As shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves

Last week, I looked at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and how it encouraged us to view opposition from and rejection by the wider world honourable in God’s eyes. This week, I thought I’d take a look at what else Jesus has to say about responding to hostility.

Expect opposition to happen

Multiple times throughout Matthew’s Gospel—which was written to a maligned and rejected minority group of Jesus-followers—we see Jesus stressing the inevitability of persecution[1] and hatred. Nowhere do we find this more strongly than in chapter 10:

Matthew 10:16-23 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

Poignantly for Matthew’s audience remembering these words a generation later, Jesus predicts rejection by family and synagogue communities, as well as governing authorities. Because of this warning, Matthew’s minority group shouldn’t be surprised when it happened; more than that, it should reinforce the trustworthiness of Jesus’ message: Look, it’s happening, just like he told us!

In fact, those who might deny the inevitability of persecution find themselves in the position of Peter, when he rebuked Jesus for predicting his own persecution and death. Jesus’ response to Peter in that instance was not only to ascribe that attitude to the Enemy of God’s people, but to see in it Peter’s allegiance to the “human concerns” of the wider society (16:22-23). That is, it comes from a desire to retain honour in the eyes of the world.

For Matthew’s readers, perhaps the most significant effect of Jesus’ warning is the reminder that when opposition arises, God is still very much in control. This hasn’t caught him by surprise. So they should also trust in him for the outcome, rather than thinking it depends on them.

For a start, this means relying on God to defend their honour when they find themselves rhetorically out of their depth before the educated élite; just as they should expect persecution, so they should also expect divine enabling (10:19-20). It also means not taking matters into their own hands physically, following Jesus example; although he had the power to order a military solution, he told his disciple, “put your sword back in its place,” and to trust in God’s counter-cultural plan of non-violence and suffering (26:52-54). Doing it God’s way is not easy; Jesus’ own soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” and he prayed that the cup of suffering might be taken from him, yet he still submitted to the Father’s will (26:38-39).

Strategic withdrawal

There’s a further lesson to be drawn both from being forewarned about persecution, and from knowing that God is in control of it: they can be “shrewd as snakes” (10:16), not seeking out opposition for the sake of it. And even beating a strategic withdrawal if given the opportunity (10:23). We see examples of this numerous times throughout Jesus’ life, each time using the same word for “withdraw” (anachōreō) to describe the avoidance of unnecessary persecution:

  • The magi withdrew by another route to avoid Herod (2:12).
  • Joseph withdrew to Egypt (2:14) and then Galilee (2:22) after being warned of danger.
  • When Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been imprisoned, he withdrew to Galilee (4:12).
  • The Pharisees were plotting to kill him (12:14), and Matthew notes that Jesus became “aware of this” and withdrew (12:15); this is significant, since Jesus’ awareness is an editorial addition by Matthew (cf. Mark 3:6-7).
  • When Jesus heard about John the Baptist’s beheading, he withdrew to a solitary place (14:13); again the linking of the two is an editorial addition (cf. Mark 6:29-32).
  • Immediately after challenging the food laws in the hearing of the Pharisees, Jesus withdrew (15:21).

This may well be drawing on one or more instances of strategic withdrawal in Israel’s history, associated with the same Greek word: Moses’ withdrawal from Pharaoh to Midian (Exod 2:15); and an incident during the Maccabean Revolution in which Judas Maccabeus and ten of his followers withdrew to the wilderness to hide, before coming back and defeating the army of Antiochus (2 Macc 5:27). In both cases, strategic withdrawal led to God’s people being rescued and their enemies defeated. Alternatively, or additionally, it could be drawing on the Jewish idea of Wisdom withdrawing back to God’s side after encountering opposition and rejection on earth (e.g. Prov 1:24-25; Baruch 3:12; Enoch 42:2).[2] In the stories of Jesus, it would thus function as an act of rejection on those who themselves have rejected God.[3]

In any case, Jesus’ own withdrawals from hostility exemplify his instruction to flee persecution (10:23).[4] It’s not cowardice, but shrewdness (or wisdom), relying on God to act and vindicate according to his plan.

Jesus offers two other interesting examples of shrewdness in avoiding unnecessary opposition. While their complexity can make drawing lessons from the details difficult, their wider intent is clear enough.

Paying the Temple tax

The first is the story of the coin in the fish’s mouth, in which Jesus responds to an earlier question about whether he pays the two-drachma tax:

Matthew 17:25-27 “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

While there’s debate about whether the tax in Jesus’ day was for the Temple or Rome, for Matthew’s post-70AD audience the temple tax had been appropriated by the Empire anyway.[5] And in broad terms, the story speaks to a situation in which the demands of the majority are in conflict with the worldview of the minority: payment of tax to the Temple or Empire acknowledges their sovereignty, but Jesus’ followers view God as the true sovereign, meaning they as his “sons” should be exempt.[6] Here, Jesus appears to be advocating accommodation to the conventions of the majority to avoid unnecessary conflict; but he does it in a way that reframes the payment as an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty, since he’s the one who provides payment for the tax.[7]

“OK,” says Matthew’s minority group. “We pay the tax. But we do so out of what God provides for us as an acknowledgement that everything belongs to him, not any human authorities.”

