Serpentine Wisdom

Today in the life of the church we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.  Now it could very well be argued that Paul has done more to shape our beliefs and doctrines about Christianity than any other one person…and while going into all of that might be interesting, I would like to take a moment to think about the gospel passage from Matthew that is assigned for this feast day.  The passage is Matthew 10:16-22.

Jesus is sending his apostles out into the world.  But he sends them with a warning:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  Matthew 10:16 

Snake FaceThe word that jumps out immediately for me is the word, “wise.”  Alternate translations of this Greek word φρόνιμος (transliterated: phronimos) are:  intelligent, prudent, sensible, wise, more shrewd.  And in Matthew’s gospel this word is used to describe various people in the parables that Jesus tells–the wise man who builds his house on rock, not sand (Matthew 7:24),  the blessed servant that the master finds hard at work when he returns in Matthew 24; and the five virgins who had enough oil to last when the bridegroom arrived in Matthew 25.  All of these parables and uses of this word in Matthew’s gospel indicate that this is one of the key characteristics of one who is the “wise man,” the “prudent virgin,” the, “good and faithful servant.”  Phronimos is then the state of being that is the example of how we are to act and behave in the world.   More to the point, in Matthew’s gospel, it is how Jesus expects to find us when he returns again.

From 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Fridays I meet with people who come to St. Alban’s in search of financial assistance.  Almost without fail every week this passage becomes relevant and real for me.  And although we have a number of ways to make sure that the money I have been entrusted with from this parish is used in appropriate ways to assist those in need, inevitably there is one, and sometimes more, who come to me where I have to employ this phronimos.   And almost always the offer of various kinds and forms of non-monetary assistance is rejected.  In those moments I come back to this “wise as serpents, innocent as doves,” passage.  But I have to remind myself that the offering of food and non-monetary assistance IS being innocent and gentle as a dove while being wise as a serpent.

I wonder where in your lives you feel you have used phronimos?  Where are we in our lives both innocent and wise?  Where are those moments where you are, “as wise as serpents,” or feel like the one who has “built a house on solid rock?”  With whom do you employ this serpentine wisdom that Jesus expounds or embrace this dove-like innocence?  May we have the strength and courage to be both, knowing that in doing so we are indeed doing the work of God.

In Christ’s Name,



About matthewhanisian

Associate Rector at St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.
This entry was posted in The Rev. Matthew R. Hanisian and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Serpentine Wisdom

  1. Susan says:

    I have come struggled with this so many times in my life. Thank you for your beautiful examples!

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