Wise As Serpents – Br. John Braught

Br. John BraughtSee, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.   Matthew 10:16

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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  1. David Cranmer on August 12, 2016 at 21:18

    These past few months the Lord has been showing me how I have a wrong understanding of my imperfection. Your meditation is another part of what God is showing me. One thing that really struck me is something I read from an Anglican priest: “Our surrendered imperfections give God a chance to show off.”

  2. Ruth West on August 9, 2016 at 17:52

    Br. John, this is an interesting meditation, indeed. I have never thought of this passage as you explained it. Today I give myself to my Lord Christ, imperfect though I am. I am reminded of all of the Proverbs which dwell on wisdom. How I need wisdom! And I remember the dove in the baptism of Jesus, which we feel is a symbol of peace. Wise as serpents; innocent as doves, what a thought-provoker! Thanks for this!

  3. Polly Chatfield on August 9, 2016 at 16:01

    Thank you, dear John, for that beautiful meditation/explication. So wise, so simple. It opens up a whole new way of prayer.

  4. Michael on August 9, 2016 at 09:12

    It is reassuring to know that God gave us the very thing that makes us human and knows that we are trying, imperfectly, but we are trying

  5. Elizabeth Hardy on August 9, 2016 at 08:57

    Thank you Br. That is a really interesting meditation. I like the idea of my imperfection being the only thing I can offer to God because it is the only thing he doesn’t have. I’m constantly thinking if I was nicer or better people would be less irritated with me and more welcoming to me…I might be wrong!!

  6. Shelley on August 9, 2016 at 08:46

    I am suffering such grief at the recent passing of my husband. I feel overwhelmed and unsure as to the purpose of my life now that he is gone. My imperfections and inadequacies are magnified. But as you say, we can trust in God and know peace…an uplifting message for my ears this morning. With thanks.

  7. Kalita Blessing on August 9, 2016 at 06:32

    Such a beautiful and reassuring meditation
    for this day. Hope you are well my friend!

  8. Leslie on August 9, 2016 at 05:14

    Thank you, Brother John. I would like to be like my granddaughter, when she wordlessly brings me her plush quail, so that I can squeeze it and cause it to make the bird call.

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  10. Jerome Berkeley on July 18, 2013 at 08:24

    Very nice explication of a subtle, yet profoundly significant way that we can easily undermine and frustrate ourselves, even as we make sincere efforts along the path. The recognition of how we play God, even as we strive to be closer to God, is a gateway to a deeper peace and wisdom. It helps prevent our resilient will from taking us off track, and possibly plunging us further away from the very path we seek. Br. John, I’m listening……Amen!

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