Part of my work as a teacher is to help students acquire good habits which ultimately become dispositions. To do this, I’ve been studying the cardinal virtues. To study courage, I’ve been reading up on fear, evil, and the psychology of both. On the popularly level, I found Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear. In the book, I ran across this old quote from Nietzsche that I hadn’t heard in quite a while:
146. He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee. – Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil aphorism 146
This line took me to Matthew 10:16. I wondered, “Why on earth does Jesus say ‘wise as serpents’?” He could have said, “As wise as Solomon” or “clever as a fox.” By the time of Jesus, the serpent of the Old Testament had pretty well become associated with Satan or some demonic personification of evil. So, why be clever in that way? I’m speculating below, I don’t presume to know what Jesus was thinking, but things are written to be understood and “be wise as serpents” has a reference point. This means it was chosen for a reason.
In the passage, I see several layers of potential meaning:
- Jesus says to beware of people and “behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” So for his disciples to avoid being the victims of predation, he challenges them to think like a more dangerous sort of predator.
- The fact of the matter is that we are all sinners. The mistake we make is that we pretend not to be. Admittedly, pretending to be put together is very important in polite society. But we too often lie to ourselves about just how evil we really are. In doing this we make ourselves more likely to fall prey to the evil of others. De Becker observed that, “the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognized by the naked eye. (De Becker 47)” Thus, in order to be safe in a dangerous world, we have to be aware of what we’re really like in order to predict what others are really like. Finding the evil in ourselves and the ease with which we slip into sinful behavior protects us from others.
- There are more reasons than avoiding evildoers to look at our own sin. We must also look at the direction our own sinfulness and our cunning at sin may take us in order to run away from it. In The Hammer, Father Brown was asked if his apparently supernatural knowledge of sinful motivations was indicative of a demonic identity:
“Are you a devil?” “I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”
So, perhaps the reason Jesus says to think like the serpent is that in Genesis, the serpent is the cleverest of all the animals and we could easily, find circuitous routes to justifying, planning, hiding, and calling others along with us in our sins. And so Jesus uses the image not only for its predatory imagery, but also for its demonic imagery. In our very efforts to preserve ourselves, we’ve also got to be aware of ourselves. This is why he says, “be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Jesus is reminding us of the temptation faced by those who fancy themselves clever. And this, tragically, is a sin which befalls members of the churches in Ephesus when travelling teachers use their abilities to seduce neophyte Christians into sexual sin (2 Timothy 3:6).