Jesus has just finished talking about not judging and hypocrisy in the Jesus Manifesto. At first sight and hearing, this is startling language from the lips of Jesus. It is immediately after his appeal for constructive brotherly behaviour.
Jesus always calls a spade a spade. Jesus isn’t going to tiptoe around an issue. Jesus is going to be clear. I must listen carefully to what Jesus is telling me.
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” | Matthew 7:6
Jesus’ outspokenness led him to call Herod Antipas ‘that fox’ and hypocritical scribes and Pharisees ‘whitewashed tombs’ and a ‘brood of vipers’. Here Jesus affirms that there are certain human beings who act like animals and may be accurately designated ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’.
The context provides a healthy balance. If I am not to ‘judge’ others, finding fault with them in a censorious, condemning or hypocritical way, I am not to ignore their faults either and pretend that everybody is the same. Both extremes are to be avoided. The saints are not judges, but ‘saints are not simpletons’ either. If I first remove the log from my eye and see clearly to take a speck from my brother’s eye, he (if he is a true brother in the Master) will appreciate my solicitude. But not everyone is grateful for criticism and correction. According to the book of Proverbs, this is one of the obvious distinctions between a wise man and a fool: ‘Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.’
Who then are these ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’? By giving them these names Jesus is indicating not only that they are more animals than humans, but that they are animals with dirty habits as well. The dogs he had in mind were not the well-behaved lapdogs of an elegant home but the wild pariah dogs, vagabonds and mongrels, which scavenged in the city’s rubbish dumps. And pigs were unclean animals to the Jew, not to mention their love for mud. The apostle Peter was later to refer to them by bringing together two proverbs: ‘The dog turns back to his own vomit,’ and ‘The sow is washed only to wallow in the mire.’ The reference is at least to the fact that unbelievers, whose nature has never been renewed, possess physical or animal life, but not spiritual or eternal life. We remember also that Jews called Gentile outsiders ‘dogs’. But I certainly should not regard non-disciples in this contemptuous way. So I need to penetrate more deeply into Jesus’ meaning.
His command is that I should not give dogs what is holy and not throw our pearls before swine. The picture is plain. A Jew would never hand ‘holy’ food (perhaps food previously offered in sacrifice) to unclean dogs. Nor would he ever dream of throwing pearls to pigs. Not only were they also unclean, but they would probably mistake the pearls for nuts or peas, try to eat them and then — finding them inedible — trample on them and even assault the giver.
But if the picture or parable is clear, what is its meaning? What is the ‘holy’ thing, and what are the ‘pearls’? Some of the early fathers thought the reference was to the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, and argued from it that unbelieving, unbaptized people should not be admitted to Communion. While they were no doubt right in this teaching, it is extremely doubtful whether Jesus had this question in mind at all. It is better to find a link with the ‘pearl of great value’ in his parable, which refers to the kingdom of God, and by extension to the message of good news. I cannot possibly deduce from this, however, that Jesus was forbidding me to proclaim the good news to unbelievers. To suppose this would stand the whole New Testament on its head and contradict the Great Commission (with which Matthew’s work ends) to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’.
So then the ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’ with whom we are forbidden to share the good news pearl are not just unbelievers. They must rather be those who have had ample opportunity to hear and receive the good news, but have decisively — even defiantly — rejected it.
The fact is that to persist beyond a certain point in offering the good news to such people is to invite its rejection with contempt and even blasphemy. Jesus applied the same principle to the ministry of the twelve when he gave them his charge before sending them out on their first mission. He warned them that in every town and house they entered, although some people would be receptive or ‘worthy’, others would be unreceptive or ‘unworthy’. ‘If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words,’ he went on, ‘shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.’
The apostle Paul also followed this principle in his mission work. On his first expedition he and Barnabas said to the Jews who ‘contradicted’ their preaching in Pisidian Antioch: ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.’ And when the Jews incited the city leaders to drive them out, ‘they shook off the dust from their feet against them’ and went on to Iconium. Much the same happened in Corinth on the second missionary journey. When the Jews opposed and reviled him, Paul ‘shook out his garments’ and said to them: ‘Your blood be upon your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’ For the third time Paul reacted in the same way when in Rome the Jewish leaders rejected the gospel. ‘Let it be known to you then’, he said, ‘that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.’
My witness and proclamation of Jesus is not to be entirely indiscriminate. If people have had plenty of opportunity to hear the truth but do not respond to it, if they stubbornly turn their backs on the Messiah, if (in other words) they cast themselves in the role of ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’, I am not to go on and on with them, for then I cheapen God’s good news by letting them trample it under foot.
Can anything be more depraved than to mistake God’s precious pearl for a thing of no worth and actually to tread it into the mud? At the same time to give people up is a very serious step to take. I can think of only one or two occasions in my experience when I have felt it was right. This teaching of Jesus is for exceptional situations only; my normal duty is to be patient and persevere with others, as God has patiently persevered with me.