As you walk into my office I have an odd piece of art-work hanging in my doorway. It’s a painting that a friend, from a long time ago, painted for me one summer when I was doing an internship in Evanston, Illinois. On the bottom it has something written in the ancient Greek
language of the Bible, and above it there is a cross. At the base of the cross is a snake and at the top are two doves.
The painting is an interpretation of one of my favorite Bible verses, which is Matthew 10:16. Partway through Jesus’ ministry he sends his disciples out on a short missionary journey. It’s a training mission, so to speak. When he sends them out he gives them some instructions. He also says to them, “Look, I am sending you out like sheep amongst the wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.”
This particular verse continues to be one of my favorites, although it has been important for different reasons at different points in my life. At times this has been an encouragement in my academic pursuits to under-stand the Bible more deeply and intellectually. At other times it has been an encouragement to clearly understand that not everyone will be receptive to the Gospel when I share it with them.
This week, however, I have been pondering the significance of the part that says, “be…innocent as doves.” As I write this I am part way through the week of helping with vacation Bible school. Every morning this week I have had the blessing to lead singing and lead the Bible memory verse time with a group of children ranging from 3 years to about 5th grade. Watching the kids play, learn, sing and interact with one another I am reminded of the important innocence of children. I am reminded that children are born with an innate sense of hope and joy and love for other people.
Watching the children I am also reminded that innocence often implies a certain ignorance. Innocence often means a lack of awareness; awareness of the difficulties and pain that this world can bring, awareness of how humans can and do hurt each other, awareness that suffering is a reality of our existence. In fact, we even use the phrase “a loss of inno-cence” to describe a time when someone became aware of the difficult realities of the world.
Perhaps it is this connection between innocence and ignorance that is most intriguing to me about what Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew. On one hand Jesus is telling us to be wise as serpents, to see the world with clear eyes, to know the world as it really is in all its glory and its pain. On the other hand, Jesus tells us to be as innocent as doves, to retain that disposition of hope and joy and love that can be so easily crushed by the world. Jesus is telling us to be innocent, but not to be ignorant. It’s an interesting tension. It’s a tension that I don’t think we should seek to resolve primarily because it’s a tension that has something to teach us.
A few chapters later, beginning at Matthew 18:3, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the King-dom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Yes, our job as followers of Jesus is to continue to grow into mature Christian adults. It’s a task that takes a lifetime. As a part of that task we are to continue to plumb the depths of our world, our faith and our own souls. At the same time, however, Jesus would remind us that our mission in this world, and maybe even our entrance into heaven, requires hanging onto the innocence of a child. It means hanging on to that love, joy and hope that are a God given part of our spirit when we are born. We are to be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.
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Each month for our newsletter Pastor Alan writes a short article on a variety of topics. At times he will also create a video version of the article.