Friday, April 24, 2009

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 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.


Bev said...

And of the gift of the Spirit and its purpose --

Receiving the gift: REPENT and BE BAPTIZED

(Acts 2:38 NASB) Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Purpose of the gift: A GOOD (agreeable, upright) CONSCIENCE (In other words, the kind of people God yearns for.)

(1 Peter 3:21 NASB) Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

I posted something very similar recently, but I don't remember where! If it was here on another blog entry, please forgive my repetition. :-)

James said...

Just a couple of small points. Hebrew poetry of that era didn't rhyme but rather expressed a thought in two parallel phrases. When Jesus says "holy to dogs" and then "pearls before swine", he's just saying the same thing in two different ways. You said yourself that his audience realized they were listening to a gifted Rabbi, so this language would have been totally expected and understood.

I also want to be careful in saying that Jesus wasn't giving a brand new and improved interpretation on Torah, but rather he was restoring the original interpretation. As you say, there had been so much tradition and poor or corrupted interpretations of scriptures in the time of Jesus, that much of the original message was lost. Jesus, in part, came to restore the original message, not to deliver a new one.

David Rudel said...

Regarding the first point, I think I'm agreeing with you, right? My discussion of "holy to Gods" and "pearls before swine" really come down to the same thing, right?

I think Jesus words immediately after the Beatitudes support your second point.

allfaaraa said...

Read you post on amazon came here to
see your post on the parables I had written you a long detailed post which got cleared when I sought to sign up with google.
This is the short version, i agree with you as to Holy being set apart
disagree on "were to be" change to "Were" as to Israel. swine and dogs yes indeed refers to gentiles
foreigners, however i disagree with
Good Gifts as being the Holy Spirit Good Gifts would be the Soul
The soul Israel was passed down from father to the ist born son,
collective, Jesus brought division
individual souls even to women
The children "lay up" for the parents as in the verse It is a gift devoted to God..Paul talks about giving of his own Soul, and
about him being the father,, also
at the time of the verse
"GOOD GIFTS" Jesus was not risen and the Holy Spirit was not given no? the Holy Spirit was not/cannot be passed down from father to son ,Well unless by Paul according to scripture, but by the Apostles
no? Do you understand the parable of the 5,000 and the 4,000 It is a parable, the importance being "filled" "12 baskets" "7 baskets" I dont have the space or the forum here to explain the spiritual difference between Israel
and the Gentiles but can on amazon
all in all I find your blog


David Rudel said...

Hi Gi,
I don't understand how "good gifts" can refer to anything other than the Holy Spirit when Luke's version of the same passage says that explicitly.

I'd be interested in hearing what you had to say about the baskets. The feeding of the 5000 is one of the few events in all four gospels.

In my book I discuss how this could be related to the disciple's later sending out the Word of God [God's Word is often symbolized by the bread, so when Jesus says "you give them something to eat," He might be presaging their later evangelism.]

Regarding the "collective soul" of Israel being passed down to the 1st born son, wouldn't that mean that Judah did not have the soul? Neither did Joseph/Ephraim for that matter.

I could see some applicability with the notion that before Jesus the Spirit of God was in the Temple, but now it lives in a "temple not made by human hands" and hence dwells in each believer...but in that case aren't we back to talking about the Holy Spirit?

allfaaraa said...

Her is a verse that I feel is relevant to THE GOOD THING
2Tim 1;14 That "Good Thing" which
was committed unto you, keep by
the Holy Spirit which dwells in us.

The Good Thing is the Good Gift
Both are the Soul and can only be kept by the Holy Spirit. If the Good Thing
can only be kept by the Holy Spirit
than it cannot be the Holy Spirit
it must be something else The Holy
Spirit tells me it is the Soul
what do you think?

Rich Schmidt said...

So... given the interpretation here, what exactly is Jesus telling his Jewish hearers to do or not do? Is he saying, "Don't share what's been entrusted to you with Gentiles, or you'll lose your special place"? That seems kind of odd, since the end goal was for all the nations to join Israel in worshiping God.

