Be as Wary as Serpents, and Innocent as Doves! (Matthew 10: 16)

Revd Chris Wood

In a recent newspaper article, an International football manager recalled an event some years previous when he was a member of the country's coaching staff. During an evening off, the players decided they would all play a game of charades, to which the assistant coach was invited to take part. He recalled being second up, and took a card that said: 'a dancing monkey'. It seems that, keen to make a good impression, he threw himself energetically into his routine, including exaggerated dance movement that including him scratching his armpits, and peeling an imaginary banana.

What he couldn't understand was that, despite his best efforts, everyone sat in front of him stony-faced and staring in amazement at this strange spectacle, so much so that, after a while, he got irritated with them, and started shouting that it was so obvious that they were stupid not to at least offer a suggestion. After someone told him off for speaking, another bright sparks enquired whether he was a dancing donkey - which sent him completely over the top, and in disgust, flopped back down in his seat. It was only then that another member of the coaching staff leaned in and quietly said: 'You don't get it do you? You've been set up by the lads and you've fallen for it hook, line, sinker!'.

It seems that he recalled this incident, both to highlight his competitiveness but also his ability to laugh at himself, and, when everything was taken into consideration, he hadn't minded being made a fool of in front of the whole squad because it was clear they'd done it out of a deep sense of affection and respect.

It reminded me of some of the tales my dad used to say of his experience in engineering, where it was common practice to send the latest raw recruit around the factory enquiring after a 'wooden door handle' or a 'round tuit' and everyone they approached for advice would know exactly what game was being played, and would fully engage in this wild goose chase.

We discover in the Gospel accounts that Jesus was forever being approached by the religious authorities in the hope of catching Him out; embarrassing Him; or making the laughing stock of their audience. The difference being, of course, that they had not done it out of respect or affection, but out of a deep dislike for everything that He was doing, and everything that He stood for - they failed to grasp or appreciate who and what He was - and so engineered situations where they could isolate Him, condemn Him, and eventually crucify Him.

The uttererly amazing thing is, despite everything that they did to undermine His authority and purpose, He mainly engaged with them in a way that sought to highlight a deeper truth (I say 'mainly' because there were times when He got angry with them, and called them some unsavoury names!). We have, for instance, the confrontation centred on a Roman coin. It was a coin that the population were forced to use, even though it represented the might of an occupational army. This is the incident: 'The authorities went away and agreed on a plan to trap Him in argument, saying 'Give us your ruling on this: are we or are we not permitted to pay taxes to the Roman emperor?' Jesus was aware of their malicious intention and said, `You hypocrites! Why are you trying to catch Me out?' Then pointing out Caesar's head on the coin, replied: 'Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.' (Matthew 22: 15 - 21)

The important lesson to be learnt is that Jesus was fully aware that they were keen to trap Him. The dilemma being that, if He supported paying tax to the Roman authorities, He would be accused of being unpatriotic. If He openly opposed the paying of taxes He could then be reported as a trouble-maker and rebel! It was like: 'heads they win an tails He loses! His response is: to teach His audience that they have a duty to pay their taxes, but equally to stress that God should also receive His due, through the worship, the love and the service of our whole lives.

In this, and other examples, Jesus shows us how to counter those who would seek to undermine or ridicule the faith we are called to profess, and to meet even our greatest critics with grace and good humour, so that, in the words of a prayer offered by John Proctor: 'We might have the courage to stand apart from others, in our commitment to Christ; and wisdom to know how we might best engage for the sake of His Kingdom'. No wonder He also advised: 'Be as wary as serpents, and innocent as doves!'

God Bless

Chris

August 2018