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The Most Difficult Verse of the Sermon on the Mount

March 7th, 2012 by Oleg Kostyuk

Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces. – Matthew 7:6

After our study last Tuesday (watch the episode here) I thought that it would be nice to share some additional thoughts regarding the most difficult verse of the Sermon on the Mount. I will be delighted to hear your thoughts and your comments regarding the verse.

In order to understand it clearly we need to understand the context of this very verse.

The rabbinic usage of the word “dogs” sometimes applied to persons ignorant of the law, or to Gentiles. Matthew 15:26 shows that this application of the epithet was already present in NT times. (Why Jesus used this epithet referring to the Gentiles is a topic for another post :)) What is clear though, is that the interpretation that Jesus was being harsh in his reference to the Gentiles cannot be reconciled with the context of the message of the Sermon on the Mount; where Jesus encourages His disciples to love others and to not demonstrate superiority (Mat. 7:1-5).

Second century interpreters applied this saying of Jesus in Matthew 7:6 to the Christian Holy Communion, which was available only for the baptized. Those, who were not baptized were excluded from the inner circle of the believers. (Didache 9:5)

In fact, some of the earliest church buildings that have survived were built with two sections, one for believers and one for the people called “catechumens.” The latter were people who had not yet professed belief in Jesus and were thereby not baptized. The catechumens sat in a special section at the back. They were welcomed into worship even though they were not yet fully committed to the Christian faith. They would attend, sing the hymns, listen to the sermon and then be politely ushered out. Those who had accepted faith in Christ and had been baptized would remain and participate in the celebration of Holy Communion. It was deemed inappropriate for those not yet baptized to take part in this sacred meal.[1]

What do you think about this interpretation of the text or, rather, misinterpretation?

I believe, there is a plausible interpretation of this mysterious text. Jesus cites a well-known (and probably pharisaic) proverb here. Pharisees and scribes as well as others were excluding the Gentiles. But  Jesus in Matthew 28:16-20 directed His apostles to pass on all that he taught them to all the nations. Therefore, there could not be a direction to show favoritism towards one group and hate the other group.

We cannot deny that Matthew 7:6 does discourage the sharing of something quite precious with those who are despised. But, immediately following this verse, Matthew cites several sayings of Jesus that show the generosity of God.

Why such a contrast?

It is clear that this contrast enhances the message that follows in Matthew 7:7-12. In other words, this text can be seen as the following, “You have heard that it was said, ‘do not give what is holy to the dogs’ (Mat. 7:6), but I say to you, ‘If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!’ (Mat. 7:11).”

To sum up, a disciple of Jesus must be willing to share even such precious objects as the Word of God and its interpretation with the Gentiles. This passage is dealing with the principle that Jesus announced in Matthew 5:20 where He said that our righteousness has to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Openness and generosity make one a better practitioner of the law than the scribes and Pharisees were.

How can we in our everyday life follow this commandment of “no favoritism”?

Finally, I would like to share the prayer of Jürgen Moltmann who beautifully describes the principles of the Sermon on the Mount which were embodied in Jesus’ life and can be embodied in our daily life:

Jesus Christ, our Friend,

We cannot walk in your company

Without our neighbours,

Those near at hand and those far away,

Friend and enemies.

Continue to be the friend of sinners,

Poor with the poor,

Weak with the weakly,

Forsaken with those who are abandoned,

That they, and we with them, may have life.

We hope for the coming of your kingdom

As we hope for peace in this divided world.

We believe in your presence

Just as we trust in meaningfulness,

Even when faced with the meaninglessness of death.

We look for your coming

As we hunger for our daily bread.

Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.



[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), p. 98.

 

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