Wise as Snakes, Innocent as Doves

It appears I have a lot to learn about city life… a humbling admission from someone proud of having spent 8 formative years in Metro Detroit. To be more specific, I have a lot to learn about how to follow Jesus here in the city.

For many years now I’ve been questioning various assumptions, trying to figure out what it really means to be a Christian. This has been greatly accelerated here at DTS. Nonetheless, I still have these terrible moments where I fall on my face. One particular area is dealing with the needy and being generous.

I’ve been approached at the gas station, at Target, on the bus, outside a concert, all here in Dallas. I don’t recall ever having been approached before. Usually I say no because of all the stories you hear: drug addictions, mental problems (which my money won’t help!), even “homeless” people making more money than I do per year! I’ve heard you shouldn’t even take out your wallet because some people will just grab it and run. On the phone, I let the Texas Fraternal something-or-other bully me into pledging money when I told them at first that I wouldn’t. I said no more. They keep calling and I refuse to hang up on them (but they have no qualms about hanging up on me).

Then last month I managed to make a homeless man in a wheelchair cry. He asked for money on the bus because he was hungry, and I told him I didn’t have any for him. Then an unfortunate set of circumstances revealed that I did have money and he wept. And I had enough pride to remain firm and enough compassion to be haunted ever since.

What does the Bible say about all this? Jesus said to His disciples, “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, therefore be thoughtful [wise, shrewd, cautious] as snakes and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16). So I should be wise with my money, right? Make good investments. Don’t waste, don’t be taken in, don’t give to strangers. There’s some truth to this: just look at all the commands in the Bible to be wise with your money.

But then there’s this “innocent as doves” part. The word for “innocent” literally means unmixed or untainted. Don’t let your wisdom produce a crafty, manipulative person in you. Don’t be so smart that you lose something godly in the process.

Is it sinful to turn people down? I think it can be. Consider this passage just 5 chapters earlier in Matthew, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

I’ve given the context here and italicized what I think is key to our discussion. Jesus said to give based on a very shaky criteria, a rather unwise basis: anyone who asks. Do you think He meant to qualify that by saying “make sure he needs it first”? People may not have had drugs back then, but they sure had alcohol. Do you think everyone who asked was innocent, that con artistry is a modern invention? Of course not! And look at the context: the kind of people Jesus is talking about are an evil person, abusive, vindictive, pushy… your enemies.

Now some of you may be thinking that if the disciples really lived this way and their enemies knew about it, it would be a recipe for disaster, that they would be taken advantage of and hung out to dry. Yeah, I think you’re right. What was Jesus thinking? I think He was thinking about being compassionate, about accepting injustice, about not loving the things of this world. It’s a challenging way to think, and an even harder one to live.

But then we go back to chapter 10: I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. Yikes! Did I sign up for this pasture? The wolves will be here, and that’s part of the point. Who do you trust? Be wise with these wolves; don’t get eaten! But don’t sink to their level either.

This post has been brewing for a while, but it took on new urgency on my birthday. Some kids came raising money for school and I was feeling magnanimous since it was my birthday. They seemed nice, eager, clean. And they scammed me. I didn’t give them a whole lot, but I found out (you can learn everything you need to know in the fine print and the Internet) that they were working for an adult, that they did NOT represent a school, and that the magazines I ordered could only be shipped in the US… kind of hard to get them to those soldiers in Iraq that way. Sigh.

Then I reacted strongly, doing everything I could to fix the error I just made. Lies! Evil! (These hard times will bring more and more people like this out to your neighborhood… watch out!) I replayed the scene in my mind over and over, noting all the clues I should have picked up on: nervousness, distracting dialogue, pushiness, not making the check out directly to the school, the misleading prices. Then there were all the slick things they did: complementing me to each other as they walked down the hall, saying their aunt lives here, saying there were other teams from school out that they were racing.

So what would I have done differently:
1) Trust your gut. If something doesn’t add up, take the time to investigate. If someone needs the money, they can be patient. If not, they must not need the money. Ask questions.
2) Know ahead of time what you will do if something does NOT add up. Do you call them on it? Do you stall while you call the police? Do you find a way to be so obnoxious that they leave? Do you share the Gospel with them? In the words of the “Untouchable” Malone: What are you prepared to do?

I think point one requires special attention to wisdom and point two requires special attention to innocence. I think sharing the Gospel should have been my motive as soon as I heard the knock on the door. I think I should have confronted them in love, made it personal to them without attacking them. What do you guys think you’re doing? What do you hope to get out of this? Is this going to be the rest of your life? Who’s putting you up to this? Don’t you know this is wrong? I should have forgiven them for trying. I never had the chance because I was so focused on innocence that I acted unwisely.

I realize I’ve packed a lot in here, but I really think it’s important. I want you to think about this and re-evaluate. I want you to tell me why I should not accept strangers at my door. I want you to tell me why I should not risk my security for some guy on the street. One thing’s for sure, I can’t lie to them again; I won’t. Where is justice? In court? In your hands? Where is mercy? Nailed to a cross? Or written on your heart?

2 thoughts on “Wise as Snakes, Innocent as Doves”

  1. Hey Josh, if you ever want to head downtown with my son and I to engage with the homeless on a Saturday morning, let me know. I will say it is a tough field to serve in, so it can be easy to get disappointed at times. But, if we prepare the right way, I have found there are ways to serve them where you can invest money wisely and provide for some of their needs – physical and spiritual.

  2. It was much the same in Boston. So many homeless. So many without. There are so many verses that convict my heart to give, and give generously to those in need– Job and Ezk. both have good points to make. But Isaiah 58:5-10 and Matthew 25:31-40. Especially where it says,

    “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

    Josh, I think we have to give and give big. Not with only our money, but with our homes, our possessions and our time. None of it is ours (but Gods), and we can’t take it with us.

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