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Text For The Month / Monatsspruch

Texts for the months of August and September 2015
Monatssprüche für August und September 2015

 

August 2015

Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
Matthew 10.16b

This is the second of two proverbs Jesus used when sending his twelve disciples to their first preaching mission amongst their fellow countrymen. The “therefore” implies that the sentence is a follow up on something important said before. And this is indeed the case. Knowing that the reality of the task at hand involves spiritual and physical danger, Jesus starts his advice, for the disciples and thus for anyone who serves to proclaim the gospel today, with the well-known phrase: I am sending you out like sheep amongst wolves.

The text for the month offers unlimited scope to the interpreter in our time. But only a few points can be taken up here.

There is the animal symbolism: Innocent as doves we can relate to. This universal sign of love and peace; who would associate anything “false” with the symbol of the dove? … Shrewd as snakes is a different matter. Snakes do invoke the negative, a strong aversion in most people. This is successfully exploited in modern literature and performing art (Harry Potter), although snakes/serpents have been venerated in religions and cultures since ancient times. In the Bible we find the image of the snake used for good and evil alike. This could make concise explanatory thoughts on our text difficult. But the emphasis is clearly on “wise”, based on the snake’s exceptional alertness and ability to avoid danger through skilful and rapid escape, not on aggression. So, the natures of dove and snake become united to serve the same purpose. And there is evidence in early Christian symbolism, such as the 2nd century AD Greek publication “Physiologus”, that the behaviour of snakes became linked with Christian acts of faith …

And now to Christ’s counsel: His disciples are not to court martyrdom. They are not to provoke opponents to hate, that can turn into violence. Their action is to be based in love and truth. Shrewdness may not always be enough to avoid persecution, but to take heed is an obligation. What a pertinent topic for all actions in our modern, enlightened society in general! Jesus himself often withdrew to lonely places and prayer (Luke 5,16), and he avoided the snares placed for him by the religious elite in the guise of questions on God’s law. But he never compromised the truth. In the Interpreter’s Bible such exchanges with the opposition is called “compassionate shrewdness”, two words that hit the meaning of this month’s text perfectly.

There are many examples in the Bible: As I wrote about this, already shortly after Epiphany, the three wise men came to mind, who, after finding and adoring the Christ child, took care to avoid the dark interest of King Herod by returning home via a different route. The Apostle Paul used his wits when he called on his Roman citizenship to thwart his Jewish persecutors. And the disciples, who lowered Paul by night in a basket over the city wall in Damascus, fulfilled Christ’s injunction.

But it need not always be the extreme situation of life and death to apply shrewdness and flee. In the lines preceding our text, the disciples are advised to leave a home or city where one was not willing to listen to their message.

History can teach us much on the theme: In each generation we find eminent Christians with admirable responses to opposition. I consider it fitting to quote at least from one source, John Bunyan’s extensive treatise “Seasonable Counsel”, published in 1684. After having been jailed for thirteen years for his nonconformity in practising his faith, he wrote:

“Beloved, I thought it convenient, since many at this day are exposed to sufferings, to give my advice touching that to thee. Namely, that thou wouldest take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, and not suffer thyself to be entangled in those snares that God hath suffered to be laid in the world for some ...

I hope I can say that God has made me a Christian: and a Christian must be a harmless man, and to that end, must embrace nothing but harmless principles. A Christian’s business, as a Christian, is to believe in Jesus Christ, and in God the Father by him; and to seek the good of all about him, according as his place, state and capacity in this world will admit, not meddling with other men’s matters, but ever following that which is good …

Faith in Christ: what harm can that do?

A life regulated by a moral law, what hurt is in that? Rejoicing in spirit for the hope of the life to come by Christ, who will that harm? Nor is the instituted worship of our Lord of any evil tendency, Christianity teaches us also to do our enemies good, to “Bless them that hate us, and to pray for them that despitefully use us and persecute us,” and what evil can be in that?…

The reason is, for that Christianity is so harmless a thing, that, be it never so openly professed, it hurts no man. I believe that Christ will save me; what hurt is this to my neighbour? I love Christ because he will save me; what hurt is this to any? I will for this worship Christ as he has bid me; what hurt is this to anybody? I will also tell my neighbours what a loving one my Christ is, and that he is willing to be good to them as he has been good to me; and what hurt is this …”

 

  Drawing by Hans-Ulrich Herold  
  Drawing by Hans-Ulrich Herold in a modern edition of “Physiologus”, based on a Marble Relief in Athens, 4th century BC.  

 

 

September 2015

Wenn ihr nicht umkehrt und werdet wie die Kinder, so werdet ihr nicht ins Himmelreich kommen. Matthäus 18,3

Im Widerspruch zur Anweisung im August Text, würde Jesus hier den Zorn der Frommen seiner Zeit auf sich ziehen, weil Kinder bis zum 12. Lebensjahr als Heiden, Gottlose angesehen wurden, die noch nicht im Ritus und Gesetz der Thora unterrichtet waren. Jesus spricht aber als Seelsorger im vertrauten Kreis seiner Jünger, die sich um Rangordnung streiten. Ihm geht es da um kindliches Vertrauen.

In diesem Sinn ist hier auch das Wort des Dichters Erich Kästner richtig: “Dass wir werden wie die Kinder ist eine unerfüllbare Forderung. Aber wir können zu verhüten suchen, dass die Kinder werden wie wir”.

Bernd Hildebrandt

 

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