Interpreting Pearls and Pigs – What Does Matthew 7:6 Mean?

Matthew 7:6 is a notoriously difficult verse to interpret.

Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”

But who are the “dogs,” what is the “holy,” what are the “pearls,” and who are the “pigs”? Suggestions have been many. Is Jesus denying the eucharist to the unbaptized? Is he warning against letting persecutors trample the gospel? Is he saying not to give authority to pagans to judge church disputes? Is Jesus forbidding (temporarily) the kingdom’s message from going to Gentiles?

I don’t think certainty is possible, but I believe the traditional explanation still makes the most sense: Jesus warns against continuing to cast the kingdom message before those who are reviling and persecuting you.

Where Matthew 7:6 Belongs, Structurally

Some scholars contend that Matthew 7:6 is an independent saying, and that relating it to anything before or after it is problematic. Maybe, but Talbert (and others) make good arguments for taking 7:6 with what follows it.

In the main body of the Sermon on the Mount (5:21–7:11), the teachings are in three large blocks of material: 5:21-48, 6:1-18, and 6:19–7:11. Each of these three sections break into smaller sections: 5:21-48 has six subsections, 6:1-18 has three, and then there’s 6:19–7:11. It is agreed that 6:19–7:11 has 6:19-24 and 6:25-34, but what about the remaining verses of 7:1-11? Does 7:1-11 have two parts (either 7:1-6 and 7:7-11, or 7:1-5 and 7:6-11) or three (7:1-5, 7:6, and 7:7-11)? I think only two, divided as 7:1-5 and 7:6-11. (For more on the literary relationships in 6:19–7:11, see here.)

Since the body of the Sermon deals in subsections of larger blocks, it makes sense that in the remaining verses of the body, 7:6 would not stand alone but would connect to verses either before or after it as part of a subsection. If 7:6 joins 7:7-11, then we have a number of important parallels and contrasts with 7:1-5.

  1. 7:1 begins with a negative command (“Do not judge”), and 7:6 begins with a negative command (“Do not give dogs what is holy”). For the larger section of 6:19–7:11, starting subsections with a prohibition seems to be a pattern (see 6:19 and 6:25).
  2. 7:1-5 addresses judging rightly among insiders, and 7:6-11 addresses judging rightly among outsiders. The motif of making judgments, then, unites both sections.
  3. 7:1-5 and 7:6-11 each have a prohibition, two rhetorical questions, and a final verse that identifies the listener with a label (“you hypocrite” in 7:5 and “you who are evil” in 7:11). These structural elements bolster the notion that 7:6 connects to 7:7-11 and isn’t an independently floating verse in the Sermon discourse.
  4. 7:1-5 and 7:6-11 may have the loose connection of “vision problem.” In 7:1-5, the hypocritical judge doesn’t notice the log in his own eye. In 7:6, dogs don’t value something holy when it is thrown to them, and pigs may confuse pearls with bits of food to eat. In 7:9, a cruel father might substitute a stone for a piece of bread, which would trick a hungry child because the items may look alike. And in 7:10, a cruel father might substitute a snake for a fish, which would also trick a hungry child because a snake might resemble an eel-like fish.

Observations about Matthew 7:6-11

If we grant that 7:6-11 is a subsection that should be held together (just like 6:19-24, 6:25-34, and 7:1-5 inside the larger block of 6:19–7:11), then here are several observations about this little unit.

  1. 7:6 is a command, and 7:7-11 explains how to obey it. The topic of prayer introduced in 7:7-8 is probably a prayer for wisdom, and this means the command (7:6) is followed by a prayer for wisdom in how to obey it (7:7-8). This kind of arrangement is found in James 1:2-8 where the command to count your trials joy (1:2-4) is followed by an exhortation to pray for wisdom in this effort (1:5-8).
  2. 7:6 involves a situation where dogs don’t recognize something “holy” for what it is, as well as a situation where a pig tramples precious pearls. The dogs and pigs don’t show discretion, appreciation, or discernment. In the illustrations of 7:9-10, the hungry child may not always show proper discernment when he is hungry, and only a cruel father would give a stone resembling bread or a fish resembling a snake.
  3. 7:7-11 is assurance that God, the trustworthy heavenly Father, will give the gifts of discernment and wisdom to obey the command of 7:6.
  4. 7:6 is a prohibition, and 7:7 is a positive command that shows proper obedience to it. 7:1 is a prohibition, and 7:5 is a positive command that shows proper obedience to it. In other words, both 7:1-5 and 7:6-11 contain prohibitions as well as instructions on how to obey them.

