“Of Pearls and Pigs” on Matthew 7:6 by Joe Ellis – March 19, 2023
One thing that’s important to understand for this single verse that can be confusing, is that it's a Chiasm. A “Chiasm” is a literary device that follows an A-B-B-A structure. That means the first and last things go together, and the middle two things go together. Sort of like a word sandwich. Because we don’t use Chasms in our culture, let me explain:
In our Scripture today, the first A is: “Do not give dogs what is holy.”
The next part is the first B: “Do not throw your pearls to pigs.”
Then next is the second B: “If you do they may trample them under their feet,”
And the second A part is: “Or they may turn and tear you to pieces.”
Now to put the parts together as it was meant, we might expect Jesus to say it this way, (A)“Do not give what is holy to dogs, (A) Or they will turn around and attack you. Then (B) Do not throw your pearls before swine, (B) Or they will trample them under foot.”
I say this — not only because you might find it helpful to know that Jesus wasn’t walking around thinking people were in danger of being mauled by pigs — but because the ABBA structure helps us zero in on what Jesus is intending to communicate. Because the A and B parts are mirrors of each other, it means that if you understand what A is saying, it might help you get at what B is all about.
So Jesus tells us not to give what is holy to dogs, and don’t throw pearls before swine. The word ‘holy’ is used all over the place in the Bible — so that word by itself doesn’t narrow down what Jesus is not to throw to dogs — holiness could refer to God, the temple, a consecrated human, the Eucharist, the list goes on. The word ‘pearl’ is a much less common word than ‘holy’ — Jesus only uses the word ‘pearl’ one other time in his ministry. So, if we look at how Jesus uses the word pearl in that other passage, it might give us some clarity on this passage.
In Matthew 13:45-46 Jesus says: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Here the pearl is a metaphor for the Kingdom of God — The Kingdom of God is what the Gospel is all about. Jesus began His preaching announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God. Now, I want you to notice how significant it is that Jesus chose the pearl as one of his metaphors for the Kingdom. The only reason why we care about pearls is because they’re beautiful Picture with me a pearl merchant, one who searches endlessly for the most beautiful of pearls. He’s travelled the world over, up and down the coastlines of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean searching for fine pearls. His reputation has grown far and wide for having a vast collection of the finest pearls. Kings, princes, and governors seek him out in hopes of purchasing one of his pearls. Now picture this merchant, the sun is setting after a long day, and he’s leaving the wharf. He happens upon some fishermen gathered around a collection of shells. A hushed silence has fallen upon the fishermen. The merchant steps into this circle of men smelling fish and salt only to have his breath taken away by the most magnificently beautiful pearl ever he has seen. Never has he seen anything like it, nor is it likely that he will ever come by a pearl so spectacular in this lifetime. By their eyes, he can tell the fishermen have some idea what they’ve happened upon. They are not wiling to let it go cheaply — the merchant gathers his whole life’s work, his whole collection of rare and priceless pearls. He hands them all over for this one pearl of unequaled beauty. He hands his life’s work over for the sheer beauty of being able to own this pearl.
“For the sheer beauty of the Pearl.” If there were one sentence that I’d want us to learn to live into, it's this one: To hand our life over for the sheer beauty of the pearl. The pearl’s only value comes from its beauty. Jesus has a lot of different metaphors for the Kingdom — he talks of the Kingdom like yeast, a mustard seed, a lost penny. Each of these metaphors highlights something different about the Kingdom. Yet the pearl’s only purpose is for beauty. It speaks of the mysterious beauty of the Kingdom. The pearl has no value for any reason other than for its pure, elegant beauty.
