Be wise as serpents, and yet as harmless as doves (Fr Andrew)


 Jesus said “Be wise as serpents, and yet as harmless as doves.”

+ In then name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I was often met by a young patient at work, when he was having a day on a high, with the cheery greeting, “Bless me father, for I am about to sin!” To which my usual reply was, “It doesn’t normally work that way!”

But of course this remark lays bare the expectation we all have most of the time that we can continue our careless life-style or messy relationships with the expectation that people will forgive us constantly. My experience as Chaplain to a Mental Health Trust for over 20 years means that I approach today’s scripture readings with apprehension! All three passages today talk about the need for forgiveness and compassion for others, even for those who have wronged us dreadfully. My work as Chaplain was often to support people who were enduring the long-term effects of harm and abuse. Stripped of any belief or skill in being able to, or even feel permitted to defend or take care of themselves, they often ended up in relationships and situations that simply prolonged that abuse.

I worked with one young woman who had asked for some spiritual help in thinking about her relationship with an abusive father. The trauma of the relationship had meant that she was now suffering from a life-threatening eating disorder and continuous self-harm. I looked out a small Christian pamphlet on eating disorders, and read it. The final chapter was headed with the title “You Must Forgive.” I threw it in the waste paper basket. The harm done to her had not ended, and my very realistic fear was that if she even began to speak of forgiveness to him she would lay bare her vulnerability, and give him the opportunity to absolve himself. Far too often the abusive never accept responsibility for the harm they do.

The mantra forged from those encounters for me was “Forgiveness is like an onion!” Forgiveness is a many- layered thing, always complex, and even if easily given at first, can be whittled away at later by deep-rooted pain or smouldering resentment. Sometimes forgiveness has to be worked at, and reworked over years. Sometimes it can be given too soon and to easily. But as people of faith in a forgiving God we are expected to work at it. Jesus reminds us in his pattern of prayer that we are called to forgive those who sin against us “from the heart”, because we ourselves have been forgiven by our Father in heaven.

As Genesis comes to a close we learn that after the death of the patriarch Jacob, who has managed somehow to keep the peace between his 12 warring sons, the 11 jealous brothers, who had once sold their boastful brother Joseph into slavery, are apprehensive that with his newfound wealth and power he will now have his revenge. Whether it is true, or not, they tell him that Jacob’s dying wish was that he would forgive them. Crucially they preface their request for forgiveness with the reminder that they are all servants of the God of their fathers. It is because of that God-given identity that they can ask for mercy. Their common human thriving and spiritual well-being will only arise from their ability to live at peace with one another. Surprisingly Joseph responds generously, because he realises that, despite all he once suffered at their hands, God has had a plan from the beginning, using their evil deeds for his own kind purpose. As Joseph says, “God intended it for good, in order save a numerous people.”

 As the deacon sings at the Easter Vigil to praise the risen Christ.

“O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which brought the world so great a redeemer.” God works endlessly to craft goodness from the wreckage of our lives and histories. So our faith in a reconciling God informs our decision to have a matching mercy. This call to act generously upon our dignity and calling as the servants and children of God is something that Paul reminds us of again in this morning’s epistle. It is this assurance that we are the children of God that can open out to us new ways of relating to others, even our adversaries. As his servants, Paul tells us, God calls us to work cooperatively, living peaceably, tolerant and accepting of difference. We must live out that pattern which we see in the pivotal act of reconciliation and mercy, which God has brought about in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is to be the wellspring for our own living and forgiving. “ For to this end Christ died and lived again.”

Mercy is at the heart of the death and resurrection of Jesus, proclaimed in that prayer of forgiveness as the nails are hammered home on Calvary. “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.” Like Joseph before him Jesus sees and accepts that deeper purpose of his Father to bring about good, ‘rescue many lives’, in the face of the darkest evil. Even if others are blind and ignorant, deaf to the call to be merciful, we are to show mercy.

Jesus uses a parable to answer Peter’s question about how much he should forgive. Only Matthew gives us this story, and it is strong stuff! It speaks of God’s unfailing mercy towards us. Having tasted that compassion we are called on to be unfailing in our own merciful living, to work at it.

A King decides to settle his accounts, but when a high serving official reveals that he cannot pay the huge debt he has accrued, the King forgives him the whole debt. But this has no effect on the behaviour of the official who immediately sets upon a poor man who owes him a reasonably small amount, dismissing his plea for time to repay. He has him thrown into prison. This scandalises his fellow servants who run to tell the King, who now shows no mercy.

As I said, this business of forgiveness is complex. Does it mean we can never take care of ourselves? I worked at this conundrum for years in my Chaplaincy- decisively with a priest who was struggling with depression, and suicidal thoughts. He would lose his temper in meetings when others confronted him, often maliciously. but then beat himself up with guilt, and would then allow his detractors to disrespect him once again. It had become a vicious circle. Could he be allowed as a Christian, and as a Priest, to take care of himself“. We set ourselves to look at the Gospels, where it becomes clear that being a merciful people does not always mean enduring suffering in silence. Jesus constantly takes care of himself- very sensibly in Nazareth walking through a threatening crowd who want to chuck him over a cliff! But as children of God our response to harm will be radically different. We might even call it “confrontative compassion”. Remember how Jesus asks us to walk the extra mile, and turn the other cheek if someone strikes us. We often miss out on the full meaning of this, -at first sight a passive reaction. As Walter Wink, a NT scholar points out Walter Wink, (‘Jesus and non-violence- a third way’  Fortress Press) offering the other cheek for abuse is revolutionary and challenging. In contemporary culture striking someone would be done with the right hand, striking you on the left side of your face. Offering the other side of your face to them gave them a real problem. A blow to the right cheek administered by the left hand, the ‘unclean’ hand would be a “back-hander”, and deeply offensive, “the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters back-handed slaves; husbands their wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.”  Of course the normal reply would have to be submission. Wink, a NT points out that offering the other cheek ‘robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate, … and says in effect  “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.” For me this echoes the silent dignity of Jesus before his accusers. Confident of his identiy ad the Son of a merciful Father.

In God’s good time there comes a moment for Jesus, and for us, when taking the risk of loving, radical mercy arrives. Jesus makes this clear in John’s Gospel when he faced with inevitable arrest and execution he tells his persecutors that it isn’t they who take his life from him. He is making a sacrificial offering of his life, from an open heart. The moment will come when God’s plan to make good out of the worst that evil and death can throw at Him and us will demand a mercy that recognises that the evil is most often done not with a high hand, but out of ignorance and fear. And even if it is not we can share in the redeeming work of God if we answer it, as he does with forgiveness. Jesus sees and accepts that the deeper purpose of his Father is to bring about good, ‘rescue many lives’, in the face of the darkest evil, even if others are blind and ignorant; deaf to the call to be merciful. We follow him through bewildering times and hard places to be merciful as he is merciful, trusting that our Father will work his good out of even the worst of situations. “Forgiveness is like an onion!” We are called to work at it.

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