among Wolves
Jesus sent these disciples (and by implication he sends present day disciples) into the midst of wolves. A good strategy, in my way of thinking, says, “I am sending you as safely as possible, but there are risks. I have taken great care to minimize those risks, but there are going to be times when wolves sneak in among you.” Jesus, the Divine Son of God, the One who has become for us “wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30) has no such “wise” strategy. He sends His disciples like sheep into the midst of wolves—certain death! How are sheep when they are among wolves? Defenseless, powerless, and in great danger. Jesus sent the twelve this way!
How are sheep when they are among wolves? Defenseless, powerless, and in great danger.
When it comes to strategy for expanding God’s will and ways in the world, we need Jesus to be our wisdom. Our wisdom is no good and ineffective. I couldn’t have dreamt that the message of Christ would bear fruit in the soil of the world having been, as Augustine put it, “fertilized richly with the blood of the martyrs.” Only the God who raises the dead can have that kind of wisdom.
It is also true that Jesus sent the Twelve to preach and to heal (Matt. 10:7-8). That was not one potential track a disciple could choose while “persecution and suffering” was another. It’s a package deal. Calvin’s two marks of a true church (the right preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments) are more well known in Evangelical circles than Luther’s seven marks, but Luther’s seventh mark was suffering. He called it, “holy possession of the sacred cross, suffering and carrying the cross as followers of Christ.” Do you think of suffering as an unfortunate experience or a mark of validity? As we lay down our lives for others, we are in “holy possession of the sacred cross”?
Shrewd as Snakes
What is meant by, “Be shrewd as snakes”? Some translations put it, “Be wise as serpents.” What is this “wisdom”? It is certainly not the kind of wisdom referred to by Christians who, while discussing instructions given in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. not to resist evil, or give to the one who asks), say something like, “Well you have to be wise here….” Evidently, they do not think the Sermon on the Mount is wise. If it were that kind of “wisdom” or “shrewdness,” they would never have gone like sheep among wolves to begin with!
Augustine’s take may have been too specific when talking about the nature of this shrewdness, but his take is certainly interesting. He thought two characteristics of snakes were relevant to the point. First, in order to protect its head, a serpent will present its whole body to its assailants. I’ve never witnessed that, but I did once witness a glass lizard right in my front yard. A glass lizard looks like a snake for, though it is a lizard, it has no legs. Its skin is shiny metallic gunmetal grey. An egret was attacking it, so it threw off pieces of its tail. These detached pieces of its “body” would bounce around due to nerves still active, while the head and body slowly and smoothly slide away. The egret’s attention was captured by the bouncing pieces of tail. The lizard will grow new ones. (I had a few nightmares after witnessing this!)
Augustine applied this “wisdom” that serpents have for protecting their head, to disciples sent into the world who
“for the sake of our head, which is Christ, we should willingly offer our body to the persecutors, lest the Christian faith should, as it were, be destroyed in us, if to save the body we deny our God!”
“For the sake of our head, which is Christ, we should willingly offer our body to the persecutors, lest the Christian faith should, as it were, be destroyed in us, if to save the body we deny our God!” Augustine
Second, he noted that as a snake gets rid of its old skin by squeezing itself through a narrow or tight space, we too must
“put off the old man, as the apostle says, that we may put on the new; and to put it off, too, by coming through a narrow place, according to the saying of our Lord, ‘Enter ye in at the strait gate!’”
Persecution and suffering are, no doubt, such a narrow gate. I do not know if this is the wisdom Jesus is referring to in Matthew 10:16, but it certainly is consistent with Jesus’ point.
Innocent as Doves
“Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16b)
“Rare is a human sheep living among human wolves who does not quickly learn serpentine ways. … Innocence does not attract us, and when it does, it is difficult to achieve – especially when one’s life is at stake.” (Miroslav Volf)
How often do believers think that their “wisdom” gives them the right to forcefully impose their will upon another? Or, if one has the political clout to use the power of the sword, to demand their will? Or, if one has the power to make another’s life difficult, depending upon their conformity to their wishes, to enforce it? To have the innocence of a dove requires that one remain powerless and defenseless like the sheep dangerously among wolves (see 2 Cor. 11:22-27). When we have the power of wolves it is difficult to remain innocent as doves.
When we have the power of wolves it is difficult to remain innocent as doves.
Church history provides a myriad of examples of times that disciples have not had the innocence of doves, but the corruption as serpents! When mission has been accomplished at the end of a sword, when slavery was justified as a means of bringing the gospel to the heathen, when lands were claimed in the name of Christ, disciples failed to be “innocent as doves.”
We can’t assume that such abuses are only a part of a tragic past. We must be vigilant to pursue the innocence of doves in our spread of the Kingdom of Christ in our own lives and churches. We must be like a gardener rooting out weeds and dealing with pests, rooting out ways in which we justify hatred in the name of love.
In recent months, I’ve heard some Christians rant against so-called “cancel culture.” They are justifiably upset because people have been fired, publicly shamed, or their lives ruined, merely for stating a belief. Yet it could be argued that it was Christians who invented such a culture. Christians who had the power to run or influence governments to the point of putting to death heretics (that’s a cancel culture all its own).
Might we be guilty of the same thing? It is certainly not uncommon to hear Christians dismiss other Christians with whom they disagree on secondary matters by labeling them rather than loving them. Are we guilty of dismissing people, either in our minds or in our conversations, without engaging them? Would we object to being treated the same way? Given the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, maybe a good standard is to ask the question, “Would I want to be treated this way?”
It is certainly not uncommon to hear Christians dismiss other Christians with whom they disagree on secondary matters by labeling them rather than loving them.
We are inclined to think that Jesus’ strategy for mission is a lousy strategy. I offer two reasons. First, it runs against “common sense” and self-preservation. As Americans we’ve been well trained in common sense reasoning and self-preservation. Second, whether it’s mission we’ve participated in or observed, most of it was done from a position of power.
What might it look like for us as a church seeking to be a presence in the community where God has located us to be sent as sheep among wolves? I ask this not for us to consider the others as wolves, but to consider how we go powerless and defenseless; how we might make ourselves vulnerable for the sake of reaching them with Christ’s love. There are not hard and fast answers, but these are matters for prayer and dialogue as members of the church. We can rest assured, it will be costly.
How might the innocence of doves shape your conversations with unbelievers whose opinions vary widely from your own? Maybe it looks less like debate and more like desire to understand them and care for them. Maybe sometimes it will look as if they have eaten you for lunch (which is what wolves do to sheep), but we believe in the God who raises the dead and sent His Son through a virgin birth. No problem.
I began by acknowledging that I don’t think Jesus’ strategy is a good one. I mean, of course, “I” in my natural way of thinking, not “I” in my faith that embraces the cross, which Paul called “the foolishness of God,” as wisdom. By faith, I realize that the apparent foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. The wisdom of the cross suggests that a strategy of suffering, enduring injustice while entrusting oneself to God, and not returning evil for evil but instead remaining innocent as doves and powerless as sheep in the midst of wolves, is the greatest strategy of all.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,