The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” But wisdom is proved right by her actions. (Matthew 11.19)
An Unanticipated Question
During my years at a global marketing agency, it often fell my lot to interview job applicants. The majority of them involved people seeking entry-level positions—recent college grads trying to get a foot in the door. Most of them had been superbly schooled in responding to the predictable questions: why this business, what do you bring to it, where do you see yourself five years from now, etc. The answers tended to be succinct to the point of glibness, which commended the interviewees for their earnest preparation but revealed little about them or their talents. What I wanted to know, however, was how quickly they could think on their feet and how coolly they reacted to unexpected challenges, because, as any marketing or advertising vet will confirm, clients have a penchant for throwing ridiculous curves that make or break you.
So I’d let the interviews roll along, feeding prospects the usual fodder until their confidence reached full bloom. Then I’d yank the rug from beneath them with an unanticipated question: Are you wise? I admit to a tinge of sadistic glee as panic fell across their faces and they tried to gauge what the “best” answer should be. Was my question genuine, or some sort of test? It was both. I wanted to assess their maturity and assurance, as well as their deftness at handling surprises. The best answer I ever received went something like this: “Yes, I am wise, though not enough to understand your reason for asking me. That comes with experience, which is what I hope to gain here.” I stopped the interview, personally escorted the young lady to our HR officer, and said, “Hire her immediately!”
Evidenced Over Time
When Jesus dispatches the disciples to minister in His name without Him, He says, “I am sending you like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10.16) The King James Version renders His counsel as: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Emphasis added.) He asks much of them with this, as shrewdness and innocence—or wisdom and harmlessness—make for strange bedfellows. So do snakes and doves, for that matter. Innocence is self-evident in the moment. It avoids doing harm at all costs as a means of self-protection, eluding unfamiliar and potentially unhealthy situations much like doves refuse to light in muddy places. Wisdom, on the other hand, is evidenced over time. Like snakes, it makes its home in dangerous environments, often disguising its presence by taking on the colors, textures, and even the postures of its surroundings.
But wisdom doesn’t assume attributes of its vicinity merely to become part of it. Wisdom enters unfavorable situations cautiously in order to gain insights and experience to address them. Laying low, observing the dynamics, just as snakes do, permits wisdom to discover opportunities and challenges as they surface. Wisdom waits, knowing its time is well spent to increase understanding so its efforts will not be wasted. This is Christ’s message in Matthew 11.19, when He issues a blanket rebuttal to critics who accuse Him of licentious behavior: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” Rather than protect His innocence by distancing Himself from social pariahs and outcasts, Jesus wisely enters their world. Judging from what’s said of Him, as well as His own admission, He appears to behave like them. Yet despite what seems so obvious, Jesus knows the true reasons for His actions. He’s joined them to understand their challenges. He’s there, waiting on opportunities to show them a better way. In the end, the strategy proves the wisdom and innocence of His actions.
Agents of Redemption
Christ’s example teaches us how best to follow His discipleship directive. He sends us into the world as sheep among wolves. He charges us to be as wise as snakes and as innocent as doves—in other words, to live wisely with those around us while maintaining our commitment to His principles. We must never be fearful of being seen or identified with “the wrong people.” We must never buckle to social pressure and religious prejudice, simply to escape criticism or questions of our innocence. At the moment, distancing ourselves from pariahs and outcasts may seem like the best option. Over time, however, the wisdom of embracing them, joining their feasts, and sharing their lives will become evident. It will bring new understanding of their needs and create opportunities for us to show them a better way.
Besides, our critics can never be satisfied. That’s the bigger point encircling Jesus’s rebuttal. He prefaces His response to His critics with this: “John [the Baptist] came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’” (v18) John leads with innocence—sequestering himself in the desert so as not to be identified with the wrong crowd—and still he’s blasted for his actions. Protecting our innocence will not shield us from unjust criticism. Neither will it benefit those who need our light. By teaching and example, Jesus demonstrates living in the world is how we change it. Willingness to sacrifice reputation is how we become agents of redemption. What is wisest for us to do may seem dangerously foolish now. But that shouldn’t worry us. Wisdom is proved right by her actions. Gained experience and knowledge will guide our work. Time will tell the integrity of our motives and behavior. Are you wise?
Hanging with “the wrong crowd” may not seem wise at first. But over time, the experience and knowledge we gain reveal why our presence there is essential. (Image: "RSVP" - The Journeys Project.)