Casting Pearls before Swine in Matthew 7:1-9

The Sermon on the Mount, a lesson on the faith, was given by Jesus on a hill top near Lake Galilee.  The Sermon takes up all of chapter 5, 6 and 7 in Matthew.  Towards the end of the Sermon Jesus provides some advice or rules of thumb.  Among these, he says in Matthew chapter 7, verse 6:

Do not give to dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you.

This is one of those classic biblical passages that has a literal, a spiritual and a dozen other possible levels of interpretation.  There is a lot of room for different interpretations, since Jesus does not tell us who the ‘dogs’ or the ‘swine’ are, and he also doesn’t tell us exactly what is included in the term “holy.”

Rudolf Schnackenburg  is a well-known scriptural scholar who wrote a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.   His commentary is an example of a scholar losing sight of the forest among the trees.  In trying to figure out why Matthew included this passage in his Gospel, Schnackenburg essentially gives up, stating that it is not clear why the question of pearls before swine would have been important for Matthew’s community. But Schnackenburg also asks the less profound question…

Why did Matthew include this in his Gospel?

As the sacred author Matthew wrote for Christians of Jewish origin, his injunction against casting pearls before swine and throwing what is holy to dogs would have made complete sense to a community that was ethnically Jewish.  The passage implies, in the broadest possible sense, that we should not present what is holy about the faith to those who do not respect the faith.  Gentiles could not enter the temple in Jerusalem, nor even the courtyard.  Only Jews (believers) could enter the temple, and even then, only priests could enter the inner sanctum – the Holy of Holies.  So, it makes complete sense that the gospel-author Matthew would communicate to his predominantly Jewish audience the importance of respecting holy things.

On one level, then, to avoid casting pearl before swine is to avoiding profaning sacred things by introducing such objects to those who have no respect for them.  This level of interpretation says we should keep holy the “faith-as-object.”  such sacred objects might include our own personal faith beliefs, Holy Scripture, aspects of liturgical worship, or religious art that we as Christians deem to be holy.

But then the deeper question about this passage is…

Why did Jesus say this at the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus teaching is a reminder to his disciples that holiness is not exclusively a characteristic of the temple, its priests, or the objects stored in the temple.   And this is not to say that the temple, or liturgical worship is not holy: it is.  But if we consider that the Sermon on the Mount took place in Galilee, far from Jerusalem and the Temple, then clearly Jesus must be telling us that something beyond the fact that the temple, and temple worship, are holy.  Jesus is telling his audience – and by extension all Christians –  that all of us are to take responsibility for the sacredness of the faith.   Consider some other passages in the bible.  In I Peter 1:16 we find this mandate: be holy, for I (the Lord) am holy! In Leviticus 11:44 , we find consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. And Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:48,  be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus here admonishes his audience to take responsibility for the holiness or sacredness of the “faith-as-subject.” In other words, it is not just the objects of faith that are not to be “thrown to the dogs.”  We are not to subject what is holy our own lives – our faith and our own person (a temple of the Holy Spirit, I Cor 6:19) – before dogs or swine.

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