Jesus told his disciples when he sent them out to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. That seems to me to a perfect metaphor for the Cardinal Virtue, Prudence. Prudence seems one of the more difficult virtues to embody. Prudence involves insight into possibilities, discernment, choice, calculated risk. It’s easy enough to be either serpent or dove, but being both is to be pulled in two directions.
Something happened to a fraternity brother many years ago that I reflect on often; it has so many facets. He, I’ll call him Ken, was on the college golf team and headed towards golf as a career. Out of town one day he went to a local course to play a solo round. Three other guys invited him to make a foursome. He accepted. At some point it was suggested that they play as two teams, for money. Ken agreed to that too. Perhaps in exchanging information on handicaps, they thought they were evenly matched. Ken played a good game and the scores were close most of the time. In the last few holes Ken thought his partner began missing easy shots, and Ken’s team lost. Afterwards in the club house, they settled up, Ken and his partner paying the other two guys.
Ken knew in the depths of his being that he had been had; that as soon as he was on his way, the money that his partner had paid would be returned and the money that he had paid would be split among the three.
In this little vignette, was Ken’s fate sealed as soon as the three invited him to join them? I’m not a golfer; I’ve been a golf course all of two times. But I imagine that there is some golf etiquette that inclines one to not turn down an invitation to help make a foursome. And when the matter of playing for money came up, on what basis would a college-age man say no to three others without implying that they were of dishonorable intent. And when he sensed the game was being thrown by his partner, what socially gracious was there to voice such suspicion? Probably none. It could even have suddenly become physically threatening.
In such a situation there is hardly any substitute for life experience, with which can come a measure of wariness and the development of gracious ways to avoid being drawn into dangerous situations by unknown people. At the first point of contact, Ken would have been well served by a thought-out way of declining, whatever that might have been. And when the idea of playing for money was floated, he could have stood on a principle of never gambling on anything. One is reminded of the saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
When Jesus gave his disciples that advice he told them that he was sending them out like sheep among wolves. Ken thought he was among new friends, but he was among wolves, and he was fleeced. How could he have been serpent and dove in that situation? How are we to be open to making friends of total strangers, yet not be sucker punched? Maybe, just maybe, we will always be sucker punched sometimes, and it just comes with the territory of being open to others. In Ken’s situation, prudence probably dictated how he dealt with the situation, going along with the charade, paying up, moving on, and sharing his story as a cautionary tale for others, as I am sharing it with you now.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 03-December-2013.