Claiming the Power of Serpents and Doves

Many Biblical quotes are presented as if they were created for a Hallmark card — pleasant, sunny words of advice that can help us be good people and do nice things. But not all of them.  I’ve always been struck by the words Jesus gives to his disciples in Matthew 10:16:

“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Over the years, I’ve grown to love the audacity and practical wisdom in this saying. I believe it can have great value in our personal and professional lives. It presents two personal qualities that can seem, at first, mutually exclusive, and asks us to hold them together.

            Let’s start with “wise as serpents.”

            When hearing this, people will often say, “What a minute… ‘Be wise as a serpent?’… don’t snakes represent evil in the Biblical tradition?”  That is a popular belief, going back to the writings of St. Paul in which the snake in the Garden of Eden story represents evil.  But that’s not what the original story suggests, nor how I think Jesus intended the reference to be understood.

Genesis 3 begins “Now the serpent was more clever than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made…” Other translations use “subtle,” “shrewd,” “cunning” or “wise.” Traditional cultures sensed various animals had qualities that can be respected, admired, and emulated. Many sensed something particularly mysterious in snakes, and some even worshipped them. But in the original text, the serpent doesn’t have an evil intent; its role is to communicate possibilities in thinking that expanded the imagination of the human characters in the story. The dialogue between the serpent and Eve engages her curiosity and she begins to think for herself.

            The way Genesis and Jesus portray it, the serpent can be respected for its cleverness and wisdom, and we can benefit from its example.

            So, we are encouraged to be wise and creative.  But that raises a question: to what purpose? Are we going to use creative thinking for our selfish agendas, which may be deceptive and manipulative?  Or are we going to use our “smarts” for a greater good, something that serves, uplifts, and liberates others?

            Jesus pairs “wise as serpents” with “innocent as doves.”  Doves were seen as symbols of the divine spirit, a spirit which only works for the enhancement of life, not its exploitation.  If we are to be “innocent as doves,” we will use our intelligence for the higher good.

When I think of people who have used natural intelligence for noble purposes, several come to mind.

            When I was serving the Goleta congregation, we had an ambitious capital campaign.  It began with the intention of creating a new, contemporary sanctuary.  As it evolved, it included collaborating with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation to build 13 units of low-income, special needs housing, as well as the ecological restoration of the adjacent creek.  People brought their “best game” to the project.  One such person was Edith Newman, a retired businesswoman from Philadelphia.  Edith loved getting the best return for any money entrusted to her, and she was our campaign treasurer.  In the pre-internet era, every day she would check the CD rates at the local banks. If she found a better return somewhere, she’d get in her car and move our money from one bank to the next.  Several years later, when our project was completed, one of the finance committee members looked over the records.  “Do you know,” he said, “When I added it up, Edith’s account management earned us more than $100,000?”  That was twenty years ago, and a lot of money for us.  And it was because Edith was a wise money manager and used that gift for a higher purpose.

I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln for the fourth time. It shows how complicated issues of race were in that period, even for Lincoln himself. But it also shows how crafty and brilliant Lincoln was as a politician. Without those skills, the 14th Amendment ending slavery would not have passed.

As a sports fan, it’s always exciting to see someone use creative and strategic intelligence in a game. A favorite memory involves the Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux. In 2008, he was 42 years old and far beyond his best years. The Dodgers signed him, and he played a total of 7 games for them that year. He’d been a crafty pitcher, but a poor hitter and runner. I was watching one game when, much to the surprise of everyone, he got on first base. When he got there, he was chatting with the first baseman, and they seemed to be joking about the fact he’d made it that far. Everyone, including the first baseman, expected him to stay put at first base. But Maddux sensed the other team’s guard was down. Suddenly he took off for second base and arrived safely before the other team realized what was happening. He stood there smiling. What he’d done was fair play and he did it to help his team. I still smile every time I think about it.

            A core value in spiritual life is to cultivate a purity of purpose – to be “innocent as doves.” But that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with a lazy, passive, or naive mind.  The world will be a better place if we take some of the smarts we have and get the job done.