Pearls Before Swine: Matthew 7:6

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

Matthew 7:6 (NRSV)

This passage has historically given interpreters fits.  Who are these dogs and swine and what exactly is supposed to be withheld from them?  Like many other passages in the Sermon on the Mount, this one is often taken as an abstract fragment with the categories filled in by whatever suits the interpreter.

The issue is further complicated if one brings the assumption that Jesus is primarily concerned about delivering a message about spiritual salvation to all mankind.  Passages like this, which seem to indicate withholding something from a group of people, are difficult to reconcile with this assumption.

There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but I think we can at least point ourselves in the right direction by using the context of the Sermon to help us see more clearly where this thought fits in.

So far, we have seen that the Sermon is given to Israel on the occasion of Israel being at an eschatological crossroads.  Judgement is about to fall on the present world system, and the Old Testament hopes for Israel’s repentance, renewal, and restoration as the kingdom of God are about to come to fruition.  This is all slated to happen very soon, from the standpoint of the Sermon.

In light of this historical situation, what should these Israelites be doing to make sure they end up on the right side of this great realignment, what kinds of behavior does this situation make wise and unwise, and what comforts and hopes can they take from this new situation?  Whatever other thoughts or implications we tease out of the Sermon on the Mount, we should start at the first point with this original audience listening to Jesus, their situation, and their concerns.

As part of this message, Jesus has drawn a contrast between the present world powers that will be brought down and the humble faithful who will be exalted.  The “present world powers” is most immediately defined by the Roman Empire, however we have seen that Jesus repeatedly comes back to a certain segment of Israel that, while appearing to belong to faithful Israel, actually belongs to the present world powers.

This particular group (in the Gospels, this group is comprised primarily of members of the Sanhedrin, Pharisees, and scribes) is especially dangerous because, outwardly, they appear to be the faithful people of God, but inwardly, their hearts belong to the world.  As leaders of Israel, they have led the people into more oppression for their own benefit, inviting a special level of ire from God.  We know from the Gospels that not every leader or teacher in Israel suffers from this condition, but it is widespread enough that Jesus can refer to them in this way.

It is following the path of this group that constitutes some of Jesus’ most dire warnings, because the temptation is so great and the packaging is so fair.  Come be “righteous” like us, and be rewarded by God as we have with riches and power.  In Jesus’ mind, this is a deathtrap.  Becoming complicit with “the world” as these leaders have will surely result in being judged along with it.

With this as our backdrop, this helps suggest certain options for Matthew 7:6 that are possibly closer to Jesus’ mind than others.

For instance, in both metaphors, the consequence Jesus lays out is the same: the animal in question will trample what has been given and will destroy the person who gave it.

This does bring to mind an image that Jesus will use much later when talking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20-24), but I think Jesus has something more proximate in mind for this Sermon.  Nothing is going to prevent the destruction of the Jerusalem, but here, Jesus urges his listeners to withhold their holy and valuable things lest the dogs and the pigs destroy them.

The good news of the kingdom for Israel is bad news both to the Roman Empire and the segment of Israel that is benefiting from their rule.  As the message goes out, this is certain to invite retribution from these groups.  Yes, here and there will be exceptions where people from these groups encounter the coming kingdom and are changed by it – the odd Roman centurion or Pharisee or Sanhedrin.  But such stories stand out in the Gospels specifically because they are unusual, not because they are exemplary of how those groups typically respond.

Jesus, himself, will conceal himself or his message from time to time to avoid unwanted attention prematurely.  For instance, in Matthew 16, he instructs his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ.  In Mark 1, Jesus won’t let the demons say who he was or let those miraculously healed tell anyone about it.  In Mark 4, Jesus lets the disciples know that the reason he speaks in parables is not to communicate spiritual truths in stories everyone could understand and relate to, but rather to conceal the spiritual meaning from listeners who were slated for the coming judgement.  The idea is that faithful Israel would understand the secret meaning of the parables, but everyone else would just hear some story about vineyards or farming.  It is only toward the end of Jesus’ ministry that he begins to instruct his disciples to be open with his message, and it is toward the end that he is arrested and executed for insurrection.

It is this principle, I believe, Jesus is teaching to faithful Israel.  God is going to judge the power structure in Jerusalem and, eventually, the entire Empire.  He is making way for His kingdom.  If you just waltz on up to the powers that be and unabashedly or defiantly tell them this, you court not only your destruction, but the destruction of the entire movement.  This has come up other times in the Sermon, and the sentiment even seems to precede the Sermon in John the Baptist’s startling question to the Pharisees and Sadducees who show up at his baptism: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7)

On the basis of the context of the Sermon and Jesus’ own actions during his ministry, I think the most likely option for interpreting this verse is something like, “Don’t proclaim the message of the kingdom to those who will destroy you for it.”  Not only does this look out for the safety of the faithful Israelite, it also looks out for the surviveability of the movement as a whole as well as giving Jesus the time to do what he needs to do, which is spread the message subversively to call in the lost sheep.

Does this have any impact for how we conduct ourselves, today?

I would say that, for the most part, it does not.  The cat is already out of the bag.  Toward the end of his life, Jesus shifted from a position of keeping things under wraps to telling the whole world, even in the face of persecution – a mission kept up by the disciples.  The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD has come and gone.  The Christianization and eventual decline and fall of the Roman Empire has come and gone.  What remains is the kingdom of God throughout the world, living lives that testify to the Way – an entire mode of life that is the new creation present among the old.

There could be resonance with those groups of believers who are in countries where these faithful communities are still actively persecuted by powers at large – these communities that have to recreate that delicate dance of spreading the message of the kingdom subversively without attracting undue attention from the authorities.  Even though they aren’t poised in front of the same immediate historical event Jesus’ audience is, the situation on the ground is very similar and it may be wise to adopt the methods and mindset of the followers of Christ when they were a group that could be snuffed out at any moment.

But where that is not the case, we find ourselves in a mode where the good news of the kingdom is something that needs to be uproariously public, and not just (or even primarily) in verbal declaration, but in incarnation.  We need to be this people and these communities actively, vibrantly, and publicly.  And in many places, we just aren’t.  We are known publicly for all the wrong things and very few of the right ones.  How many non-Christians in America do you think would say, “I wish we had more Christians in America, because they really do make the world such a better place?”  How many do you think would say, “Every time I run into a Christian, I am struck by how thorough and sacrificial their love is?”  How many would say, “I don’t agree with their beliefs, but I can’t argue with the fact that they have created communities that have succeeded in creating a good life for all in ways that the rest of the world has failed?”

I do not think we are known for those kinds of things in most places.

And perhaps that is the predominant challenge of the Church in the West – not to figure out who shouldn’t hear the Gospel, but to figure out what we’re actually saying.

Consider This

  1. What sorts of things define the public discourse Christians have with the rest of the world?  Are those the kinds of things that define our identity?  Are they the kinds of things God wants from His people in the world?
  2. Way back in Genesis, God formed Israel to be a special community of people in the world.  What were the things He was looking for?  What was the hope of the effects on the rest of the world?
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