Today, as I was meandering about in my mind about another thing I thought the Church had somehow managed to get something completely backwards, doing one thing and hoping for a certain result and getting precisely the opposite. "Innocent as serpents and wise as doves" I thought to myself, quoting Mathew 10:16.
And then caught myself. That was not it at all. The actual verse reads "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents as innocent as doves." Odd little substitution, I thought to myself.
Think about it. To the Jews to whom Christ was speaking to, the idea of the wise serpent would have been easily identifiable from Genesis 3:1 "Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made." And the serpent often has a reputation for being crafty and wily, tricking its way into capturing its prey. The dove, on the other hand, was a symbol of purity and innocence. A dove brought back the olive branch to Noah (Genesis 7:8-12) and a dove was the one of the sacrifices that the very poor could offer under the sacrificial system (for example, Leviticus 1:14). Sheep in the midst of wolves would have been a well known idea to that agricultural setting, so when Christ communicated this to them they were very clear.
But too often we reverse the whole thing. The dove, if you have never known it, is not the wisest of birds. It is slow and fairly interested in food. I have never seen a bird of prey smack into a window; I have seen plenty of doves do so. And the serpent could hardly every be seen as innocent: predators always have a hint of malice about them even in the best of nature shows, and the serpents ability to camouflage itself, its quick strikes, and its often virulent poison make a poor poster child for anything but crafty and dangerous.
But too often people get the two reversed, somehow thinking that showing the wisdom of doves (and by wisdom, we mean foolishness) and the innocence of serpents (a sort of non-innocence that everybody recognizes and avoids or attacks ruthlessly) is somehow the way to go about being in the world. Somehow, the thought goes, if we just "blend in" and use their words and their ideas they will come to accept us as their own.
They miss the first part of that statement, of course, "send you out as sheep among wolves" - a fairly critical context (and one I forgot in my initial remembering). Christ knew the world into which He was sending His servants. Too often others seem to forget that, thinking that somehow good intentions and a sincere desire to be liked will be enough to get the door, where their "wisdom" and "innocence" will win the day.
Make no mistake: wolves are always quite happy to have the sheep in for a visit and perhaps a discussion. While their innocence may be questioned, their wisdom in providing themselves a ready food source surely cannot be.