Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls in front of pigs, or they may trample them and tear you to pieces.
Matthew 7:6 (NJB)
This curious saying of Jesus appears only in the gospel of Matthew; it is part of the Sermon on the Mount. These words get under my skin and I believe they reveal a problem in my life. What do they mean? Often I have found that scripture verses that I don’t immediately understand can be clarified by reference to what frames them. This verse is embedded between two other important points. When I saw the verse in the wider context, I found revealed to me what little opportunity I have taken in my lifetime to bear the burdens of others.
Preceding the “pearls before swine” admonition, is the famous “do not judge” passage (Matthew 7:1-5). Aft, is another famous teaching: “ask and it will be given” (7:7-11). Perhaps the meaning of “giving dogs what is holy” has to do with practicing judgment on the one hand that distances me from others. At the same time, I seem to be unaware that help for this problem is at hand (Matthew 4:17). Ignoring that I judge mercilessly, as I often do, and ignoring the spiritual pearl that is right there for the asking, seeking and knocking, is like casting away that which can save me. I am perilously close to being “rent to pieces” by my own ignorance, the one sin God cannot forgive (Matthew 25:14-30). “We have met the swine and the swine is us,” imagines a spiritual Pogo, declaring of this particular saying of Jesus.
In the gospel of John “pearls before swine” is expressed — like almost everything in that gospel — as a dramatic image of Jesus addressing the burden of the outcast. The Samaritan woman is drawing water from the well of Israel’s ancestor Jacob only to be confronted by a rabbi who requests the unthinkable, “Give me something to drink:”
If you only knew what God is offering you
and who it is that is saying to you,
“Give me something to drink,”
you would have been the one to ask,
and he would have given you living water…
[that] will become a spring of water within,
welling up for eternal life.
Many pearls have come before me in my lifetime, and I have cast them aside, only to regret it later. The “pearls” I am thinking of are people who have asked me, “give me something to drink”, and I have refused them. Without exception, I am the one who remained thirsty and dried up. Nor did it ever occur to me to ask God for help, for discernment.
Then to cover up my fault, I pretend to be concerned. But Jesus says, “No! . . . how dare you say to your brother, ‘let me take that splinter out of your eye,’ when look, there is a great log in your own? (Matthew 7:3-4). I can’t possibly bear another’s burdens while I am blind to faults that keep me paralyzed and distanced from God and community (John 5:1-17 & 9). The remedy? Clean up my act first, and then go and help my friend heal. It is as if Jesus is saying, you cannot become the helper I need to bring My kingdom of heaven on earth (Matthew 6:10). The pearl of great price here is my vulnerability, my humanness that brings me closer to others, enabling me to recognize that of God in them, fellow travelers, fellow-sufferers all, no exceptions (Romans 2:11, Deuteronomy 10:17).
The other pearl is the life of spiritual discipline (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Rev. Ed., Harper Collins, 1988). Jesus says I ignore this at my peril. It is not that I will go to hell in an “after-death”. Rather, it is that I condemn myself to living hell, never knowing what my life could have been like, had I asked and sought — waiting with patience and ever watchful for the answer that will unfailingly find me when I do (Psalm 130).
Then having the courage to step up to the door of God and knock, with the dread knowledge that when I do, it shall be opened, and weak-kneed — I can well imagine — I step herein, accepting the suffering with Jesus, then walking through the narrow gate down a hard road, laboring for the cause of saving justice that leads to life, side by side with the few who have also found it, fulfilling God’s original intention for humankind that a broken creation be healed (Matthew 7:13-14, Romans 1-3; Ted Grimsrud, “Saving Justice,” peacetheology.net).
William Mueller and wife, Pat, are members of St. Lawrence Valley Friends Meeting (Potsdam, NY); they edit a monthly inspirational letter, “The Inlook-Outlook,” that supports a prison ministry of SLVFM.