As long as we are sheep, we overcome and, though surrounded by countless wolves, we emerge victorious; but if we turn into wolves, we are overcome, for we lose the shepherd’s help. He, after all, feeds the sheep not wolves, and will abandon you if you do not let him show his power to you.
What he says is this: “Do not be upset that, as I send you out among the wolves, I bid you be as sheep and doves. I could have managed things quite differently and sent you, not to suffer evil nor to yield like sheep to the wolves, but to be fiercer than lions. But the way I have chosen is right. It will bring you greater praise and at the same time manifest my power…”
The Lord, however, does want [us] to contribute something, lest everything seem to be the work of grace… Therefore he adds, “You must be as clever as snakes and innocent as doves.” But, you may object, what good is our cleverness amid so may dangers? How can we be clever when tossed about by so many waves? However great the cleverness of the sheep as he stands among the wolves—so many wolves!—what good can it accomplish?..
What cleverness is the Lord requiring here? The cleverness of a snake. A snake will surrender everything and will put up no great resistance even if its body is being cut in pieces, provided it can save its head. So you, the Lord is saying, must surrender everything but your faith: money, body, even life itself. For faith is the head and the root; keep that, and though you lose all else, you will get it back in abundance.
The Lord therefore counseled the disciples to be not simply clever or innocent; rather he joined the two qualities so that they become a genuine virtue. He insisted on the cleverness of the saint so that deadly wounds might be avoided, and he insisted on the innocence of the dove so that revenge might not be taken on those who injure or lay traps. Cleverness is useless without innocence.
St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew, from Office of Readings,
Reflection – The Office of Readings of the Church regularly delivers up gems like this for our consideration – this one is coming up on Thursday of this week. It is funny—even though it’s right there in Scripture, in the Lord’s own words, I don’t think I have ever meditated at any length on the call to imitate the snake. Doves and sheep and the birds of the air and flowers of the field, yes, but ssssnakes? Yuck. I’m not from a part of the world with lots of poisonous snakes, so I have no great fear of them, but like most people they’re not my most favorite animal.
It’s this whole business of prudence, isn’t it? That’s what John Chrysostom means when he says that cleverness and innocence together yield a genuine virtue. The virtue is prudence. To be all precise and scholastic though, it is specifically the virtue of infused prudence. Acquired prudence—simple human prudence—is the virtue by which we figure out how to get what we want, the common sense attitude to life that considers our goals and makes good practical choices as to the means to those goals.
Acquired prudence is a virtue, as it is a genuine perfection of our humanity to be able to carry out the plans we have hatched. But it is a very limited virtue, as those plans might be wrong, might be in fact harmful to ourselves or others. A prudent bank robber might be a successful bank robber, and we all enjoy those clever heist movies where the dashing criminal pulls off the big job… but at the end of the day, he’s still a thief, and a thief is a lousy thing to be.
Infused prudence shows us how to attain the goal that is not of our own devising, but is the true goal of our humanity, and that is heaven and eternal life. And that is the cleverness of the snake united to the innocence of the dove. To desire, earnestly and truly, to be with God and to enter that communion of love: innocence. To be clear-eyed, thoughtful, careful, and (dare I say) almost cold-bloodedly determined to do whatever it takes and sacrifice whatever is needed to attain that goal: clever snake, you!
It is called ‘infused’ virtue because it is only possible to have it if God gives it. To someone not in the grace of God, it is sheer lunacy to sacrifice money, health, position, freedom, or one’s own life for the sake of faith. Why lose the cold hard currency of this world for something you can neither see nor touch nor smell nor eat nor lie down on? But this is the clever snake of the Gospel, the serpentine path of faith in the world.