A Meditation on Matthew 10: 16

Kevin J Youngblood

I am sending you out sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be as prudent as serpents and as incorruptible as doves.

(Matt 10:16)

Sheep, wolves, serpents, and doves. Seldom in one brief verse of Scripture has such an odd menagerie of animals come together. Jesus’ saying employs two opposing pairs of animals to convey vividly and memorably the dangers and difficulties that await disciples who take his mission seriously. Christians live in a world of wolves and yet we are told to be sheep. We are told to go unarmed as we make our way in this world bearing witness to the work of Christ (Matt 10:9, note that they are to carry no defensive staff that shepherds used to ward off predators).

Naturally, this means that we will always be vulnerable, always be targets for the world’s fears and frustrations which so often boil over into violence. Who are these wolves Jesus warns us about? Interestingly, according to the context, these wolves are the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” to whom Jesus is sending his Jewish disciples (Matt 10:5). Two striking ironies immediately emerge. The first is that the “sheep” of 10:5 have somehow become the “wolves” of 10:16. The second is that the greatest threat facing Jesus’ disciples is not foreigners, not gentile enemies who are the usual suspects, the typical “wolves” in OT texts, but rather their fellow Jews – those within their own faith community.

Apparently, sheep can become wolves under the right circumstances which is why Jesus’ disciples must always remember that they are sheep and NOT wolves. Since Jesus is using these animals as metaphors for character traits it is only natural that they should be flexible. Morally speaking, we tend to be shape-shifters morphing into whatever animal we feel is most able to protect our pride and disguise our fears without much regard to the collateral damage caused by our wild outbursts.

But then comes the second opposing pair. In this case, disciples are called to be snakes and doves simultaneously. Actually, Jesus is calling us to be sheep, snakes, and doves all at the same time. In calling us to be sheep, Jesus is directing us to reject the predatorial practices of the current world order. Disciples of Jesus utterly reject the survival of the fittest philosophy that fuels the politics and economics of the present evil age.

In calling us to be serpents, however, Jesus is encouraging us to balance our lamb-like gentleness with a razor-sharp shrewdness that strategically navigates the dangers and difficulties into which he is sending us. Sheep are harmless but they are also stupid. By adding the serpent imagery Jesus is simply telling us not to be stupid. Adopting a posture of non-violence toward our violent world need not involve naivete, haplessly becoming easy pray for the wolves.

The kind of snake-like strategic prudence Jesus advocates, however, comes with its own dangers. We must beware in our careful calculations that our shrewdness not compromise our integrity or the integrity of our mission. Far too often the desire for efficiency and cleverness eclipses the true purpose and nature of Christ’s mission. Thus Jesus added the imagery of the dove. Doves, in both Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions, were symbols of purity. They are, therefore, the perfect image for the incorruptibility that should characterize followers of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus, therefore, are non-violent, skillfully strategic, and incorruptible agents of the Gospel.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? This is impossible! What human being can balance this triad of seemingly incompatible qualities? Abiding by Jesus’ proverb is like playing a game of spiritual twister. My character struggles mightily to contort in such a way as to put my right hand on the green circle of non-violence, my left foot on the red circle of strategic prudence, and my left hand on the yellow circle of incorruptibility.

Over the past few years I have dealt with some of the most intense and exhausting conflict of my life. Throughout this ordeal my thoughts have constantly returned to these words of Jesus as I have tried to maintain this balance of gentleness, strategic shrewdness, and incorruptibility. It really is impossible in my flesh but it is NOT impossible in the power of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is that perfect combination of wisdom, gentleness, and purity that characterized the way Jesus handled conflict. Jesus has given to me that same Spirit and so long as I yield to the Spirit I am able to practice and calibrate this incredibly delicate balance.


I so want to be a sheep among wolves. I want to be as prudent as a snake while at the same time remaining incorruptible. Thank you for the wisdom from above taught by the Spirit which makes this balance possible. As I enter into the fray this week, make me ever mindful of my need to yield to your Spirit and maintain this incredibly delicate, difficult balance. Lord Jesus, thank you for perfectly modeling the kind of character that is informed equally by sheep, snakes, and doves. Thank you for entering the fray of this world and dealing with conflict in such a refreshingly different way – a way that displayed great gentleness, great wisdom, and great integrity all at the same time. Forgive me for my failures in maintaining this balance. Too often I have been stupid in my gentleness, corrupted in my strategizing, and completely lacking in integrity. Holy Spirit, heavenly dove, make me simultaneously gentle, prudent, and pure.