Today's New International Version (TNIV)
"...they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
This passage in the New Testament has been quoted many, many times to point out the protection that Jesus gives his followers. "Look," people say, "this says you can even pick up a nasty old snake and not get hurt! You can drink poison and not die! Jesus is Lord!"
But what about the responsibility of the hand holding the snake? Or the lips about to take the poison?
I know from years of being in the company of domestic animals that the one thing we humans are not particularly good at is being gentle. We move fast, we demand obedience, we put leashes on our dogs and briskly lead them exactly where we want to go. We declaw cats and debeak birds. When we hike, we don't walk softly as the deer; we crunch along the gravel or the beds of leaves with industriousness, because we have somewhere to go -- we are headed towards the top of the mountain, the bend in the river, the peak that must be conquered. We are the only animal from which all other animals know to run away. And why is that?
Because we are not gentle. We don't take time to wait, to listen, to sit with and to be observed ourselves. We are too busy making tracks, making points, making waves.
I'm not saying that our creativity and industry is wrong; I just believe its not everything.
Think about it. How gently would you have to approach a snake to not alarm it? How tenderly would you have to hold it to not generate fear? How long would you have to be still in order for it to relax into the warmth of your hand? How quietly would you have to breathe in order to sit with such a silent creature, which only has a hiss with which to warn or cry?
I am a Christian. I do believe that Jesus is my Lord and I don't take lightly the privilege of being able to say that. But I also don't take lightly the privilege of not being the center of attention, of having to wait, to listen, to be quiet instead of being right. Holding the snake is almost certainly scarier for the snake than it is for me. I have a responsibility to be the type of person who can hold the snake - or the enemy, the sinner, the reprobate, the angry "other", the one who is not like me (or at least I don't see the resemblance)- in my hands as gently as I would hold a young and precious child. You know why? Because no matter how uncomfortable that snake makes me, it is a creation of God, as precious and irreplaceable in its originality as myself. Whether I like it or not, the "snakes" of my life still belong to God, and as such, are holy in their essence, even in this fallen world.
And as for that poison?
We worry so much that the world will stain us. That our rights will be taken away, that our values will be undermined, that our lives will be relegated to second class. That we will be poisoned by this world. It's ready to eat us alive, from the inside out. Doom, doom, doom.
Perhaps. But I doubt it.
It's not what goes in our mouths -- or our ears or eyes -- that poisons us in the end. It's not what others say to us, or even about us. It's what WE say, what injuries WE will not forgive, the flaws WE choose to point out in others because that's what WE are looking at. It's the lens we focus that determines whether we see deeply, or darkly, or turn the lens the wrong way round and burn the vision clean up, like an ant in the sun under a magnifying glass. I wonder how many people I have unknowingly burnt under my gaze. I am sorry for that.
Don't even ask me how many people have gotten better because my life touched them. I fear the number so small it may fall into negative digits.
And so, this is not a passage as a reassurance of protection. At least, not for me.
It's a commandment - hold the snake, and hold it with respect. Don't let the poison become part of your blood. When given the choice to heal or hurt, heal.
Be gentle. Let your hands be warm, and your heart be safe haven. It's a start.