Jesus’ words to his disciples as he prepares to send them out into a hostile world are, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” This phrase is intriguing, but perplexing to us, as it may have also been to Jesus’ disciples. For we know that from the beginning, in Genesis, the serpent is cast in an adversarial role, having tempted Adam and Eve with the promise to be like God. So what could Jesus mean when he asks us, his disciples, to be wise as serpents? What wisdom did the serpent possess that Jesus is asking us to adopt?
The serpent’s wisdom lies in knowing that no matter how perfect things seemed in paradise; the first man and the first woman were not perfect, they were incomplete, vulnerable, limited, and the serpent was wise to this. The serpent was wise to the fact that human beings are not God. When Adam and Eve were enlightened to this fact, when they became aware of their imperfection, they felt ashamed, they hid their perceived imperfection from themselves (they covered themselves), they hid from each other, and they hid from God.
Similarly, Jesus knows of our tendency to feel ashamed of – and hide from – our imperfection. He knows how we try to cover up our sense of unworthiness and inadequacy by performing well. He knows how we fruitlessly exert our willpower over and over again trying to change perceived imperfections and unacceptable habits. And Jesus knows of our tendency to be hard on ourselves when our most strenuous efforts do not bring about the desired results, that is to say, hard on ourselves because we are not yet the people WE think we ought to be; we are not yet the people WE think God would have us be. That’s a problem. That’s a problem because in such cases, we are playing God. We are acting as if we know better than God, and God knows we are not perfect, and God knows we are not perfect. Imperfection is part of the deal, built in from the beginning, as the serpent knows. So we too should be wise as serpents. Know you are imperfect. Face it. Embrace it. Stop hiding imperfection. Be wise as serpents.
And then there’s the doves; be innocent as doves. In Jesus’ day the dove was an acceptable sacrificial offering for the poor for the forgiveness of sins. What made the dove acceptable was its perceived innocence. We are innocent as doves insofar as our imperfection is our offering to God. In fact, our imperfection is the only thing God doesn’t already have. This is our innocence because when we offer up our imperfection to God, we no longer feel the need to play God, we no longer feel the need to make ourselves in our own image. Instead, we can let God be God, we can trust God, and we can know peace. For God knows we are imperfect, or better, God knows that we are perfectly human, which is to say, that we are perfectly imperfect, and that, to God, is perfectly acceptable, as it should be for us, so be wise as serpents – know you are imperfect. Be innocent as doves – that’s your offering.
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