In Matthew 10, Jesus is sending his disciples out on a mission. He tells them to go to their own people, the lost sheep of Israel, to take nothing with them but the clothes on their backs, and to heal the sick and preach the news that the Kingdom of heaven is near. Basically He is sending them to do the work He Himself is doing, but on a broader scale than can be reached by one man alone. In the middle of His instructions, He offers the disciples what seems at first glance to be contradictory advice. He tells them to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
This is an interesting statement – historically we associate the snake with sin and Satan, and a dove with the Holy Spirit. So how do we reconcile these two opposing ideas? Jesus gives credit where credit is due. Satan has always operated in a calculating manner, Satan is shrewd. He targets the spots where we are most vulnerable, most innocent. Jesus never makes the mistake that we often do, of underestimating what Satan is capable of. One of the biggest lies of our time is that we have turned Satan into a goofy looking character dressed in red with pointy little horns. We create humor about him. “The devil made me do it!” Pretty shrewd way of operating, if you ask me. Webster gives us two definitions of the word shrewd:
1. marked by clever discerning awareness and hardheaded acumen
2. given to wily and artful ways or dealing
Satan, as he always does, takes what is good and perverts it. Jesus warns his disciples, not to be wily and artful – the corrupt distortion of shrewdness, but to be marked by clever discerning awareness. He’s advising them to be on their guard, to be prepared for whatever may happen. Jesus is not instructing them to be like Satan, but to use the same tools in a right and correct way to help defeat him.
Jesus tempers this instruction by also warning his disciples to be as innocent as doves. Doves were so innocent that they were considered (along with a lamb) to be an acceptable sacrifice for purification and for sin atonement following the birth of a child. If one couldn’t afford a lamb, two doves were acceptable. This is the sacrifice Mary made following the birth of Jesus. A dove also signifies the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and a dove descended on him. Mark tells us that the disciples weren’t called until after this event, but it is possible one of them witnessed it. Or certainly they may have heard about it. The dove is part of the beginning of Jesus’ life, and of His ministry. The symbolism would not be lost on His followers. Jesus is asking them to be clean, to be pure.
In our era, we associate innocence most often with children. What I like most about the innocence of children is their transparency. They speak and act without filter (sometimes to the horror and embarrassment of their parents). But children, at least the innocent ones, aren’t trying to be malicious or mean. They just state what is on their minds. You can almost see the cogs turning in their little brains.
The transparency of children is really like a window. If the window is clean, the light can shine through. I think Jesus is asking that of His disciples when he asks them to be innocent. Be pure and clean – get rid of the winter muck and dirt – and let the light shine through. Let those you go to know what and who you stand for. Paul puts it this way in Romans 16:19, “I want you to be wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil.”
The disciples (and we are now counted in that number if we love and follow Jesus) are cautioned, admonished, encouraged and challenged to go into the world and to cling to wisdom and innocence together. Without shrewdness or wisdom, our innocence is like a target for Satan’s arrows. Even if he may not make a bulls-eye every time, without wisdom moving the target farther away from him and closer to God, he is likely to hit something. We are warned not to let innocence be equated with gullibility, but rather to let innocence be more like the clean window the light can shine through. This is not something we can do alone as sinful fallen creatures that are so easily caught up in the wily shrewdness of Satan. The only way it can happen, the only way we can be made wise and innocent again comes through the redeeming sacrifice of something pure, someone truly innocent, Jesus.