Snake handling is impressive — whether we take it to be a testament to human foolishness or as a witness to faith. It certainly does get our attention, and makes us take a closer look at Jesus' teachings. It also invites us to look at our own lives of faith.
told by Deborah
When the seventy apostles returned from the towns and communities Jesus had sent them to, they were ecstatic: “Lord, in your name even the demons obey us!”
He replied, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. Know this: I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will injure you. Just the same, don’t get smug or conceited because the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
It’s one of those practices that has never really caught on, thankfully: proving one’s faith by handling poisonous snakes — manhandling them, to be precise: picking them up, bouncing them around, shouting at them, dancing with them, hugging and squeezing them. But there are small Christian sects that do engage in it. It’s not surprising that Animal Welfare agencies often intervene, as it can’t be very pleasant for the snakes. Truly, if I were a snake and some fellow grabbed me and started yelling at me… I’d bite him, for sure!
So it is curious (a miracle?) that these snake botherers aren’t bitten a lot more often than they are. Of course every once in a while someone does die after one of these … what to call them? Exhibitions? It’s hard to equate this activity with “worship” as most of us understand the term, yet those who engage in the practice appear quite sincere; devout, fervent, in fact.
The claim is made that the practice is “biblical,” and therefore not merely ok, but a Sign of Sanctity. This is especially true as given in this passage from the Gospel of Mark:
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In My name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not harm them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will be made well.”
~ Mark 16:17-18
Taken literally, this seems to be Jesus’ guarantee that, if you believe, nothing can harm you. The “proof” of this comes when someone dies from a snakebite: his faith simply wasn’t strong enough. Conversely, if a handler doesn’t die, he’s earned a Badge of Faith and Divine Vote of Confidence and is, therefore, a true believer, and thus a Good Person who can be trusted in all things. After all, no “good Christian” has ever been guilty of any misdeeds or outright evil — right??
Using a poisonous snake as an assessment tool doesn’t sound like such a great idea to me. I imagine snakes can have off days just like the rest of us. And, if we are being strictly “biblical,” I seem to recall that a related denizen residing in a certain Garden was notorious for deceit and guile. Hardly the sort of critter one would look to as a character reference.
Why has this particular “sign” had such lasting (albeit limited) popularity, when trampling scorpions is also mentioned, as is drinking poison? For that matter, why not healing the sick or driving out demons as a way of establishing one’s faithfulness and God’s abiding power?
Perhaps it is because of the human desire for drama, for a show. Squashing a scorpion doesn’t pack much of a punch (except for the scorpion), and is the work of a moment; drinking poison is only exciting if it takes effect — and that can happen only once (per participant). Healing the sick takes time, cures aren’t always visible; and demons can be hard to find. Snakes are abundant, squirmy, scary, low-maintenance, and easily transported. If you’re looking for great, low-budget Theater, snake handling is where it’s at.
In fact, it is easier to pester poisonous snakes than to engage in a work of healing — and it certainly brings greater notoriety, a kind of celebrity status, even beyond the local area (National Geographic televised a series about these practitioners a few years ago). It is also, undoubtedly, thrilling: to face potential death has to get the old adrenalin surging, and most people have an inherent fear of snakes, as well. In that way, it is a form of overcoming fear, including the fear of death.
But I wonder. Perhaps, above all else, it is a basic calling-out to God: Show Yourself! For the snake-handler, surviving a dance with a rattlesnake, unbitten, is proof that God is real, powerful, and present.
There does seem to be something in our nature that craves a dramatic manifestation of the Divine. We’re not satisfied by sunrises and daffodils and moonlight and roses and purring kittens — we want solid, irrefutable evidence: tangible, personal proof of God’s love and protection.
What we ultimately want is proof on demand. We don’t want to “wait upon the Lord,” or “be still and listen,” we want to summon the deity: we want God at our beck and call. In that respect we cannot judge or condemn our serpent-focused cousins, but hold them in our hearts with compassion and sympathy — for who among us has not wanted to feel God’s presence; to have a solid assurance that God is with us? Who hasn’t cried out, “God, are You there?”
Snake handling is impressive — whether we take it to be a testament to human foolishness or as a witness to faith. It certainly does get our attention, and makes us take a closer look at the teachings in the Gospel: “Did Jesus really say that? What could he have meant?”
It also invites us to look at our own lives of faith alongside the lives of these others: asking the classic question, “What is the cause of their hope?” What evokes in them a desire for this danger, what is the lure of their serpentine dance in the face of Death? Is it a confrontation with the Inevitable, facing the reality that all our lives will end one day, and placing one’s faith utterly in the hands of God?
And what of us? How do we deal with those same concerns? What is the shape of our search for Ultimate meaning, how do we express our belief, and are we ever remotely as sincere and fervent in our practice? Have we ever put our lives on the line, truly committed ourselves — all that we are and all that we hope for — to the Hand of God?
And yet we are committed: in all that we are, with every breath we take, we are in God’s hands. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. The only question is whether we are mindful of that fact — and whether we conduct ourselves accordingly.
Snakes prefer the quiet life; they have no interest in music or dancing or bright lights. Therefore, as responsible stewards of God’s creation, we should avoid any action that would harass or annoy them. The best, kindest, course of action is to let them be.
Further, Jesus didn’t command believers to subject ourselves to deadly perils; we can go through our entire lives without so much as seeing a poisonous snake and still be faithful followers of the Lord. However, in the course of daily events, we may find ourselves in the midst of metaphorical snakes: creatures that hiss and spit venom, that attack without warning, that bite and wound, that seek to do us harm …. those do require adroit handling. It is in such times of danger that belief in God’s strengthening presence and safekeeping can be truly life-saving.
It is at such times that we would do well to recall the invincible faith and outrageous daring of the snake-handlers. There is something truly magnificent in the idea of dancing — dancing with God — in the midst of danger. And, yet, why not? After all, whatever the outcome, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. We might as well dance!
“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. Know this: I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will injure you. Just the same, don’t get smug or conceited because the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
What can we derive from Jesus’ words in this passage (and its companion in Mark’s Gospel)? Not a mandate for snake-handling, but a call to fearless faith; to following Christ with confidence and courage — undeterred by dangers, immune to threats, assured of God’s power; certain that, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
In the midst of the apostles’ ecstatic celebration of their successes, Jesus issued a caution. As His followers, it is true: we can and will do great things, and that is cause for rejoicing. But beware. Danger lurks in the midst of bliss — like the wily serpent in the Garden.
We can grow over-confident of our power, too certain of our successes; we can be tempted to claim divine workings as our own achievements, rather than giving fair credit to the One to whom it is due. Although Lucifer was once one of God’s most radiant angels, that glory went to his head and the weight of his self-importance dragged him down from the celestial heights with a sudden, terrible crash: “like a flash of lightning.”
Yes, we have been imbued with great power, and great understanding — “through Christ, who strengthens me,” as our baptismal vows proclaim. It is not on our own that we overcome evils, not on our own that we succeed or fail, not on our own that we do what is good, nor when we stumble (or dive) into sin. God is with us. In all that we do, wherever we are, God is with us. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
Bless the Lord, O my soul; all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul; and never forget His kindnesses.
~ Psalm 103
May Christ's grace and healing love abound,
What would it be like to be as confident in and reliant on Christ’s promises as those Christians who pick up poisonous snakes with their bare hands?
Dance with God!