Or is he being sarcastic? Or...?

Just curious what your take on it is. In the post, you seem to be saying that his message to them here is "Watch out! Repent, or you'll lose your special role in God's plan." If so... then what is he telling them to do or not do in this verse? It sounds like he's telling them to withhold something from the dogs/swine/Gentiles...?

David Rudel said...

Hi Rich,
First, let me thank you for reading and commenting on some of my theological musings here.

I think the answer to your question, if we are to take into account the whole bible, is to keep in tension the twin notions:

i) That part of the "mystery" revealed in Christ was that God's grace was to pass to all people
ii) Christ's mission was to preach to His people, even though He knew they were prophesied not to accept the teachings.

Various verses point to the second reason being so that the Jews would fully deserve the judgment that was coming up on them. [Matthew 21:28-41, 23:29-38, John 9:41, John 15:20-23]

With that in mind, I would not say Jesus is referring to actively withholding things from the Gentiles/Samaritans (it's unclear what that would even mean, but I agree it would seem strange).

Rather I would say (as I think you were mentioning) that Jesus' words are a warning to repent because if they do not, their special status would be taken away.

I don't think Jesus was referring to Jewish-Gentile relations here but rather the effect of Jewish-Jewish inter-relations had on God's relationship with Jews and the World.

This would flow logically into the "House on the Rock" and "house on the sand" parable that comes very soon after, though I would contend that parable has more general application.

There is a general mixing of the judgment upon Israel in AD 70 and the general Judgment after the resurrection in Matthew, and I think that is showing up in the later parts of chapter 7 just as it does in the first part of chapter 22 [the wedding parable, which starts out discussing judgment upon the Jews and ends with the type of condemnation we expect to see at the individual judgment.]

Most of what Jesus says to the crowds boils down to "Repent," which is why they thought He was a prophet and eventually thought He might be Elijah. That's what most of the prophets in Isaiah through Malachi did, warn their contemporaries to repent lest God's judgment fall on the nation of Israel/Judah.

Paul Pavao said...

1. If I can help you answer that last question, David (even though I'm not sure I agree that's what he was saying) ...

David is saying that "throwing" things to pigs and dogs means losing it by disobedience. In other words, they're not actively throwing anything to the Gentiles. Instead, by refusing to repent, God takes it from them and passes it on to the Gentiles.

As a comparison, we would say that a baseball shortstop "threw the game away" when he booted the ball in the bottom of the 9th, even though he didn't purposely give anything away.

Is that what you're saying, David?

Paul Pavao said...

Okay, #2

Someone above said Jesus was not reinterpreting the Torah. I don't believe that's true.

Matthew 5 has a statement that Jesus was not abolishing the Law, but he was "extending, fulfilling, and expanding" it (definition of pleroo borrowed from Irenaeus' discussion of Matthew 5 in Against Heresies from A.D. 177, a book written in Greek).

In "extending, fulfilling, and expanding it" he made the Law to forbid lust as well as adultery. He also made it to change in other ways. For example, he purified all foods by saying that food has nothing to do with being clean. Following his pattern with other commands, his meaning is clear. We are clean if we ruminated (meditate on repeatedly) the word of God and separate from the world (part the hoof).

We also should no longer make vows, even though it's directly commanded, because Jesus has extended the command to fulfill our vows to fulfilling our every word.

Jesus was most definitely reinterpreting. His interpretations could not be applied to OT Jews because they did not have the Spirit. They would have burst under such teaching. Only refreshed wineskins--those reborn by the Spirit--can handle the new wine of the New Covenant interpretation of the Law.

David Rudel said...

Welcome to the blog!

Yes, that is what I was saying about what the "throwing" might refer to.

Something I noticed later on this score [see my long study series on the Conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount] is that the "trampling" described here at the conclusion probably matches up with the "trampling" found in the introduction in Matthew 5:13. These are the only times that word is used in Matthew, and it is a rather rare word in general for the NT. [Indeed, is it possible Luke 8:5 is also a connection? Probably not.]