Is there such a thing as prudent simplicity or guileful guilelessness? Aren’t they opposites? What did Jesus mean when he said: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (Matt 10:16)”?
When Jesus sends us to bear witness to him in the world, he does not send us out as domineering conquerors, but as weak and defenseless sheep. However, he who is almighty can always intervene and shut the mouths of the wolves, like he did the mouths of the lions that surrounded Daniel.
But that does not appear to be his intention. The text goes on to say that the “wolves” will deliver the “sheep” to courts, and flog them, and drag them before governors, and have parents and children put to death, and hate them, and persecute them from town to town, and malign them, and kill them (cf. Matthew 10:17-31). So it is clear that when Jesus says he is sending us as sheep in the midst of wolves, he means that we will be treated the way wolves treat sheep.
But, even though sheep are proverbially stupid—which, on the face of it, is what it looks like when they walk toward wolves and not away from them—Jesus counters that notion by saying “be wise as serpents.” So vulnerability, not foolishness, is the point of calling us sheep. Be like snakes, not sheep, when it comes to being smart. I take that to mean that snakes are quick to get out of the way. They go under the rock.
So, yes, go among wolves and be vulnerable as you preach the gospel, but when they lunge at you, step aside. When they open their mouths, don’t jump in. And not only that, be as innocent as doves. That is, don’t give them any legitimate reason to accuse you of injustice or immorality. Keep your reputation as clean as you can (cf. 1 Peter 2:12).
So both the snake-intelligence and the dove-innocence are both designed to keep the sheep out of trouble. Jesus does not mean for us to get ourselves into as much difficulty as possible. He means: Risk your lives as vulnerable, non-combative, sheep-like, courageous witnesses, but try to find ways to give your witness in a way that does not bring down unnecessary persecution.
St. Anthony once said, “The virtue most necessary to perfection is prudence; for the most virtuous actions of men, unless governed and directed by prudence, are neither pleasing to God, nor serviceable to others, nor profitable to ourselves.” in doing God’s work opposition is often needlessly provoked by our imprudence.
This brings us to the dilemma that has faced many faithful witnesses: When do we flee from danger? And when do we embrace it and witness through it? Although some are called to give up their lives as martyrs, others are called to remain in the world to bear witness to him. It is the will of God, and we just have to follow. In the gospel of John, Peter asked Jesus: “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:21-22) Sufferings, pains, and death, will appear formidable even to the experienced Christian; but in the hope to glorify God, to leave a sinful world, and to be present with his Lord, he becomes ready to obey the Redeemer’s call, and to follow Him through death to glory. It is the will of Christ that his disciples should mind their own duty, and not be curious about future events, either as to themselves or others. Many things we are apt to be anxious about, which are nothing to us. Many curious questions are put about the counsels of God, and the state of the unseen world, as to which we may say, What is this to us? And if we attend to the duty of following Christ, we shall find neither heart nor time to meddle with that which does not belong to us.
The dove is the emblem of innocence, artlessness. It has no schemes, no under-intentions, and no reserve. What it is you know. All its ways are transparent. If the apostles acted so as to produce the impression that they had ends of their own to serve, they would have set people on the watch lest the apostles should take advantage of them. St. Paul says, “…I seek not what is yours but you… (2 Cor 12:14).” He desired not to obtain their property, but to save their souls. This was a noble resolution; and it is the resolution which should be formed by every minister of the gospel. While a minister of Christ has a claim to a competent support, his main purpose should not be to obtain such a support. It should be the higher and nobler object of winning souls to the Redeemer. Paul also says, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)” In preaching the gospel, the apostle sought to bring persons to the obedience, not of men, but of God. Paul would not attempt to alter the doctrine of Christ, either to gain their favour, or to avoid their fury. In so important a matter we must not fear the frowns of men, nor seek their favour, by using words of men’s wisdom. Concerning the manner wherein he received the gospel, he had it by revelation from Heaven. He was not led to Christianity, as many are, merely by education.
The lack of prudent simplicity can hinder us from serving God and others effectively. By telling his disciples to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves, Christ is saying that prudence and simplicity, guilefulness and guilelessness, can work hand-in-hand to help Christians remain effective and fruitful in the midst of persecution.
Let us praise God with the song “Let Us Exalt His Name”: