Saturday, August 07, 2010

Wise as serpents?

We were talking the other day about the passage where Jesus sends his disciples out to preach and tells them, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." (Matthew 10:16)

A quick internet search shows that at least part of a serpent's wisdom is prudence in avoiding trouble. Indeed as Solomon warns us, "The prudent see trouble coming and take cover; the foolish keep going and suffer for it" (Proverbs 27:12). What kind of trouble should they (and we) avoid?

One train of thought is that we should beware of cults and brainwashing. I think this is prudent (avoiding suicide cults like Jonestown for example), but I don't believe that's what Jesus was talking about. Such cults didn't exist in that day, and he tells the twelve "I am sending you out as sheep among wolves." Rather, as he says in verse 23, "When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another." (He also mentions getting arrested -- verse 19.) In other words, he's mainly talking about persecution.

But again, what does this mean? Note that Jesus doesn't say, "If you come to a village and it seems you'll probably be arrested, go to the next one." And look again at verses 19 and 23 -- the text doesn't say "if they arrest you"; it says "when they arrest you." Likewise: "when they persecute you in one place..."

I'm afraid that we (I include myself) tend to put too much emphasis on the idea of prudence, that is, I want to stay out of trouble so that I can arrive safely at... the day of my death.

Not thus are spirits fortified!
   Not this way went the crucified!
"Ja, you can't be too careful," say Garrison Keillor's apocryphal Minnesota Lutherans, but in fact we can be too careful; we can be so careful that we can miss the whole point: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:35). The writer to the Hebrews says:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
from Hebrews 11:35-39
And in Revelation we read, "They overcame him (the accuser) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death." (Revelation 12:11)

What are we to make of this? The Scriptures have a balanced view of prudence: it's a good thing, but let's not get carried away. So we know some missionaries who went to Pakistan, which has never been a safe place for Christians. They came home when their agency told them to. That seems to me to be prudence in balance. Likewise when Paul learned of the plot against him, he informed the authorities of it (Acts 23:13-18).

Suppose one of my children felt called by God to go to a dangerous place to serve Him in missions work -- what would I say? Would I support them in that? Well, I'd want to be satisfied that reasonable precautions would be taken for their safety. I won't know until it happens whether this will be like Nehemiah's experience, where he had "army officers and cavalry" for his journey (Nehemiah 2:7-9) -- or like Ezra, who was "ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road" (Ezra 8:22-23).

Because even if they're more likely to die for their faith overseas, they're 100% certain to die even if they stay home. And is it so much better to live for nothing, than to die for something?

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