Pearls and Pigs

Pearls and Pigs

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Mt 7:6)

Traditionally, verse 6 has been seen as balancing’ our Lord’s words in v.1, “Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves.” To those who said, “Oh, but you mustn’t judge,” we have said, “Jesus wasn’t forbidding the right use of discernment, for does he not immediately encourage us to classify some men as dogs or swine?” For example, D.A.Carson writes that, having been warned (in v.1) against being judgmental, the disciple of Jesus “is in chronic danger of becoming wishy-washy, of refusing legitimate distinctions between truth and error, good and evil“ (The Sermon on the Mount, Baker, 1978). He needs the advice of v.6, requiring the application of wise judgment.

In general, commentators have assumed that in v.6 our Lord is giving an essentially straightforward piece of advice, commending to us some form of discretion. Is that right?

In the first place, the terms, “dogs” and “pigs” were (and still are) strongly derogatory terms. Commentators explain that men earn these titles by actively rejecting every prudent offer of divine instruction, thereby excluding themselves. But does this not reverse the order of the text? It is not after, but before they reject “what is holy” that discernment must be exercised. Indeed, the point seems to be to prevent rejection of the truth.

Secondly, why should animals turn to attack when given pearls, or “that which is holy” (often taken to refer to left-over sacrificial meat)? Many picture a man feeding pearls to pigs, which, when they discover them to be inedible, attack him. But is this really the way pigs behave? And why should dogs attack the one who has given them meat?

Thirdly, we should ask, What is being actually protected by this proverb‘s injunction? The traditional answer is, the “holy thing” and the pearls. But isn’t the warning is to the person who “gives” and “casts”: he is danger of being attacked, even as his pearls are trampled. The thing to fear is the vengeance of the animals, their retaliation.

Perhaps we should search for a better interpretation of Matthew 7:6.

Firstly, given the proverbial nature of this verse, we should be open to a less definite understanding of it. For instance, we may paraphrase: “Give not [what you consider] holy to [what you consider] dogs; neither cast [what you consider] your pearls before [those whom you consider] swine.” What if we now stress the “you”? What if the “holy thing” and the “pearls” are not intrinsically valuable, but only judged to be so by those who give or cast them. This raises the question as to whether there is sarcasm involved in our Lord’s words here…

In the second place, consider the immediate context of verses 1-5. In v.1-2, Jesus’ hearers are warned to keep their judgments to themselves, lest those whom they judge apply the same standard to them “measure for measure.” Jesus’ own estimation of his audience’s ability to judge emerges in vs.3-4, where the key word is “hypocrite.” The hypocrite, so ready to judge others, is blind to his own weakness, and in danger of attracting the revenge of those whom he condemns.

In v.6, we may identify “what is holy” and “pearls” in a way which accounts for the retaliation which is attracted by giving them. They are “your judgments,” so precious in your sight, perhaps, but better kept to yourself lest they be returned, measure for measure!

In this case, the primary emphasis of this saying is that retaliation can be avoided if one is reticent to condemn (vs.1-2, 6). And the secondary emphasis contains the rationale: You are not fit judges anyway (vs.3-5).

This understanding of the verse answers the several objections which are raised against the traditional interpretation:

First, Jesus is not really classifying men as dogs and pigs: he is referring to the subjective assessments of those hypocrites who make such damning judgments. Second, the attack of the “dogs and pigs” is the retaliation of “being judged” in return, as in v.1. And third, this retaliation may be avoided by not making hypocritical judgments in the first place.

In conclusion, Jesus’ words are laced with sarcasm directed to those log-eyed hypocrites who dismissed others as “sinners,” when Jesus himself said ironically, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” They are a restatement of the command in v.1, “Do not judge, lest you be judged yourselves.” Hypocrites should keep their “precious” judgments to themselves.

– Peter Gadsby (with thanks to Thos Bennett, WTJ 49.2 369 (1987))