Homily: Snakes Don’t Have Arms

July 26, 2019

In today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus, God delivered His commandments. When Jesus eventually comes to earth in human form, He makes clear how those commandments are to be lived out. 

Reading the passage from Exodus brought to mind a homily I delivered in 2012. It is re-posted below:

Snakes don’t have arms.

That may not seem like something we need to spend much time debating, but as a 5-year-old kindergartner back in 1964, this was a pretty big deal to which I devoted a great deal of time and energy.

There were lots of rules for my kindergarten class at John Strange Elementary:

  • Don’t push,
  • Take turns
  • No running
  • Raise your hand to talk

Even as a five year-old, I was a rule follower, so I had no problem with these rules. As a matter of fact, I am proud to say that my adherence to the rules earned me the job of line leader on more than one occasion

Classroom rules were not a problem for me. What was on the wall of the classroom was a problem.

As you walked into our classroom, there were pictures of three huge animals painted on the wall, each displaying a word or a phrase.

A polar bear was leaning up against an igloo, holding the words, “Be Nice.” I knew that polar bears didn’t live in igloos, but I could go along with the idea that he might occasionally pause to lean up against one.

A giraffe had the word “Share” balanced on his head. This bothered me slightly as I wondered how the word got there and how long it could actually stay balanced on his head, but I was able to get past that and accept it.

Finally, a snake was springing out of a coil, smiling and holding the words, “Help Others.” I could deal with the fact that the snake was smiling, but not with the fact that he was holding something. Snakes don’t have arms!

This bothered me. This bothered me quite a bit.

I had seen pictures of many different varieties of snakes, had been to the zoo and had seen live snakes, and none of them had arms.

I told my teacher that snakes don’t have arms. She just smiled at me. I tried to tell some of my little friends that snakes don’t have arms, but they didn’t care. I didn’t understand why this misinformation was being tolerated.

A polar bear leaning against an igloo – unlikely, but OK. Giraffes balancing stuff on their heads – OK, maybe. A snake smiling – a long shot, but I guess if he was happy enough, sure. But snakes do not have arms

It was my Mom who finally gave me something else to think about. I filled her in on what was going on at my terrible school, a place where they teach kids that snakes have arms. We needed to hold this school accountable for their gross malpractice.

Mom asked me, “What is the snake holding?”

This annoyed me.  “Just some words.”

“What do the words say?”

“I don’t remember.”

She knew.

“The words say, ‘Help Others,’” she told me.

Then she said, “Maybe your teacher is trying to teach you that it is important to help others, not that snakes have arms.”

I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

You might laugh at this story of a neurotic 5-year-old, but as adults we do this all the time, perhaps even daily.

Are petty thoughts and actions stealing away precious time? Is there an argument that has gone on much too long, perhaps so long you can’t even remember how it started? Is your life cluttered with things you just need to let go?

We allow the minutia of life take our focus off of God’s consistent message of love. I know that I often get so caught in the stuff of my life that I lose sight of what is really important, I lose sight of the message.

The Scripture readings over the past several weeks have been focused on giving us instructions for living our daily lives. Last month the rich young man proudly proclaimed that he had successfully followed the Ten Commandments and assumed he did all he needed to do.

Over the last week or so, the daily readings have been from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which Paul states in no uncertain terms how people need to live their lives. Throughout Ephesians we hear:

  • “Children, obey your parents”
  • “Fathers, don’t provoke your children to anger”
  • “Live in a manner worthy of the call you have received”

Scripture is full of life advice and references to rules, decrees, statutes, and commandments. All too often we read them or hear them and perhaps even do our best to follow them, while completely missing the message behind them.

It is like the new young driver who gets into the car on his own for the first time. He puts on his seat belt, adjusts his seat, adjusts his rearview mirror, and puts his hands at ten and two.

These are all necessary things, but something is missing. Oh yeah! The car keys!

Jesus hands us the car keys.

We know life is more than following the Ten Commandments. After all, didn’t we hear Jesus tell the rich young man that following the commandments is not enough?

Commandments, statutes, and decrees alone are not enough. They are just words without the unifying message that gives them life. The rules in kindergarten were not really about “not pushing” or “taking turns.” They were about the unifying message of: Be Nice, Share and Help Others.

The unifying message for us as Christians, the message that acts as the glue holding all of God’s rules together:

 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

If you remember nothing else, just remember Jesus’ simple words: love God and love others.

This is how we should be spending our time. This is the message that should act as a filter for all we do. Unfortunately, it is a message that often gets lost in the chaos and clutter of our lives.

It is the message we miss if we are too worried about whether or not snakes have arms.

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