Jesus seems to like using animal illustrations. Dogs and pigs make it into this passage. But elsewhere Jesus uses other furry examples.
At one point he calls Herod Antipas a fox. On another occasion he calls the Pharisees a brood of Vipers.
And then, in Matthew 10, as Jesus is preparing his disciples for mission, Jesus uses four different animal examples in one verse.
Behold, he says to them: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16
Now, in context, Jesus is inviting his disciples to be wise and pure. He’s sending them out and he wants them to land in a community like a dove lands on a tree. Graceful. But they are to be smart about it. Discerning. If there is receptivity to the gospel message, they are to press in. But, if they are shut down, and persecuted, they are to move on. “Shake the dust off their feet,” says Jesus.
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be a shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
As I was thinking about the dogs and the pigs this week, my mind drifted towards the snakes and the doves. What do all these animals have in common? Nothing, other than they’re animals.
So why do I bring them up? Well, I think the animals in Matthew 10 can help us interpret the animals in Matthew 7. When it comes to living into God’s Kingdom, disciples need to land as gracefully as doves, but we also need to be as discerning as snakes.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be critical. But we can’t be naive, either.
Now, one of the major errors made when interpreting this passage, is the error of thinking that Jesus is inviting us to turn off our critical faculties. To be blind to sin. And to avoid evaluating another’s behaviour.
In this way of seeing the text, Jesus comes off sounding like a good, modern liberal Canadian. “Live and Let live. You do you. Who am I to judge?”
But this isn’t what Jesus means when he says “Judge Not.”
All throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus has been inviting us to not be like the hypocrites or the pagans. And later he will implore us to avoid false teachers. So clearly, Jesus wants us to know the difference between righteous and unrighteous behaviour.
Additionally, we’d have to toss out much of the New Testament if the “live and let live interpretation” were correct. Because Paul and the other writers spend a lot of time encouraging godly behaviour and condemning ungodly behaviour in the body of Christ.
And, of course, later in Matthew, Jesus himself institutes a Church discipline process as a means to gracefully deal with sin in the body of Christ. So its safe to say that perceiving clearly and naming correctly are necessary skills for the disciple to have.
The problem with judging is not the critical discernment piece. The problem is when we think we belong in the judges chair and then we deal harshly with each other.
John Stott thinks that what Jesus is warning us about here, is the dangers of censoriousness. “Censoriousness”. I had to look that word up, because I’d never heard it before.
And what I found is that a censorious person is someone who is inclined to look for and point out the faults of others. It’s their mission to expose error and impose judgement.
Says Stott: Censoriousness is a compound sin consisting of several unpleasant ingredients. It does not mean to assess people critically, but to judge them harshly. The censorious critic is a fault-finder who is negative and destructive towards other people and enjoys actively seeking out their failings. He puts the worst possible construction on their motives, pours cold water on their schemes and is ungenerous towards their mistakes. John Stott
Don’t do this, says Jesus. “Quit being so critical of each other” (Frederick Bruner, traslation). Be innocent as a dove, not rambunctious like a bull.
In high school, I worked for a few months as an egg picker. Awful work. Imagine 2000 chickens running wild around a windowless barn. And my job was to collect the one thing that each of those chickens didn’t want to give up.
One of the things that I found so sad about life in the chicken coop, is the way that chickens treated other chickens who had developed defects.
One hen had a tumour on her head. And wherever she would go, other chickens would peck at her tumour. A few days later, I found her dead on the floor. That kind of thing happened all the time. Broken leg. Peck, Peck, Peck. Busted beak. Peck, Peck, Peck…
I’d like to say that that kind of behaviour is limited to the hen house, but truthfully we do that kind of thing to each other too.
Often the worst pecking happens within the family. Most of us can tolerate the faults of people we don’t live with. But at home we grow weary of each other’s faults, and we start to peck. “You should know better by now.” “Why do you always cut corners when you clean your room?” “You’re such a selfish jerk.” “You only think of yourself.”
This pecking can be bad in the body of Christ too.
Does it ever work? All that critical nagging and fault finding. Does it ever produce a cm of change? Rarely.
Pecking each other into submission is not the Jesus way. Judge not, he says, or you will be judged. In fact, the same measure you use on others will be applied to you as well.
Its tricky to know what Jesus means by this measure business. Is being judged in return a natural consequence of being censorious? This is true to life, I suppose. If your boss is a fault finding fanatic, then you’re more likely to be critical of her in return. But if she cuts you some slack, you’re more likely to cut her some slack.
But Jesus could also be talking about the final judgement, here. If you yourself have no grace for others, then clearly you are far from the grace of God. And you can expect the true judge to bump you from your judgement seat and be critical of you.
So how should we deal with faults as Kingdom people. Well, says Jesus, we should work on ourselves first.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
It’s a hilarious picture, really. (Hold up plank) “Hey buddy… I can’t help but notice that you have a little something in your eye. I could see it from a mile away, because my eyesight is, like, perfect. Let me get that out for you.”
Its a funny picture. But isn’t that the way it goes. This is basically a law of nature: We chronically underestimate our own faults, while we exaggerate the faults of others. But as Jesus already made clear, being critical of the faults of others is not the way forward.