Paying tax to Caesar

Similarly, when Jesus is challenged by the Herodians about whether to pay tax to Caesar (22:15-22), Jesus issues a counter-challenge to show him the coin with which the tax is paid, and which bore Caesar’s image. When one is produced, it exposes their hypocrisy: despite the fact that they objected to Caesar’s image being in Jerusalem, they themselves carried such a coin.[8] (Remember that earlier, Jesus himself didn’t have one, but sent Peter to shake down a passing fish to pay theirs.[9]) Jesus then utters his famous pronouncement, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” In contrast to a previous revolutionary who refused (Judas the Galilean, in 6AD),[10] Jesus suggested this wise avoidance of conflict—again, with the reframing that everything ultimately belongs to God anyway.

“Got it,” says Matthew’s minority group. “We give Caesar back the coins that bear his image; but we give ourselves back to God, with whose image we are stamped.”[11]

Except it may be even cleverer than that. N.T. Wright makes the intriguing suggestion that Jesus is alluding to the last words of Mattathias during the Maccabean revolution. To the end, he refused to compromise, calling his followers to rebel against foreign rulers and obey God. Mattathias said, “Pay back (antapodote) the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law” (1 Macc. 2:68). So when Jesus says, “Give back (apodote) to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God,” he may be engaged in a kind of Gentile dog-whistling. That way he has plausible deniability before Pilate, but keeps the crowds on side (who are duly amazed, in verse 22).[12]

“Understood,” says Matthew’s minority group. “We can avoid unnecessary conflict and participate in things like taxation, but we reframe it, so that among ourselves we understand what we’re doing in decidedly different terms.”

Being wise today

In the Western church, we’ve grown accustomed to relatively benign conditions for Jesus’ followers, to the point that we’ve started to be surprised on the occasions we’re met with opposition, exclusion, and hatred. Jesus’ words to his disciples—via Matthew’s minority group audience—should remind us that this was always going to be the case; Jesus foresaw it, which is evidence that God still has everything under control. We don’t need to worry that the plan has gone off track! What’s more, the plan’s success isn’t up to us. God is the one whose power works through us; he’s the one who will bring in his kingdom on earth.

Matthew’s Gospel should also remind us to be wise in how we go about our interactions with the dominant culture. If we start to think persecution is a sign things have gone wrong, we can be tempted to try to manipulate our way back into favour with the majority. At that point we may find ourselves, along with Peter, doing the work of Satan in selling out to “human concerns.”

On the other hand, we’re not called to walk around with unnecessary targets on our backs seeking out conflict. Wisdom sometimes calls for a strategic withdrawal, not having to win every battle with the dominant culture—or even fight every fight. This is particularly the case when the fight is something of symbolic significance (as was the case with paying tax to secular authorities in the first century) but may serve to distract outsiders from the core message of the gospel. Or there may be a moral issue on which we’ve taken our stand, over which hostility grows to the point that we prudently withdraw from public debate, leaving a rebellious world to the consequences of its choices.

Whichever we choose, wisdom rather than fear should drive our approach.

Adapted from Tim MacBride, To Aliens and Exiles: Preaching the New Testament as Minority-Group Rhetoric in a Post-Christendom World(Cascade, 2020), 171-75. Used with publisher’s permission.

Tim lectures in Preaching and New Testament at Morling College: click here to find out about courses and study options.

[1] As I noted last week, Christians in the West can’t presently claim “persecution” in its narrower sense. Yet there are plenty of times we’re insulted, mocked, misrepresented, and ostracised because of our faith, which is what I have in view here in terms of applicability.

[2] See all three possibilities outlined in Good, “The Verb Ἀναχωρεω in Matthew’s Gospel,” 6-10.

[3] Osborne and Arnold, Matthew, 597.

[4] Gundry, Matthew, 59; contra Stanton, A Gospel for a New People, 201.

[5] Keener, Matthew, 444. Cf. Dio Cassius, R.H. 65.7.2.

[6] Witherington, Matthew, 333.

[7] The fish is symbolic in Matthew’s Gospel for God’s provision: 7.10; 14:13-21; 15:36. See Carter, “Paying the Tax,” 27-29.

[8] Keener, Matthew, 524-26.

[9] Carter, “Toll and Trouble,” 427.

[10] Josephus, Wars, 2.118.

[11] Gundry, Matthew, 443.

[12] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 2, 504-06. I’m almost persuaded.

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