Casting pearls before swine, and giving what is holy to dogs. 

Matthew chapter seven is the popular “Judge not, that you be not judged”, passage (verse 1). But just after being instructed about not judging Jesus says this, “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.” (verse 6)

The problem for interpreters and everyday Christians is what to make of the dual standard of not judging but then judging who are dogs and pigs. 

The usual explanation used to reconcile the problem above is that we are to be discerning about when to judge and when not to. Although I admit this is a plausible interpretation, I believe it leaves the issue vague and could be better explained. 

My first problem with the discernment interpretation is that it has to be interjected into the text to “resolve” the tension between the two positions. Nothing in the passage says to separate verse 5 from 6, but it’s called a necessary inference due to the conflict. There is also some confusion about how “discernment” is being used so as to be different from judging/judgment. As distinct as both terms sound both are still judgment calls about the motives behind pointing out someone’s sins or judging them worthy of the gospel at all.

The solution I propose is that verse six is to be understood as a form of instructional irony. It’s saying the opposite of what you mean to illustrate a point or provide emphasis. It’s as if after everything said in the sermon on the mount Jesus takes the stance that in no way should His followers use what they are learning as a way to only point out the faults of others or lord ourselves as the new protectors or judges over the good news to such a degree that we would call certain persons as unworthy to receive it. To do so is a misapplication of everything taught, and will bring about not only the displeasure of God, but even unbelievers will turn on you and mock God in the process. 

First of all this is more faithful to the rest of scripture where teaching like the sowing of seeds (spreading the gospel) there is not a trace of discernment hindering where to spread seed. Clearer instructions state we are to go into all the world making disciples, Jesus preached to all, and especially associated with those deemed unworthy in his time. It’s also a testimony of scripture and the church that many converts describe themselves in their previous lives as dogs, pigs or worse, yet God saved them. It’s also true that when believers mishandle scripture God and His word is blasphemed by the world because they no longer see the real image of God (Romans 2:24). 

Is there evidence of Jesus using this teaching style elsewhere? Yes, Jesus uses this language in other places, as when telling the Scribes and Pharisees, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13) but in truth the Pharisees are sinners and not really righteous. In a simular manner His disciples are instructed that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, who were not in the biblical sense “righteous”. Paul calls himself the “chief of sinners” yet he does not mean he is satan, but is illustrating the mindset of humility, in light of God’s grace. 

My conclusion then is that when considering who deserves the Gospel, don’t judge and sow liberally. If considering a sin to point out to another believer don’t do it in a judgmental way. Beware how your approaching a situation lest you appear to be lording yourself over others, instead of seeking to cover sins in love (1 Peter 4:8). 



Filed under New Testament

3 responses to “Casting pearls before swine, and giving what is holy to dogs. 

  1. It seems Matthew 7:1 has replaced John 3:16 as the most widely known and cited verse in modern culture, especially when ripped from its context. People will argue until they’re blue in the face when you explain to them that it is teaching to not judge hypocritically, but to actually strive to live consistently with the moral standard by which you are critically evaluating another’s behavior.

    As for throwing pearls to pigs, and holy things to dogs, does it not apply to the fact that once one has abundantly heard the gospel and they have made it more than clear they have no intention of responding in repentance and faith, that we are not to “beat a dead horse,” but wipe their dust from our feet, as it were?

    • It’s a bit different in that as I witness to those of my family, friends and/or coworkers, when one adamantly refuses the gospel, I cannot easily walk out of their life. Each time they see me they may be reminded of my faith/belief without me having to say anything. So just having relationships with unbelievers is a witness to them to some degree, and because of the relationship we would hopefully pray that God change their heart by grace, and we not so easily write anyone off. Aside from the grace of God we too would adamantly refuse to accept the gospel too, and I’d hope someone would regularly witness to me and pray over me to gain eternal life.

      • To your point, I do think it’s prudent that people are left with an understanding that there will not alway be an opportunity to respond.

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