Don’t give holy things to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls in front of pigs. They will stomp on the pearls, then turn around and attack you.
Anyone been tempted to give pearls to pigs lately? Me either. It’s a great metaphor, though, isn’t it? But what does it mean?
Dogs and pigs, of course, aren’t all that positive in the Bible. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus confronts some demons named Legion and sends them into a herd of pigs, which then rushes off a cliff into the sea (Mark 5:1-21). The Gospel readers are meant to catch the allusion to Rome and its imperial army, and to the colonial powers that possess them. Jesus, and God’s kingdom that he heralds, are the way to liberation from such oppressive possession.
Likewise, the dogs and pigs in the Sermon on the Mount may indeed follow a traditional Jewish reference to the nations, and particularly to Rome.
Don’t, Jesus counsels, give “holy things” to the nations, to Rome and its imperial promises of power and prestige. They will trample the holy things and then turn around and rip you to shreds.
Fair enough, empires tend to do that, but what are the “holy things” Jesus’ listeners are to withhold?
A common suggestion is the treasure/pearls of the kingdom, or the Gospel. Seems strange, though, doesn’t it? Don’t share the Good News with the nations? Matthew is the one who ends his story with the grand command to tell the story to the whole world.
Fortunately, Pastor Vadim’s late professor Glen Stassen comes to the rescue again. He proposes that this saying about pigs and pearls fits into the same pattern that the Sermon on the Mount follows after the Beatitudes; in fact, this is the culmination of that pattern. So, we should hear an implied, “You have heard it said” at the beginning. Then, just like the traditional statements earlier (like “don’t murder”) are followed by some intentional, transformative practices (like “leave the alter and seek reconciliation with a sister or brother”), we should understand the verses that follow pigs and pearls to contain some connected practical advice.
In this case, what follows is, “Ask, seek, knock.” Stassen works backwards, then, to interpret the “holy things.” If the practical advice is about asking, seeking, knocking—in essence, turning to God with our needs and desires—then the “holy things” we are to withhold from the nations, the empires, are “our trust, our loyalty, and our prayers.”[^1]
This resonates with me. You have heard it said, don’t entrust your sacred things to the Empire, for they will trample them and turn on you. But I say to you, further, entrust your most sacred desires, hopes, and prayers to God, who is generous and trustworthy, and will always hold your most sacred things gently and kindly.
I entrust much to “the nations.” I give my money to a big bank and my retirement savings to the markets. I give my credit cards to Apple. I give my data—my email, my personal information, my preferences, my photos (and the list goes on)—to Google. Too frequently I entrust my happiness and search for meaning to rituals of consumption. And though it’s a bit overwhelming to think about, I realize any of these "nations" might trample my stuff and turn on me.
But my most sacred things—my deepest longings and desires, my hopes, my prayers—what of them? To whom do I entrust my truest shalom, my wholeness, my being-well? Do I sometimes entrust these to the fortune and prestige offered by empire? Probably, yes. The risk is real, though, that this could end in my being ripped to shreds.
I want—I really do—to entrust my most sacred hopes to a good and generous God, who promises to be trustworthy and to hold these “holy things” of mine kindly and gently.
But what does such trust look like? How do I live it out? Trust, it seems, is what the Sermon is largely about. Try out reconciling with others; practice turning the other cheek, loving enemies, doing good to those who hurt me; trust faithful love to be fulfilling; worry less about consumption; judge less; speak simply and honestly.
That is, give myself over to these counterintuitive, countercultural, counter-empire ways of living, and trust. Trust that I will find what I long for and hope for most deeply. Trust that God will generously provide.
[^1]: Glen H. Stassen. “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:21-7:12. Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (Summer, 2003), 267-308.