Pearls Before Swine
In a text that can definitely be confusing on its own, Jesus says this:
6 “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Matthew 7:6 NRSV)
I’m not sure Jesus’ real concern is not being stupid about giving good things to literal dogs and pigs. I’m also definitely not saying, as some have suggested, that some people are just inferior and we shouldn’t waste our time with them. Let’s look at that in context:
7 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s[a] eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor,[b] ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s[c] eye. 6 “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Matthew 7:1-6 NRSV)
So, our context is that of judgement. Jesus directly says not to judge. He then explains how this often turns us into hypocrites, using some great hyperbolic language about specks and logs of wood. It ends with helping the neighbour get the speck out of their eye, once the log is removed from yours. In some sense, then, “judgement” is not wrong, but in line with Greg Boyd and others, I think it is helpful to use different words here. I would use “judgement” to mean the evaluation of somebody’s worth, dismissing them as good vs evil, in group vs out group, right vs wrong, etc. It is a posture of ruling over them. I would use “discernment” to mean working together with somebody to help them identify and fix harmful things in their life. It is a posture of family working together. Jesus is anti-judgement, but pro-discernment.
How do dogs and pigs fit in? If you see somebody as inferior – like a dog or a pig – they will probably respond like Jesus describes even if you really are offering them something that is good for them (something we can’t assume). If you throw a fancy big necklace in front of pigs, what are they going to do? They don’t understand what a necklace is supposed to be used for. They’re probably going to try to eat it, or they’ll at least trample on it with complete disregard for its value. Sometimes they’ll get angry at you for hurting their mouth and/or feet and will lash out.
That’s how people respond when you treat them as inferior, as well, i.e. when you play judge over them. At best they’ll shrug you off as irrelevant. At worst, they will be hurt and they will pass on to that hurt to others, including quite possibly you.
The apostle Paul puts it this way, in the context of a man sleeping with his stepmother:
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons—10 not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister[c] who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?13 God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”
Yes, we discern with our brothers and sisters in the church, those people that we know well and have entered that kind of intentional relationship with. When we’ve removed the log from our eye, we can work together at removing the speck in their theirs. That’s often a slow and painful process to have that vulnerability in place, but it’s worth it. What we cannot do is sit back without that relationship and make claims about the value of other human beings or what they are doing. Even if you are right that they are doing something wrong – and you can’t assume you are – when you view yourself as throwing pearls before swine, you’re causing a lot more harm than good.