As you probably know, I work as a counsellor in a part-time capacity. One of the requirements for counsellors is that they must have a monthly meeting with a supervisor. This is someone with special training and a lot of counselling experience. These meetings are designed to make sure the counsellor is working safely in the best interests of clients and also to provide somewhere to seek advice or insight.
The supervisor I had until recently was very fond of using one particular way to make me think about my clients. Once I had shared something of their situation or the point at which counselling had arrived, she often asked me to think what animal that client was like. It can be a really difficult question to answer. There are obviously many different animals to choose from. Some aspects of an animal may seem right in relation to a client and some may not. Usually, when I had done my best to choose and had explained which aspect was relevant and which seemed not to be, I found that I had arrived at a better understanding of the client in question. Although the question was tricky to answer, in finding an answer I regularly gained insight also.
In the passage from Matthew, Jesus’ early conversation with his disciples has several examples of people being compared to animals. The first instance is when Jesus was teaching and healing. Crowds obviously gathered because they wanted what Jesus had to offer. We’re told that the crowds attracted Jesus’ compassion because they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. A sheep needs a shepherd to help it find pasture and water and to look after it if it suffers injury. The people had no leadership in their life and no one tending to their needs. They were vulnerable and, in the absence of a true leader, would follow anyone. Fortunately, those who chose to seek out Jesus found someone who had their best interests very much in mind. Finding Jesus and living with his leadership was best for those people then and for people now.
Jesus was preparing the Twelve for their first missionary journey. He gave them the power and authority to heal mental and physical illnesses. He warned them that not everyone would accept and welcome them. Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Although the disciples were given authority above that of other people, nevertheless they too were called sheep by Jesus, just like the people they were to minister to. They, and all those who have followed Jesus since then, did not cease to be of the same species as everyone else. The disciples, as sheep, still needed a shepherd or leader, and would still be vulnerable if they lost sight of him. Being a disciple did not set them apart as superior in any way. The only difference is that Jesus’ disciples know his voice and know where to go by following him.
The sheep were being sent out into a pack of wolves. Not just one wolf howling on the hillside in the distance. The disciples would find themselves in the midst of a pack of wolves, in imminent danger. Wolves are carnivores with sharp teeth. They hunt together and catch the weakest animals which they can separate from the others and chase until it can run no more. Jesus was warning that the enemies of the Good News would act in a similar way. They would hunt the disciples down through persecution, capture them, injure them and even cause their death. Unlike a weak sheep, the disciples were promised a hidden source of strength in the Holy Spirit. There was no need for them to give up and accept their fate. Unlike the sheep they were being compared to, the disciples would be able to respond to their attackers.
Jesus gave the disciples advice on how to deal with the wolves. They were to be wise as serpents and innocent (or harmless) as doves. It’s rather odd to find serpents portrayed in a positive light. It was the serpent which lured Eve away from God’s instructions in the Garden of Eden. The people of Israel died from snake bites in the wilderness on their way from Egypt. Obviously not everything about serpents is worth copying. Jesus highlights their wisdom. Wisdom indicates the ability to make sound judgements, to be able to discern what is going on. Discernment is more than just seeing. It’s looking behind what is obvious, perhaps what someone wants you to believe, and sensing where the truth really lies. Snakes are very wary; they defend themselves by being constantly alert to potential danger. When they feel threatened, they do their best to escape to safety. Jesus told the disciples to flee to another town when they faced persecution. In this respect, they would be acting like wise serpents.
And what about being innocent as doves? Someone who is innocent is not plotting to harm anyone in any way. They don’t try to provoke anyone into a reaction. The dove is a symbol for the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. Doves are thought of as a symbol of peace because they are calm, gentle birds. Unlike the serpent, they are not clever or cunning.
Jesus wanted his disciples to adopt aspects of both a snake and a dove. They needed to be alert and ready to act to protect themselves from danger. At the same time, they were to be gentle and were not to provoke anyone, thus creating a threat in response.
Jesus entrusted his message to those twelve people. It was their job to spread it throughout the world. As their leader and shepherd, it was up to Jesus to keep them as safe as possible by giving them good guidance. We know, of course, that many of the disciples suffered and died as a result of being members of Jesus’ flock. That suffering continues to this day. However, they kept safe enough to be able to spread the Good News to others who spread it in their turn. Our gathering here today is proof that Jesus’ advice worked.
As disciples of Christ we too are to emulate aspects of being sheep, snakes and doves as we carry on the work of those first disciples.
Of course, if you have an idle moment, you can always give some thought to what animal you are like. It might generate some interesting insights for you!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor