Homily July 14th, 2023

Friday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time – Option 2 – Mt 10:16-23

Today’s Gospel reading, taken from Matthew’s Gospel, begins with a curious injunction from Jesus. He tells His Apostles: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.” One of the greatest commentaries on this text was written by Saint John Chrysostom (Homily 33 on Matthew). He points out how, by giving this command, Christ reveals His vast power in the midst of what seem to be overwhelming difficulties or hopeless situations. Along with Chrysostom, we can consider three points: first, the fact that it is Christ who sends us, second, the commandment to be shrewd as serpents, and third, the directive to be simple as doves. 

Regarding the first, that it is Christ who sends, we should note that the Greek is emphatic: there is a reiteration of the subject, “I” “I am sending.” Chrysostom says that it is this, that the mandate comes from Christ Himself, that gives the apostles courage in their mission. He continues by saying: “Do you see authority? Do you see prerogative? Do you see [the] invincible might? What He means is this: Be not troubled that sending you among wolves, that I command you to be like sheep and like doves. For I might indeed have done the contrary, [and not made you undergo] anything terrible. . . .  I might have rendered you more formidable than lions; but it is [fitting] that [it should be this way]. This makes you . . . more glorious; this proclaims . . . my power.” Thus far Chrysostom. We’re reminded that Christ knows, far better than we do, the difficulties we face in the world. He knew all of that back then when He uttered those words, and yet nonetheless He commanded that we go forward in this way. Do we trust in His wisdom and His power?

To survive in the midst of wolves requires a certain sort of wisdom, our second point. Chrysostom calls this the “wisdom of the serpent,” and he explains that it means the following: “Even if the serpent gives up everything, and even if its very body must be cut off, it doesn’t defend it very earnestly, as long as it can save its head; you must do the same, says He: give up everything but the faith; even if you must yield goods, body, life itself. This is because faith is the head and the root; and if that be preserved, though you lose everything, you will recover everything with that much more splendor.” We could say that the wisdom of the serpent means to focus on what is really important, to live out Ignatius’s principle and foundation. The only thing that matters is staying faithful and getting to heaven; all else must be a means. 

The third point, the simplicity of doves, shows us how we must act towards those who cause us harm. The Greek word for simple here literally means unmixed,[1] and refers to the motives we must have: they must be simple, without an admixture of vengeance, anger, or jealousy. With this mind, Chrysostom comments: “And He bids them have not only gentleness of 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 [although they are] in the midst of wolves, and receive a thousand bites, far from being consumed, [the sheep] bring about a change in them, something far greater and more marvelous than killing them; [they] alter their spirits, and reform their minds.”

This leads to practical consequences, as Chrysostom continues: “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 you, and retires, since you won’t allow His might to be shown. Because, as He accounts the whole triumph His own, if you being ill-treated, show forth gentleness; since if you follow it up and give blows, you obscure His victory. On this account then He neither commanded to be merely a simple and single-hearted sort of person, nor merely wise; but has mixed up both these, so that they may become virtue; taking in the wisdom of the serpent that we may not be wounded in our vitals; and the harmlessness of the dove, that we may not retaliate on our wrongdoers, nor avenge ourselves on those lay snares.”

Through the intercession of Mary, Queen of Peace, let us ask for the grace to follow Christ with confidence, with the wisdom of serpents and the harmlessness of doves.


[1] ἀκέραιος (akeraios): From a (as a negative particle) and a presumed derivative of kerannumi; unmixed, i.e. (figuratively) innocent — harmless, simple.

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