Zooming in on Matthew 7:6

Matthew 7:6 is a chiasm. Putting the elements of the verse in a different order, here is the warning: if we give what is holy to dogs, they may turn to attack us, and if we throw pearls before pigs, they may trample them underfoot. Important to note is that this verse is using “dogs” and “pigs” to refer to the same kinds of people, and “what is holy” and “pearls” refer to the same object.

Let’s think about the response of the animals in Matthew 7:6: attacking and trampling. That’s an instinctively violent response, isn’t it? It’s not mere rejection, it’s an offensive posture toward the meat-giver and pearl-caster. The pictures of dogs and pigs here are not of cute, domesticated, friendly animals, but scavenging, wild ones.

In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, attacking is something that opponents (persecutors) do. In Matthew 5:10, believers are blessed if they are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and in 5:11 believers are blessed if they encounter revilement and persecution all on Jesus’ account.

In Matthew 7:6, what is being cast before pigs and given to dogs? The traditional explanation is that “what is holy” and the “pearl” refers to the kingdom message, and I think this is correct. In Matthew 3, John the Baptist was proclaiming the kingdom and repentance (3:3). In Matthew 4, Jesus was proclaiming the kingdom and repentance (4:17). In Matthew 5:10-11, it is clear that not everyone will embrace this kingdom message and repent of their sins. Believers may face persecution and revilement. Such responses mean that the unbeliever is a dog or pig who is trampling the pearl of the kingdom, and Jesus says not to let them do that.

The image of pearls is used later in Matthew 13:45-46 as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. Thinking of the pearls in 7:6 this way is probably correct, then, especially since pearls were used by Jews as a metaphor for precious teaching. What teaching were Jesus and his disciples proclaiming that was more valuable than his kingdom message? The problem in 7:6 is that unbelievers may react strongly against this message, in the way a dog or pig will not appreciate sacrificial meat or precious pearls. The pigs and dogs in 7:6, therefore, aren’t equivalent to unbelievers in general but to opponents (persecutors) in particular.

The Missionary Orders in Matthew 10

It is widely observed that Matthew 10 may serve as an illustration for applying the prohibition in 7:6. Jesus said, “As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (10:12-15).

The disciples were to make a judgment about the homes: were they worthy or unworthy? It seems the worthiness of the home was conditioned on the response the disciples received. And what was it they were proclaiming as they went? “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (10:7). Put another way, the disciples were to cast the pearl of the kingdom, but if it turned out that a pig wanted to trample it, they were to shake the dust from their feet and leave.

Examples from Paul’s Missionary Travels

Could the prohibition in Matthew 7:6 have been practiced in Paul’s ministry? In Acts 13:49, the “word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.” The response? “But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district” (13:50). The opposition probably involved both Jews and Gentiles. What was the response Paul and Barnabas gave? “But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium” (13:51).

When Paul was in Thessalonica, he proclaimed the word (Acts 17:13). In response to this, Jews agitated and stirred up the crowds (probably comprised of both Jews and Gentiles), so Paul was sent on his way (17:14).

When Paul was in Corinth testifying that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:5), Jews opposed and reviled him, so “he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads!’” (18:6a).

Conclusion

Much more can still be said–and has been said–about Matthew 7:6. There may be plausible alternatives to the above arguments, but I’m convinced (for now) that the dogs and pigs represent unbelievers who trample the pearl of the kingdom message by attacking (or reviling, persecuting) the disciples of Jesus. The warning about not tolerating such trampling seems to have been enacted in the missionary activities of the disciples and of the apostle Paul.

Do you find other interpretations of the pigs and pearls more compelling? Or do you, like I do, believe the most common interpretation of Matthew 7:6 is still the most likely?

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Filed under Hermeneutics, Kingdom of God, Matthew, Sermon on the Mount

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