As sheep among wolves

Anthony Zimmerman
For Catholicmind
September 20, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you (Matt 10:16-20).

Before this Matthew had observed that Jesus viewed the ordinary people of Israel as sheep in need of a shepherd: "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (9:36). In the above passage Jesus classifies the apostles also as sheep. Who, then, are the wolves? They are obviously the enemies of the Gospel, the Pharisees who are the rabbis in the Synagogues, the Sadducees of the existing priestly class, the learned scribes and the rulers who are members of the Sanhedrin. These pretended to be gentle sheep but in reality make themselves into bitter enemies of Christ. Matthew is evidently referring also to the times after Christ's Ascension when persecutions will occur in the various countries of the Roman Empire.

Because the apostles are disciples of Christ, they will certainly rouse the attention of the rabbis at the synagogues who will oppose them, as they oppose Jesus. Christ was telling them to expect the same kind of rejection and persecution that the great prophets of former times had received. "Their proclamation that the kingdom is open to all who seek it would have been seen by Pharisees and scribes as breaking down the discipline of the Law" (International Bible Commentary 1289). The passage of the Old Testament into the New would displace synagogues with Catholic parishes, would dismantle the Levitical priesthood and replace it with the ordained Bishops and priests. The ones in possession were not about to give up their position without a battle.

But the preaching of the apostles was more than just a challenge to those in possession of comfortable positions of political and social power. The apostles were God's witnesses as a light to the nations. They are in communion with God the Father who sent His Son into the world to redeem it. They wrestle against the powers of darkness.

"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God" (John 3:17-21).

Jesus speaks clearly here of animosity against goodness and truth, and taking sides with wickedness. Why do they hate the light? "Because their deeds were evil." Those who deliberately do evil come to relish it as a goal in life, a purpose for which to live. Evil deeds are the slippery road to evil convictions, and from there the passage to eternal fixation in hatred for God is a sad reality. This was true when John wrote the words, it is true also today as seen in the divided camps of mankind, the culture of life and the culture of death.

Shall we be surprised that there are people who actually cultivate evil and love it? But even angels willed to become devils. God gave us a free will, and He gives us wide latitude to choose. Yes, we can do evil if we so choose. But let us continually choose the good despite hardships, despite enemies, for heaven is sweet for those who have walked the way that is narrow and steep.

What Christ does not want is that His apostles, when sent out to cope with wolves, would themselves become wolves in a free-for-all battle of good wolves against bad wolves. His message would be entirely misapplied should they do so. They are to remain sheep, gentle, vulnerable, eschewing the rough, uncouth, and violent manner of wolves. They must promote the civilization of love. They must remain simple as doves, unmixed in their intention to preach the Gospel message of Jesus. It is a new kind of warfare, comments Chrysostom (Sermon 33), in which Christ intends to win. The apostles are to go into the midst of wolves, without money, without staffs, with not even a change of clothes. Christ can show His power by changing wolves into sheep, which is a far greater victory than killing the wolves would be:

"Even thus setting out, exhibit the gentleness of "sheep," and this, though ye are to go unto "wolves;" and not simply unto wolves, but "into the midst of wolves." And He bids them have not only gentleness as sheep, but also the harmlessness of the dove. "For thus shall I best show forth my might, when sheep get the better of wolves, and being in the midst of wolves, and receiving a thousand bites, so far from being consumed, do even work a change on them a thing far greater and more marvelous than killing them, to alter their spirit, and to reform their mind; and this, being only twelve, while the whole world is filled with the wolves."

Let us then be ashamed, who do the contrary, who set like wolves upon our enemies. For so long as we are sheep, we conquer: though ten thousand wolves prowl around, we overcome and prevail. But if we become wolves, we are worsted, for the help of our Shepherd departs from us: for He feeds not wolves, but sheep: and He forsakes thee, and retires, for neither dost thou allow His might to be shown. Because, as He accounts the whole triumph His own, if thou being ill used, show forth gentleness; so if thou follow it up and give blows, thou obscurest His victory.

Jesus then heartens the disciples by promising that they will not be alone when put to trial. The Spirit - His Spirit - will prompt them to say what they ought to say: "When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Matt 10:19-20). The truth of the promise is seen in the words that Peter spoke when he and the other apostles were being questioned by the Sanhedrin:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:8-12).

Many a martyr in the first three centuries of the Church stood before kings and judges and spoke with noble words such as these when they gave the testimony with their lives to the truth of the Gospel. The sufferings and persecution that the apostles would receive, especially after the Resurrection and Ascension, would be an integral part of their proclamation, being a witnessing that confirms their preaching. "Those who find their security in the laws, customs, and rituals will be threatened by the new ways of the kingdom" (IBC 1289). And as of today, those who find their security in the ways of the secularist world are threatened by those who proclaim faith in the world that is to come after death.

Note, however, that Jesus did not tell the apostles only to be simple as doves, translucent in their intentions, vulnerable to hawks. He also admonished them to be clever as serpents, which Genesis labels as the most clever of all the animals that God had made: "Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made" (Gen 3:1). God gave Christians brains wherewith to help themselves in trying times, and to decide which is the course that God lays out for them.

Jesus continues by predicting that the Gospel will even divide up families, those for and those against:

Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved (Matt 10:21-22).

This happens when people choose not to follow the truth of the Gospel but to persist in their own mistaken manner of life. Matthew is writing after the Resurrection, but the instructions to the apostles given here apparently imply that household divisions may have occurred even before, when the apostles went to the villages and towns to prepare them for the coming of Jesus. Households were usually extended families. Christ instructed the disciples to preach without fear even though these divisions would occur. "Love for parents, relatives, or neighbor is not to take precedence over love for God and God's purpose" (International Bible Commentary 1289). Every member of the family has a right and a duty to respond to the proclamation of the Gospel with faith, also when this brings about family discord. Those who persevere despite persecution, even should it mean death, are given the promise of eternal salvation.

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes" (Matt 10:23).

The disciples are not to waste time arguing if the people of this or that town do not accept the Gospel news. When that occurs, they are to leave the town and go to peoples more docile to the message. Neither should the disciples purposely expose themselves to dangers in a foolhardy manner. What the term means "before the Son of man comes" appears to be that there are so many towns and villages to go to that they will not all be covered during the three years of the remaining life of Christ on earth.

Turning now to his people in Antioch, Chrysostom tells them that they, too, can be apostles, and can even work miracles in their own lives and those of their fellow believers:

These then let us perform with much diligence. For if thou change from inhumanity to almsgiving, thou hast stretched forth the hand that was withered. If thou withdraw from theatres and go to the church, thou hast cured the lame foot. If thou draw back thine eyes from an harlot, and from beauty not thine own, thou hast opened them when they were blind. If instead of satanical songs, thou hast learnt spiritual psalms, being dumb, thou hast spoken.

These are the greatest miracles, these the wonderful signs. If we go on working these signs, we shall both ourselves be a great and admirable sort of persons through these, and shall win over all the wicked unto virtue, and shall enjoy the life to come; unto which may we all attain, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might forever and ever. Amen. (End of Sermon 32).