The first step is to take a good look in the mirror. Name your own sin, faults, and weaknesses. Confess your own sin to God. Ask someone to help you with this burden. Do what you can to pull it out, God helping you.
Part of the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching here is that starting with yourself teaches you humility. Change is hard. Have you ever tried to take a plank out of your eye? Or move past a besetting sin. It can take years or difficult work. There are set-backs. Its hard!
And its only as you work on yourself that you realize how hard sanctification is. And when you figure that out, you’ll be way less judgemental and way more gentle with others and the sins and weakness that they have.
Another aspect of wisdom to this teaching, is that this is how change really happens in a community. If you tell people to shape up, they’ll never do it. But if you work on yourself, invite other people into your growth, people will be inspired by that. And they’ll desire to join you on the road of personal growth.
A few years ago, I went on a pastoral retreat. The main presenter was humble and quite vulnerable. He shared with us that he used to be a big bully.
At the end of the retreat, we were invited to confess something we had learned of ourselves to someone else. While there was about 7-8 people that I could have gone to do this with, I went to this man. I went to him because I knew he wouldn’t peck at me. His vulnerability inspired me to be vulnerable. His growth, encouraged me to grow.
This is the Jesus way of dealing with faults and sins. Start with yourself, and then be of service to others. The goal is no planks or specks. A speck of sawdust might not look like a big deal. But it can do a lot of damage in there. Its has to come out.
Jesus wants us all to have clear vision. But its important to be gentle with each other’s lives. Be as gentle as doves, and we will fly together.
And yet, at the same time, be as wise as serpents.
The gentle, Kingdom approach to dealing with faults is beautiful. And when a group of people decide to grow towards holiness together, in a gracious, vulnerable way, amazing things happen. But not everyone is ready for that. And not everyone wants that. In fact, some people hate it. And they come not with sawdust in their eyes but with clubs in hand.
“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”
Now before we explore this strange teaching, let’s remind ourselves a few of the things that Jesus has been teaching us. His has said, “don’t hit back, but turn the other cheek.” He has said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He has also told us not to call people names like fool or idiot, or pig or dog. That is like murder, says Jesus. Such hatred has no place in a disciples heart.
So, the attitude of the disciple, towards the neighbour, every neighbour, is always and forever, love.
And yet, Jesus also says, that if you go to a town, and you receive no welcome there, and no one is receptive to Christ’s Kingdom, then shake the dust off your feet. Move on.
Jesus did this in his own home town. He was amazed at their lack of faith, so he moved on. Paul routinely did this is his ministry too. When he received welcome, he would settle in and do some preaching, but whenever he was persecuted, he moved on.
It is true that we have to be patient with others, and sometimes we need to persevere. But its also true that some people are just not ready to receive the goods that God has on offer in Christ or to be a gentle member in the community that is growing in godliness together.
Its not that they themselves are dogs, or pigs—although some people, after a lifetime of hardening their heart to God, are truly lost. Its just that, for whatever reason, there is no readiness.
I remember attending a high school chapel once. The speaker shared his own story. He was vulnerable. Authentic. He talked about his sin, and God’s grace. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium.
Later that day, I overhead a few 3rd year students making fun of the speaker. They were laughing at his story. Making fun of the way he talked.
“Pearls before swine.”
And I don’t say that or mean that in a sneering, demeaning way.
Those third year teenagers simply weren’t ready for the goods that God had on offer to them in that chapel.
In every mixed crowd, there will be a mixed response to God’s Kingdom work. For some, the good news pops, the call to confession cuts them to the heart, and the assurance of pardon is music in their ears. They are ready to participate in the work that God is doing in them and join the community that is striving towards holiness together.
But others will shrug their shoulders and check their facebook feed. Or, storm out in anger because the preacher had the nerve to gently question their way of life.
You can’t predict or control the results, but you can be discerning about where you give your time and energy.
Generally speaking, the Christian response to those who reject God’s Kingdom is patience and perseverance. This is how God pursued us. But there comes a time when it time to move on. To give the pearls and Holy food to someone who is more receptive.
Be as wise as serpents, but as innocent as doves.
So where do we get the power to be gentle like a dove, and the wisdom, to be wise like a serpent.
It starts by recognizing the way that God has been demonstrated his love for us. He sent the pearl of great price to live among us. He demonstrated great patience and perseverance in doing so. For humanity trampled the pearl, Jesus Christ, underfoot.
The world wasn’t ready for him, but God sent it anyway. And while we were incapable of receiving him, Jesus took all the splinters, the planks, and the sawdust out of us, and into himself, so that we could become the beloved, community of God.
Because God has acted this way towards us, we can be non-judgmental with each other.
And consider that way that Jesus has been shrewd to you. Somethings you weren’t ready to receive as a teenager, but now you are. I find it simply amazing that Jesus reveals himself to us at a pace that we can handle. He serves us the Holy Food in season. He doesn’t belittle me for being where I am, rather, he patiently works on me.
Think about that.
Who Jesus is and how he engages us…. Its him, and the Spirit who dwells within, that gives us the power we need to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.