Pearls before Swine

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Every libertine’s favorite text is Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” But that verse is not a blanket condemnation of all judgment. What it condemns is a very specific kind of hypocritical, Pharisaical, surface-level judgmentalism.

As a matter of fact, in John 7:24, Jesus tells His disciples to make discerning judgments: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” Indeed, taken in context, even Matthew 7:1 turns out to be a call for charity, generosity, and merciful restraint at those times when we must judge: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (v. 2).

Then our Lord goes on to say, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs” (v. 6). We are expected to know who the swine and dogs are. An underlying assumption is that we must judge carefully and biblically.

What is most intriguing here is that Jesus’ mention of “dogs” and “pigs” is a clear allusion to the Pharisees and other hypocrites like them, not to the Gentiles and moral pariahs whom the religious elite in Israel normally dismissed as unclean animals. Dog was a label they normally reserved for society’s lowest outcasts and untouchables. Pig was even more demeaning. Remember, however, that Jesus had a vibrant ministry among the very people who were usually on the receiving end of such epithets (Luke 7:34).

The “dogs” and “pigs” mentioned in Matthew 7:6 are people who are chronically antagonistic to the gospel—those whose predictable response to sacred things is to “trample them underfoot and turn to attack [the messenger]” (v. 6).

Jesus Himself modeled the kind of discretion He is calling for here. He regularly “[hid] things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21). In other words, to humble and repentant people who received His teachings, He gave more. But He deliberately concealed truth from arrogant and self-righteous people. The parables He told served this purpose: they obscured the truth from people whose hearts had grown dull and whose spiritual ears were hard of hearing (Matt. 13:15). He did not give sacred things to dogs or cast His pearls before swine.

In short, swine and dogs represent the spiritual antitheses of “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (5:6). The former are puffed up with self and predisposed to reject any truth that does not fit their agenda. They will then turn against the messenger and rend him or her in pieces.

But the spiritually famished—those who know they are sick and need a physician (Luke 5:31)—will turn from everything else for the life-giving, thirst-quenching, soul-satisfying truth they seek. And those who seek shall find.

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.