Tthey move with great ease by means of the lateral undulations of their bodies. They can do this because their skeletons are made up of short, broad and floating vertebrae.
According to Matthew, the Lord Jesus entrusted the task of evangelisation to his disciples with the following words: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves..” (Matthew 10:16). Other versions of the Bible prefer the term “shrewd” instead of “wise”. One Spanish version, such as The Translation into Contemporary Language, speaks of being “smart and attentive”. In what sense can serpents be regarded as shrewd, wise, smart or are they always attentive and on the alert? Is the Lord Jesus’ analogy appropriate?
Serpents or snakes are unique animals. For this reason the Master chose them to illustrate his point. They have no limbs, but they move with great ease by means of the lateral undulations of their bodies. They can do this because their skeletons are made up of short, broad and floating vertebrae. Structurally, they have been designed to slither along the ground at great speed. This is what makes them so good at quickly escaping from any danger, or seizing their prey. They have long, thin bodies, but they are capable of consuming prey much thicker than themselves as the joints that make up their skulls are weak, and the bones connected by their ligaments are very elastic. This enables them to considerably increase the size of their mouths, as they can separate their cranial bones when they swallow large prey.
Some species possess glands which secrete powerful toxins capable of killing a human being. But the primary use of this poison is to capture prey for the purpose of consuming it, not to kill people. Among the 3,400 species of serpents which exist throughout the world, only about 600 of them are dangerous for humankind (about 17%), so most snakes pose no threat at all. On the contrary, they are actually beneficial as they prey on animals that seriously threaten human crops. Despite this, in many cultures snakes have come to be associated with death, the power of evil or demonic forces. That is why they have been hunted down and eliminated. Scripture itself represents the serpent as the personification of the Tempter. However, in the text quoted from Matthew, the Lord Jesus highlights a positive feature of these reptiles: their cunning or shrewdness.
Serpents are reptiles which do not have eyelids and, therefore, their eyes are always wide open. They cannot close them. This gives them the appearance of being constantly on the alert and vigilant. That said, their vision is not their most highly developed sense. Nor is their hearing, as they have no eardrums or external auditory features. However, they are capable of detecting vibrations in the ground produced by the prey they are hunting. Some of them possess tiny thermos-sensitive fossae in their heads which enable them to detect the heat emitted by animals and thus pursue them effectively. Their sense of smell is their best sense, but they don’t smell via their nose, but rather via their tongue, which is usually forked, and which protrudes continually from their mouth and vibrates so as to capture the odorous molecules or hormones in the atmosphere. Then to their they pull it back to their palate, which possesses an organ known as Jacobson which identifies these hormones and molecules and indicates whether or not they belong to a potential prey.
Taken together, all these characteristic features of snakes make Jesus’ analogy extraordinarily apt. The shrewdness and surreptitiousness of these animals are obvious to most people. Despite having been hunted down by human beings, they have multiplied and spread throughout the world like no other reptile. They are present in almost every ecosystem, whether terrestrial, arboreal, fresh water or salt water.
So , the sentence “be wise (or shrewd) as serpents and innocent as doves” was spoken by the Master to his disciples in the context of preparing them for their future ministries. It was a warning of the opposition and even persecution they would face as they carried out the task of evangelisation entrusted to them. And of course, when we bear in mind the personal biography of each of the apostles, we can see that Jesus’ words were very appropriate. Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, Matthew was martyred by a sword in Ethiopia; John was boiled in oil in Rome, but the Lord rescued him, and he died peacefully many years later in present-day Turkey; James was thrown off a cliff and then beaten to death by his fellow-countrymen; Bartholomew had his throat cut in Armenia; Andrew was crucified on an X shaped cross in Greece; Thomas was pierced through with a spear in India; Mathias, who replaced Judas Iscariot, was stoned and then beheaded; and finally, the apostle Paul was also beheaded by Nero in 67 AD. Despite the shrewdness of the apostles, these great men of God were martyred for their love and faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What an extraordinary example they set for all Christians!
The messengers of the Son of God must always be on the alert regarding the intentions of other people as they proclaim the Gospel in the world. A Christian must never seek martyrdom. There is no inherent merit in that. As Jesus said, “But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.” (Matthew 10; 17). In this sense, we must be shrewd: as cautious as serpents and as innocent and noble as doves, as doves were, for ancient peoples, an example of candour, vulnerability and purity.