The core of the Christian struggle is for peace. We are certainly called to bring about a just society, but only because it makes for peace. If we decide to use methods or measures to bring about so-called justice at the expense of peace, will we ever truly have peace? Peace is worth fighting for, but the techniques we employ must come from hearts that are fundamentally decided on peace. In today’s Gospel, the Lord gives us an interesting teaching about conflict. He doesn’t tell us to avoid the wolves altogether, but to be aware of them and to have the inner attitude of sheep around them. When persecution becomes fierce, however, we should in fact flee – not just to live another day, but to bring the Gospel elsewhere. This is part of the reason the Gospel spread so quickly at the beginning: when and where it was poorly received, time was not wasted insisting or fighting.
And to such a degree does the gospel desire that there should be wise people among believers, that for the sake of exercising the understanding of its hearers, it has spoken certain truths in enigmas, others in what are called “dark” sayings, others in parables, and others in problems. And one of the prophets—Hosea—says at the end of his prophecy, “Who is wise, and he will understand these things? Or prudent, and he shall know them?”1
But let us consider this. Why did he say, on the one hand, “like sheep” and, on the other hand, did he not say “like wolves” but simply “wolves”? If he had called the former “sheep” for the sole reason of their gentleness, since by nature they were human indeed but sheep by gentleness, certainly he would have called the latter “wolves,” for they too, though like wolves in cruelty, by nature were human. For this reason, therefore, he called the former “sheep” but called the latter not “like wolves” but fully “wolves,” since people, who are God’s creatures, though they may be good, always have in them something evil according to the flesh. And one is called a sheep insofar as one is good; yet like a sheep, however, insofar as one is not fully good. For one who does not know God can have nothing good in himself. So one is referred to as a “wolf,” not “like a wolf,” because he has nothing good in himself and does not know God in himself.2
Some may object, saying, “How then will others come to faith, when they see on our account children being slain by their fathers, and brothers killing brothers, and all things filled with abominations?” How could this sort of warfare work out? Will not we be treated as though we were destructive demons? As though we were a plague and pests to be driven out from every quarter? Won’t they see that the earth is filled with the blood of kinsmen fighting kinsmen? Even so our sole purpose is to bring peace into their houses, even amid so much conflict. And this peace is beautiful. Suppose there had been some great number of us, not merely twelve! Suppose we had been wise and skilled in rhetoric, trained orators rather than “unlearned and ignorant.” What would have come of our proclamation? Suppose we had been kings, in possession of armies and an abundance of wealth? Would we have been thereby more persuasive in proclaiming this kingdom of peace? When we despise our own safety, why do they pay all the more attention to us?3
He is teaching them a new sort of warfare. He sends them out exposed, with only one coat, barefoot and without a staff, without clothing or provisions. The manner of their battle array is entirely unimpressive. He calls them to allow themselves to be totally supported by the generosity of such as receive them. All this is to accentuate his unspeakable power. Then, to press this reverse strategy to its limits, he tells them to exhibit the gentleness of sheep, even though they are going out among wolves, and not simply toward the wolves but trustfully moving right into the midst of the wolves4
This should be read as referring to the time when the apostles were sent forth to preach. It was properly said to them: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,” because they should not fear persecution but should turn away from it. We see that this is what the believers did in the first days. When persecution began in Jerusalem, they scattered throughout all Judea. Their time of trial thus became a seedbed for the good news.
On the spiritual level we propose this symbolic interpretation. When we are persecuted in one city—that is, in one book or passage in Scripture—we will flee to other cities, that is, to other books. No matter how menacing the persecutor may be, he must come before the judgment seat of the Savior. Victory is not to be granted to our opponents before we have done this. 5