Wise as serpents, harmless as doves?

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Wise as serpents, harmless as doves?

By | 2015-11-20T09:16:36+00:00 November 20th, 2015|

Among the panicked Scripture quotes I’m seeing this week in response to the escalating refugee crisis, I’m noticing a lot of this one lately: “be wise as serpents, gentle as doves.” They apply this by saying we should be very cautious (read: afraid). We should turn away refugees who are fleeing terrorists who want to kill them, because “Jesus told us to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”

That’s in the Bible, I’ll give you that. Although I could not find a translation that said “gentle as doves.” More often, the passage is translated,  “innocent as doves” or “harmless as doves.” But even so, it has absolutely nothing to do with the situation to which fearful people are trying to apply it.

Christians who quote this are doing so in a “well, yes, Jesus said to love your neighbor, even if he’s of a different race or religion, and to love your enemies, and welcome the stranger, and to feed the hungry. Yes, but, he also said, be wise as serpents, gentle as doves.” Excuse me? They seem to be looking for a way to ignore all the words of Jesus about loving enemies and caring for the marginalized by pulling one phrase out of context.

Um, Jesus told his disciples to be both shrewd and harmless as he sent them out to preach, heal, and cast out demons in his name. He asked them to balance being smart with not doing harm as they were going out to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

He did not say it to tell his disciples to hide in their homes, seal up the castle gates and hunker down. He told them to go out among the people of Israel—God’s lost sheep. (So, the context has nothing to do with hiding and protecting, and nothing to do with people of other religions or faiths).

In Matthew 10, we read that Jesus told his disciples: Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!

Go, heal, and give. The idea of trying to make this passage (or phrase we have pulled out of context) about protecting ourselves is bad exegesis.

Jesus warned his disciples that when they went out, they might face some persecution, but that they should trust and seek out the hospitality of strangers, as that was customary in the ancient middle east. (whoa—hospitality of strangers—wait). He told them to travel light and not make reservations, but to look for people who would take them in.

After warning them that some people might not welcome them (hmm) he says,  “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.

He did not say: Run away and hide, there’s wolves!  He did not say, don’t let the wolves in. Rather, he sent his followers out among the wolves! And they were not armed or ready to fight the wolves, but they were like sheep.

If we look deeper at the context of Jesus words, we’ll find something extremely relevant to this situation. Jesus continues:

17 But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. 18 You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me.19 When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. 20 For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Jesus predicted persecution, and struggles for his followers, but told them to trust in spite of it. And he told them it would be an opportunity to tell other unbelievers about him. And he promised His Spirit would be with us.

I find it interesting that much of the “lock them out” mentality about Muslim refugees comes from people who probably send money to foreign missionaries who are trying to reach “the lost.” And people who might identify as “evangelical”—people who want to evangelize, tell others about God, convince lost people to accept Jesus.

Who is more “lost” than a Muslim refugee? I’m curious about why people who claim the label “evangelical”–one who evangelizes–are rejecting what could be an opportunity to reach people they believe need Jesus, because of their fear. (Not all evangelicals take this stance, here’s an article that makes the case for evangelistic opportunity in the refugee crisis)

Because Jesus told them to be shrewd as serpents, and they’re completely misinterpreting that passage to mean “seal the borders and hide under your bed”? Wouldn’t shrewdness (wisdom) say we could bring these people to Christ by offering them simple hospitality? And even if they don’t become Christians, we could obey Jesus command to love our neighbors by welcoming them.

What if we showed amazing grace and real love to those who are without a home? What if we showed people who are seeking refuge just how much God loves them, and offered them a chance to know this God personally?

But even if the refugees don’t all turn to Jesus, which of course they may not, we are called to love. Jesus’ teaching on welcoming a stranger, reaching across ethnic and religious lines to offer help is very clear, as my friend Tim’s helpful post on The Good Samaritan points out.

And what does it mean to be harmless as doves? To be harmless means to do no harm. Be shrewd, wise, cunning, Jesus told his disciples. But do it in a way that is harmless. That’s a challenging assignment, for sure. When we reject refugees and send them back to terrorists groups that will either kill them or use our rejection and fear as a means to recruit them, we do harm. We do harm, and it is not okay. ISIS wants us to reject the refugees, because it makes them easier to recruit and strengthen their ranks with people who have been rejected when they asked for help in fleeing evil. ISIS tells all Muslims, “the infidels hate you.” Why on earth would our actions prove them right?

