"Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves," Jesus told the disciples when he sent them off to spread the good news (Matthew 10:16). In other words, you can be both. Innocence doesn't mean being Little Red Riding Hood. You can know which side is up. You can have been around. Certainly the disciples had — fishermen, husbands and fathers, a tax collector — and Jesus thought them capable of being innocent even so. But they were to be sharp-eyed, not wide-eyed. He was sending them out "as sheep in the midst of wolves," he said, and they would need their wits about them. They were to be smart sheep.
Innocent people may be up to their necks in muck with the rest of us, but the mark of their innocence is that it never seems to stick to them. Things may be rotten all around them, but they preserve a curious freshness. Even when, like the disciple Peter, they are guilty of tragic flaws and failures, you feel that some inner purity remains untouched. Everybody knew, for instance, that the woman who washed Jesus' feet in Simon the Pharisee's house was no better than she ought to be, but as she dried them with her hair and kissed them, apart from Simon there was no one there, least of all Jesus, who would have dreamed of holding it against her (Luke 7:36-49).
~originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words