Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Pearls Before Swine

I’ve been meaning to blog regarding my thoughts on Christ’s words in Matthew 7:6,
Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before swine; otherwise they wll trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.In my experience, people have taken this as an excuse for not trying to persistently teach the unresponsive about God. The idea being that the “pearls” are “pearls of wisdom,” and that certain people are simply not capable of appreciating them.

You can read something of this typical interpretation here and here. Just google “dogs pearl swine” to find more.

The thing is, when read in context this really does not make much sense. Look at what is going on in the passage. Jesus is winding up His Sermon on the Mount. At the time, the Jews thought Jesus was a gifted rabbi who was reinterpreting the Torah. This happened from time to time, and such people were said to speak “from authority” [see Matthew 7:29]. In reality, we can see this as Jesus giving a portion of the new covenant’s law. Moses brought the old covenant’s law (the 10 commandments) down from mount Sinai, and Matthew portrays Jesus giving new commands on a mountain.This sermon was mostly a discussion of commandments for God’s people, but it also included reproaches upon the Jewish leadership who had warped God’s law (Matthew 5:20 being a pretty clear example). This is what we read in the verses immediately coming up to Matthew 7:6. In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus lambasts those who among the Jewish leadership who would attack people for breaking some of the lighter parts of the Law when they themselves were neglecting the “weightier points” of mercy, protection of the weak, and faithfulness (see Matthew 23:23 for another such example).

So, given this context, why on earth would Jesus be giving advice about whom to speak wisdom to? Everything in the context suggests Jesus does not see His listeners as having much in the way of wisdom. He just got through saying they had a plank in their eye! Evangelicals, in their quest to turn everything into a discussion of getting people into heaven, sometimes say Jesus is talking about spreading the gospel to people who are not receptive…how could Jesus possibly have that in mind here? The people listening to Jesus just thought they were hearing an enlightened teacher, and not even his disciples had been told of what would happen to Jesus in the future. No, this is not about evangelism.

There are several clues that point to what Jesus has in mind. First, He speaks of not giving what is holy to dogs. We have managed to bastardize what the term holy means, and Jews rightfully chide us for doing so. Holy does not mean perfect or sinless. Holy means set apart. It means special or dedicated to a particular purpose. The Jews were to be a Holy people because they were to be dedicated to God.

And “dogs” was a standard epithet for non-Jews. Jesus uses the term in this way in Matthew 15:26, and understanding this usage is the key to understanding the Parable of Lazarus.And what about “pearls” and “swine”? Matthew would later relate a parable where a pearl represents the coming Kingdom, and swine is, of course, yet another way of referring to those who were outside Judaism. Pigs are the standard example of an unclean animal, an animal only Gentiles would eat. Jews would not even eat at a table on which pork was served.When we put these together we see that Jesus is not merely giving some random wisdom about how to divvy up our words to different people. We’ve turned His words into that because we are trained to ignore the crucial Gentile-Jew issues pervading apostolic Christianity.No, Jesus is warning the Jews that their special place as God’s chosen people is in danger. His words are an admonishment presaging what would ultimately occur later when the Gentiles are allowed in due to the unfaithfulness of the Jews (Romans 11:20, and Romans chapters 9 through 11 in general). This is the same fate Jesus would later describe in Matthew 21:33-46 and Matthew 22:1-14.It turns out that this notion of Jesus warning the Jewish nation is further verified if we go back to the original passage and read further. What does Jesus say after this pearls before swine verse? Matthew 7:1-11 recounts Jesus’ exhorting the Jews to “Ask, Seek, Knock,” with the promise in 7:11

If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him?

But what does the “good gifts” refer to? People today assume this passage is about praying for things we need and having God give them to us. But the word “gift,” (as I described in a recent blog entry) was the term that referred to the Holy Spirit, the sign of the new covenant!

Once again we see Jesus pleading with the Jews to repent for the Kingdom is at hand (just as He did in Matthew 3:2). He is asking them to seek the inclusion in the new covenant by turning back to God.You probably think this is all just a little shaky… interpreting this “good gift” as the Holy Spirit here… and you will probably think that up until the time you read the parallel passage in Luke 11:13!

If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will {your} heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?

In Christ, God was reaching out to the unfaithful people who had spurned the Almighty for so long. The new covenant is about to commence through the power of the Spirit. This blessing is the birthright of the Sons of Jacob. However, they were in danger of rejecting that gift without realizing it through their lack of faith.