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.