Of Pearls and Dogs and Swine

“Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7.6)

I grew up in the South among some pretty stringent Christians. I accompanied my grandma and I heard many sermons issuing out of that paradigm. I have seen movies portraying grandmas bringing their pre-teen grandsons to the “prayer meeting.” I was that little boy…

Among the themes explored in those sermons was the relationship between believers and non-believers. They were not fueled by love but by an infamous “holier than thou” attitude and life style. This passage from the Sermon on the Mount was one of the texts that was used. The “dogs” and “pigs” referred to in it were associated with non-believers (those who drank and smoked and danced and wore makeup, etc. Perhaps you had to have grown up in the South to understand the attitude I am attempting to portray). The story of the Syrophoenician Woman (Matthew 15:21-28) was linked to it to make the point complete.

I was never convinced. I always believed both passages were pointing to something more worthwhile than condemning others in light of one’s own “perceived holiness.”

Here are some words by by Augustine of Hippo, (430-543 A.D.) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 A.D.), that communicate what I believe Jesus might be attempting to communicate.


“Now in this precept we are forbidden to give a holy thing to dogs or to cast pearls before swine. We must diligently seek to determine the gravity of these words: holy, pearls, dogs and swine. A holy thing is whatever it would be impious to profane or tear apart. Even a fruitless attempt to do so makes one already guilty of such impiety, though the holy thing may by its very nature remain inviolable and indestructible. Pearls signify all spiritual things that are worthy of being highly prized. Because these things lie hidden in secret, it is as though they were being drawn up from the deep. Because they are found in the wrappings of allegories, it is as though they were contained within shells that have been opened.(1) It is clear therefore that one and the same thing can be called both a holy thing and a pearl. It can be called a holy thing because it ought not to be destroyed and a pearl because it ought not to be despised. One tries to destroy what one does not wish to leave intact. One despises what is deemed worthless, as if beneath him. Hence, whatever is despised is said to be trampled under foot… Thus we may rightly understand that these words (dogs and swine) are now used to designate respectively those who assail the truth and those who resist it.” (excerpt from SERMON ON THE MOUNT 2.20.68–69)
(1) The interpretive task is to crack through the shell of the language to its inner spiritual meaning. Copyright (c) 2015 Servants of the Word, source:  www.dailyscripture.net, author Don Schwager


“What then must we do, we who have been found worthy of the name of Christ? Each of us must examine his thoughts, words and deeds, to see whether they are directed toward Christ or are turned away from him. This examination is carried out in various ways. Our deeds or our thoughts or our words are not in harmony with Christ if they issue from passion. They then bear the mark of the enemy who smears the pearl of the heart with the slime of passion, dimming and even destroying the lustre of the precious stone.” Source: Universalis


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