Shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves
That’s what Jesus told the apostles to be as they set out to spread the Gospel throughout Israel (Matthew 10:16). I’ve always found that quote a little strange, considering the bad rap serpents get elsewhere in the Good Book. Besides, how wise is it to give your shirt to the man who takes your coat? And is it really “shrewd” not to worry about tomorrow because it will take care of itself? As a practiced procrastinator, I can tell you, it doesn’t feel like the smart choice when suddenly, tomorrow has become today, and you’re waking up at 5am on two hours of sleep to finish your paper that’s due at 8:00. Recently, I’ve begun half-jokingly admitting to friends that my haphazard work ethic is a “lifestyle choice.” When I’m procrastinating to cruise Mark Shea’s blog (thank you so much for the shout-out, Mark!) or stare at NASA’s pictures of the day, it could be argued that my work should come first. But I’ve let myself continue on this way and learned to live on espresso and adrenaline, racing the clock to get my various projects done on time. I’m not sure that’s exactly what the Lord had in mind when he gave instructed his apostles not to worry, but I do think it keeps me from getting too absorbed by the “serious business” of life. Throughout college, my friends knew I was the person to call for a middle-of-the-night life crisis conversation, because I always knew my work could wait. When everyone was stressed to the breaking point for December finals, my procrastinating meant I was one of the very few to wander outside and enjoy the first snowfall of the season. At times like these, my scatterbrained style made me vulnerable to the subtle tug of Providence. A head in the clouds is perhaps more accessible to heaven.
Now that I’m moving beyond the college world, I’m trying to balance that trusting, carefree outlook with the command to be “shrewd as serpents” as well. There are so many times in life when it seems there’s a dichotomy between doing the right thing and doing the easy thing. Of course, when those are the only two options, we do what’s right and suffer the consequences. That’s what Jesus did. But in this quote, I see a reminder to always check for the third way, the crafty approach that manages a happy ending for all involved. It’s easy to get bogged down in serious deliberations over which is the morally superior choice in a situation, but it’s not always necessary.
A prime example can be found in one of my favorite Gospel stories. A group of friends included a paralyzed man who wanted Jesus to heal him, but they couldn’t get him into the house where Jesus was because of the massive crowd blocking the door. Should they abandon the paralytic’s side to go try to get Jesus to come with them, or stay with him and miss the chance to meet Jesus? Rather than choose either option, they lowered the man on his mat right through the open roof and landed him at Jesus’ feet. I always pictured them laughing as they did it- and Jesus laughing at the sight as well. Maybe he laughed, maybe not; but he did heal the man and everybody won that day. Being innocent as doves is a tough calling in this cynical world; using our serpentine shrewdness can make the Christian life a bit sweeter.
Sometimes, the only weapon we can morally use is our wit. And maybe this is a huge stretch, but I think that lesson can be learned from the hero of BBC’s Doctor Who, a pacifist who manages to kick more ass than you’d think possible whilst wearing a bowtie.