“Do not give dogs sacred things to eat, nor try to get pigs to dine on pearls. For they will simply walk all over them and turn and take a bite out of you.” —Matthew 7:6

Since I was a little boy I have had a very hard time with this passage of scripture. It seems so out of place. Where is the kindness of Christ? How does characterizing certain people as pigs and dogs fit with Jesus’ message of compassion that pervades almost all his other stories? Over and over again in scripture we see Jesus reaching out and demonstrating inclusive love. We see him accepting a Samaritan woman who all the other Jews scorned. He then rescues and forgives a prostitute who is about to be stoned. He even holds up a gentile (who happens to be a Roman centurion) as a model of faith. And now all of the sudden in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus equates some people with “pigs and dogs” and tells us to not give them the pearls of life. How can this be?

The traditional interpretation suggests the following: Some of us have certain wonderful treasures - the pearls of right thinking and right ideas - and we are naturally interested in giving these treasures to everyone around us. Some others, however, are so controlled by their own sin and personal and political delusions that they are not capable of accepting our treasures. They are the pigs and dogs in question. Our job is to tell them the truth. If they won’t listen to us then we are not to waste any more time on them. If they can’t see the wisdom of our advice we should shake the dirt from our feet and move on.

Dallas Willard in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, strongly refutes this view. Without any equivocation he states: “It is hard to imagine anything more opposed to the spirit of Jesus than this. So let us be clear once and for all: Jesus is not suggesting that certain classes of people are to be viewed as pigs or dogs. Nor is he saying that we should not give good things and do good deeds to people who might reject or misuse them. In fact, his teaching is precisely the opposite. We are to be like the Father in the heaven, who is kind to the thankful and the evil.”

Willard goes on to explain in a way that finally brings this passage to life for me. He contends: “The problem with the pearls for the pigs is not that the pigs are unworthy. It is not worthiness that is in question here at all, but helpfulness. Pigs cannot digest pearls, nor can dogs. And what a picture this is of our efforts to correct and control others by pouring our good [ideas] upon them.”

Willard believes Jesus is not being critical of those upon whom the pearl is being pushed, but to the contrary, he is drawing this picture to correct the “pearl pusher” - the one who processes the good stuff - the one who has the right answers. In a crude analogy Jesus is saying, “Your dog does not see any value in fine jewelry. Are you surprised that when you try to force feed him pearls that he has no interest?”

I think one of the greatest temptations for all of us is to become pearl pushers. We have a tendency to believe that all we need to do to correct the social problems of our world is to talk. We enter into a monologue of promoting specific ideas and we think that our words are more than sufficient to convince those around us to change. We know our standards and rules are not bad. In fact they are very good. They are of tremendous value and we are confident that they are worth a fortune as compared to the poverty that we see in the broken lives of our neighbors. We have the solutions. We couldn’t possibly be wrong in “pushing our pearls” on our brothers and sisters, for they surely need them.

But herein lies the problem. Talking alone is never enough. Pushing orthodoxy, i.e. right ideas, right thinking, good standards and good rules by telling people what to do does not change lives. It is akin to trying to force a dog or a pig to understand the value of pearls. The outcome is likely to be anger rather than transformation. We will get bit. They will not change.

This message of Jesus buried within the Sermon on the Mount is clear. We do have the truth. The sacred things are real (Jesus just spent an entire sermon sharing these with us. He wasn’t just wasting his breath). But, as we watch our neighbors make choices that will ultimately destroy their lives we cannot fall prey to the temptation to simply push our pearls on them. Force feeding through monologue never works. Jesus seems to be showing a different way.

Perhaps his intended lesson is this: While cherishing our pearls we must also value people. We can’t just talk we must walk. We must practice what we preach. As faith without works is dead so are beliefs without behavior. Yes, orthodoxy is a necessary predicate for transformation but right ideas are always akin to a lifeless lecture without orthopraxy, i.e. the “right practice” of integrity, love, and sacrifice. Maybe the “pigishness” of our culture — the broken and dysfunctional lives of those around us — is more readily changed by selfless examples of integrity than self-righteous words of animus.