“I am sending you out as sheep among wolves,” Jesus says.
You would imagine that a sheep among wolves would stand no chance at all. Not for a second!
And that’s how Jesus sees us Christ-followers. As sheep among wolves.
Yes, I have sometimes been a sheep among wolves…in toxic situations where I sense pretty much everyone was lying to me, about me, lying about events, danger I sometimes sensed, and sometimes did not. Where I was innocently in over my head in fraught, loaded situations in a toxic church I was once in; situations to do with business, or money, or in-laws. Experiences in my travels, or dealings with officialdom, where I had no power, and they apparently had it all, and all seems dark and hopeless.
You are in a fog, a fog of minor evil, where you are powerless, you don’t know what the truth is, and few seem to be speaking it.
What do you do in this fog, where everyone has their own agenda, and no one speaks truth to their neighbour? You shut up, as much as you can! You go still. You pray. I love Rumer Godden’s analogy in In This House of Brede—The more a bird caught in a net struggles, the further it gets entangled.
Yes, everything seems dark and hopeless, and then, suddenly, the fog clears, and there is light, and as if by magic, the situation resolves. In ways better than you could have hoped for.
What worked this magic? How does the fog sometimes lift?
Ah, the great Shepherd had his eye on his sheep all along, it turns out
We are sent out as sheep among wolves since the Great Shepherd knows it is safe to send us out.
What hope has the sheep among wolves? Only that the eye of the good and powerful shepherd is upon it. And that is enough.
* * *
When Jesus sends his disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves, he offers them just one bit of armour, one bit of protection: Be as wise and shrewd as a serpent, and as innocent as a dove.
Because the life of Jesus is in us, because we are trying to march to a different drummer and do the right thing and obey the voice of Jesus, we are to be careful. We are telling the truth among people who might say whatever is necessary to achieve their objectives. We are trying to remain pure of heart among those playing to win. We are playing by different rules
So we need to be as wise as we possibly can, without sinning.
Oh dear, how can we be as shrewd and wise as a serpent, if we don’t feel very wise as I generally do not? If we despise being tricky?
We ask Jesus, the source of all wisdom for wisdom and guidance, step by step.
* * *
I love the heart-expanding call to love, to be merciful, to be open, giving to everyone who asks of us, to keep our hearts pure and kind.
I love too the call to wisdom, which is for our protection, we fluffy woolly sheep among wolves.
Be wise as a serpent who keeps its own counsel, who knows how to wait, who listens to signals and instincts deep within its blood and bones, resting in winter, moving fast when it needs to.
Elsewhere Jesus counsels, “Do not cast your pearls before swine, or they will trample them underfoot and then tear you to pieces.”
Be wise as a serpent when we know we are dealing with those who would abuse our generosity and kindness and rend us to pieces, who might twist our words and gossip about us.
It may not be possible to edit them out of our lives; we may belong to the same church or social circle. We may be related to them through blood or marriage, for a man’s enemies are often from his own household, as again Jesus warned us.
So then, heeding our instincts, we limit dealings with the unsafe, dangerous ones to limit the risk of being trampled underfoot and torn to pieces. We are careful about what we say in their presence and we say as little as possible. We avoid them as far as possible as a sheep instinctively avoids a wolf, as wild animals instinctively avoid larger animals and humans.
How grateful I am for these checks and balances. “Give to everyone who asks of you,” “love,” but also “Be wise as a serpent.”
* * *
Following Jesus is a bit like playing chess. There are rules and commandments, but infinite freedom and variations within it. It is not mechanical; what fun would there be in that? We need wisdom; we need guidance; we need to listen to Jesus before we move in fraught situations. We need the Spirit who will teach us what to say in tricky situations.
Ah, learning to follow Jesus…the task of a lifetime…and a rewarding one!