5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. 9 Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.
16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, 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. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 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. (Matthew 10:5-23)
Today’s passage is a “mission briefing” from Jesus for the twelve disciples before they are sent out into the mission field. We might be tempted to think that this passage pertains only to the twelve disciples of Jesus situated for their immediate context. Or we might consider it to be a good field guide for the missionaries who dedicate their lives to unreached nations. But no — we do well to remember that when the call to become a Christian comes with Jesus’s call to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) in the Great Commission. Each of us belongs to the missional church which participates in God’s mission to save the world.
Jesus’s briefing, like any good mission briefing, consists of two major sections. The first section is a catalogue of “action items,” or what we are to attempt, followed by the “expected scenarios,” or what we are to expect. And here Jesus goes into the specifics. He tells us where to go (the lost sheep), what to say (“The kingdom of heaven is at hand”), what to do (bring healing, give life, impart cleansing, cast out evil), how to be give (without expecting pay), what to bring (less than the minimum), whom to approach (the worthy), how to approach (with authority and dignity). Then in the second half of the briefing, Jesus tells us what to expect: suffering and persecution in an upside-down world. In the face of these unfavourable scenarios, we are to “bear witness,” to “not be anxious,” “to endure,” and sometimes “to flee.”
Right in the middle of Jesus’s mission briefing is verse 16, composed of a striking series of animal similes. Similes are a most evocative communicative device, not only does it capture the attention of the audience, it also solidifies abstract ideas into memory. First, we are being sent like “sheep among wolves.” The picture is one of hopelessness — defenceless without the shepherd, our fate may seem all but decided when we engage the world that stalks like wolves and waits to devour us. In the face of such a dire situation, Jesus provides us with two more animal similes. The first animal simile is to be “wise as serpents.” A snake is one of nature’s most crafty predators. It camouflages itself with the environment, keeps a low profile, escapes swiftly in danger and strikes as quickly with precision to ensure. These characters are indispensable for survival and hunting purposes. But these dispositions must be principled upon Jesus’s third simile to be “innocent as doves.” In the work of the gospel and the kingdom, we must engage the world humbly and gently, without hidden motives but only out of love.
Verse 16 can be read as the executive summary of the mission briefing. It orients us as we enter the mission field of our households, workplaces, schools, neighbourhoods, city, and society. In our world of coronavirus, political and economic instabilities, failing traditions and institutions, we might feel like sheep among wolves. It is our mission, then, to navigate the times like snakes, while at the same time, to love on the world like doves. Yet we also keep in mind the bottom line of the mission briefing: the assurance that the Son of Man will come.