Do we ever gaze at the Gospel of the Kingdom of God as you would a fine pearl or a sun rising over a wine dark sea? Spiritual practices are an invitation to behold this beauty. In prayer, meditation, in reading Scripture, in singing, these are invitations to behold the beauty of the Gospel. For me, beholding the beauty of the Gospel can often be one of the last things on my mind in my approach to spiritual practices. We might read the Bible because we think it’ll make God happy, we might pray because we hope God will respond, we might read Scripture or Christian books to increase our knowledge, we might meditate because it's supposed to have mental health benefits — all good things, but here is an invitation to approach our faith as an object of unsurpassing beauty. How might that change the way you practice your Faith? The ancients understood this. Listen to this ancient Hymn. Read it for its sheer beauty in describing the Gospel:
We praise you, O God” We acclaim you as the Lord.
All the world bows down before you. All the angels sing your praise.
The hosts of heaven and all the angelic powers,
All the cherubim and seraphim
Call out to you in unending song:
Holy, Holy Holy,
Is the Lord God of angel hosts! The heavens and the earth are filled
With your majesty and glory.
The glorious band of apostles,
The noble company of prophets,
The white-robed army who shed their blood for Christ,
All sing your praise.
And to the ends of the earth
Your holy Church proclaims her faith in you:
Father, whose majesty is boundless,
Your true and only Son, who is to be adored,
The Holy Spirit sent to be our Advocate.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
Son of the eternal Father.
When you took our nature to save mankind
You did not shrink from birth in the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the power of death
Opening the Father’s Kingdom to all who believe in you.
Enthroned at God’s right hand in the glory of the Father,
You will come in judgment according to your promise.
You redeemed your people by your precious blood.
Come, we implore you, to our aid.
Grant us with the saints
A place in eternal glory.
This is our pearl. A pearl of unsurpassing beauty — let the practice of your faith be one of beholding this great treasure. Let us carry this pearl with us in our hearts, wherever we go. Not haphazardly, not nonchalantly tossing it before pigs. Let us endlessly invest our lives in beholding its unsurpassable beauty.
I’ve focused so much on the pearl part of this saying, because when Jesus says, “Don’t throw your pearls before swine,” it's really, really important to realize the precious gift we’ve been given. Let’s not treat this treasure as if we have been given it like a handful of Cheerios that you might toss to pigs or a dog hungry for a treat. Let’s learn to hold onto, protect, and cherish this precious gift we have been given.
Now, the language of dogs and pigs surprises us. Are we supposed to label people as dogs and pigs, eternally not worthy of the Gospel? Of course not. The pearls before swine passage needs to be framed by the passage that came before — where Jesus says “Don’t judge people and you won’t be judged yourself.” These passages balance each other. The pearls before swine passage balances the passage on non-judgment, reminding us that we are not supposed to be so naive as to foolishly hand ourselves over to be abused by people who are hostile to seeing the beauty of the Gospel. The other night a friend paraphrased these words of Jesus by saying, “He’s not asking us to turn ourselves into a punching bag”. We need to use some judgment and discern a person’s heart in how we share this precious treasure we’ve found. Jesus says a similar thing later when he says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” In Acts, when Paul’s Gospel message was not welcomed in the synagogue, he left and took it to the Gentiles. Don’t make a martyr of yourself when you don’t have to. Shake it off and move on. Let’s not approach non-Christians with the Gospel like a child poking a dog with a stick — good things won’t come from it.
All the same, we have this treasure of unsurpassable beauty. We’ve received this gift freely. We are endlessly discovering what a treasure we have in this pearl. We know that it is in the heart of God that everyone should come to Him and share in His treasure. So we don’t want to use this passage as a get-out-of-jail free card and never share our treasure with anyone. To prepare for sharing this pearl with others — let’s first steadfastly appreciate the deep beauty of the Gospel ourselves. Let’s really become taken by the magnificent treasure with which we’ve been gifted. Then let’s actively pray for our non-Christian friends and neighbours, inviting God to show us just how He would have us share with them something of this wondrous treasure we’ve been given. And then, let’s show them this treasure with the posture of someone sharing with a friend the greatest gift they have ever been given.