It’s because we are afraid. Which makes sense, because the situation is frightening. That’s why they call it terrorism. Their main weapon is creating fear. Jesus knew we’re prone to fear. Later in the same passage, Jesus said:

26 “But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. For the time is coming when everything that is covered will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. 27 What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear!

28 “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. 30 And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.

Did you catch that? Do we really believe it? It’s a hard teaching, I agree. The context of “wise as serpents, harmless as doves” is not about hunkering down and sealing the gates, but going out among those who might think differently than you do, might persecute you or even physically harm you. The context of this passage repeats the phrase “do not be afraid” three times in just a few verses. Do not be afraid, friends. Don’t let fear drive love from your hearts.







  1. Tim November 20, 2015 at 9:48 am - Reply

    That Matthew 10 passage is a great instruction on what to do in frightening situations. Jesus said to go and do his work, and promised his followers it would lead them to harm (imprisonment and flogging). He didn’t say to wait until it was safe; he said to go and do it anyway.

    The post at my place you link was in response to something John Piper wrote following the Paris attacks. He said that these disasters are meant to show people they need to repent and turn to God. I think times like these are occasions for us to be Good Samaritans, not evangelize.

    • Keri Kent November 20, 2015 at 9:55 am - Reply

      What’s funny, Tim, is that like you, I typically disagree theologically with John Piper as well, on a variety of issues, especially gender roles. And I’m with you on your rebuttal to him–disasters are not sent by God to get people to repent, and the Good Samaritan didn’t evangelize–he was an unbeliever! But desiringgod.com had a couple of pretty good articles this week, which I linked to in this post. Of course, those posts from Piper’s site were not written by him. 🙂 But I also do think that this crisis is an opportunity to show Christ’s love to people who are seeking the truth.

      • Tim November 20, 2015 at 10:13 am - Reply

        I appreciated a couple of DG’s articles this week on the Paris attacks too, Keri. They weren’t JP’s articles, but it’s nice to see DG allowing more reasonable and Christ-like views to be posted.

  2. Joan Schutt November 20, 2015 at 9:49 am - Reply

    Kerry, thank you for this very wise and admonishing teaching! Our natural flight or fight response isn’t what Jesus called for. Your very last sentence sums it up very well, “Do not be afraid, friends. Don’t let fear drive love from your hearts.” God is still on His throne folks!

  3. Teresa Nortillo November 20, 2015 at 7:06 pm - Reply

    Since when is being wise,fearful? I do agree with you whole heartedly that we should let refugees in our country, and by the boat load if possibe, let them all come. I will give up my bed for them. I will give up my clothes for them, they need it and we as Christians should sacrifice. I am not afraid of the refugees at all. It’s the terrorists that pose as refugees that we we need to be wise to. Why are you opposed to taking more precautions to protect our country. I understand after reading more that the process for refugees to enter this country is more difficult than I had thought. Which is very good to know. You seem to be opposed to being what I would call, and as scripture does say,wise.

    • Keri Kent November 21, 2015 at 1:54 pm - Reply

      I’m not opposed to taking precautions: refugees are the most highly screened immigrant group we have already. I am opposed to the panic in which people (many of them Christians) assume all refugees are terrorists. I am opposed to turning away families who have been waiting in camps for two or three years, because we are afraid. Please read some of what I’ve posted. Refugees are already screened more rigorously and have a longer waiting period than other people coming here. They also cannot choose which country to go to. The whole “terrorists that pose as refugees” is much harder to do here than in Europe. If a terrorist wanted to come to the U.S., the refugee path is the hardest path. Why wait in a camp for two years, go through the most stringent screening, not even sure where you’ll end up being placed? That makes no sense. It would be much easier to get a tourist visa or student visa. Take a look at my facebook page to see some excellent articles that provide more facts about refugees.

  4. brian November 21, 2015 at 11:32 am - Reply

    Wise as snakes, gentle as doves. BBE Bible in Basic English version.

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