Sympathy for the Serpent

The following is a reflection for the 4th Sunday of Lent by FAN Director of Franciscan Earth Corps, Rhett Engelking.

This reflection was originally posted in our March 9th newsletter.

This Sunday’s Gospel contains a mysterious sentence that has contained a lot of fruit for me in recent years as I explore the Franciscan Character of my faith journey. I’ve hung a remembrance of this sentence in my room since just before my profession as a Secular Franciscan. Interestingly the sentence is not in fact John 3:16, the boilerplate passage for boastful evangelical Christians everywhere, but rather the sentence that immediately precedes it: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:14-15)The author of this Gospel seems to know that the biblical allusions contained in Jesus’ foretelling of his own crucifixion and resurrection would lay the foreground for a one liner that has been called “the Gospel in a nutshell.” First off, Jesus appears to liken himself to a serpent, “the most cunning of all animals.” (Gen 3:1) He directly alludes to a story told in the Book of numbers where Moses mounts a bronze seraph (read serpent) to a pole moments after similar seraphs were in fact bringing death to the Israelites through their bites. (Nm 21:9) The seraph, previously a symbol of death, became a symbol of healing once it was raised up and mounted on a pole. In many cultures, the single serpent on a pole (called the Aesculapian) has signified medicine and healing. To look upon the mounted bronze seraph offered healing so potent, that the engraved symbol was treated as a god by the Israelites and then promptly destroyed. (2 Kings 18:4) What does it mean for a symbol of Death to also become a symbol of life or an icon of faith healing to also become a dangerous idol? How are we to discern the path to salvation when we are unsure if we are being led to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life or the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Consider what a testament to humility that our Savior would liken his crucifixion to the exultation of a contemptible serpent. Few terrestrial animals live closer to the Earth than a serpent on its belly, and perhaps this lowest of positions well describes the humility aspired to by our “seraphic father” Francis of Assisi. In addition to inhabiting the humblest of vantage points, Jesus saw value in the character of the serpent as well. When Jesus commissions his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, he lauds the qualities of a seraph yet again: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.” (Mt 10:16) This passage is a favorite among faith -rooted organizers because it recognizes that serving the Kingdom often requires us to embrace the cunning of our serpent nature. Those who do not become like the “Snake Who Refused to Hiss” from the traditional Hindu parable, beaten down because they are afraid of what harm they might cause. Because so many faithful see Christianity as a lens to interpret their own sinfulness, they look forward to Lent as an opportunity to condemn their serpent qualities. They seek extraordinary piety, perform heroic works of charity, and boast of a desire to become an entirely pure person. Simply put, Lent for them is about becoming a dove.
I suspect that we would do better to think of Lent as the opportunity to molt off our attachment to what is dead in our lives, like so much snakeskin. If we believe that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, neither did he come to condemn us for our serpent nature. Serpents like all creatures are God’s handiwork and reflect the nature of the Creator. Further, if “by God’s grace we have been saved” we do no good hidden underground for “whoever lives the truth comes to the light.” That is why our good works require an integrated use of all of our faculties. Since our identity, both serpent and dove, is created in Christ, all of our works are prepared ahead of time. Therefore our Easter longing ought to be about living into our nature, living faithfully in God and restoring God’s kingdom through good works.


Rhett Engelking

FAN Director of Franciscan Earth Corps

Published in: on March 10, 2015 at 9:27 am  Leave a Comment  

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