The Hard Sayings: Pearls Before Swine

A sermon from Matthew 7:1-6 by Fr. Justin Clemente, delivered to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on October 16, 2022. Part of our ongoing “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” series.

Wait, What’s This About Again?

Sometimes a passage stops you in your tracks. Sometimes a Hard Saying proves to be hard because you think you already know what it says, when in fact you might not.

That’s what happened to me this week. Matthew 7:6 is so very well known – casting your pearls before swine is an incredibly recognizable phrase – but the question is, what does it mean? What or who are the dogs and swine? What or who are the pearls and the holy thing? The typical view of this verse to say that the dogs and swine are those that are hostile to the Good News. And, we should not allow the pearl of God to be unduly trampled on.

That’s certainly what I thought. The only problem is that it has nothing to do with the context of Matthew 7. What’s the context? Jesus is teaching against harsh and unjust criticism in the body of Christ. Against brothers and sisters “cancelling” one another, pronouncing final judgment in a condemnatory way. “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

This, of course, is the new John 3:16 of our world. Everyone seems to know Matthew 7:1. “Well, you know, Jesus said not to judge!” Forgetting the very next verse, which assumes we will have use discrimination and discernment in this life, especially in the church. The question is, will we exercise it in the right way.

That’s the issue of Matthew 7:1-5. So, the natural thing is to follow that right on into verse 6. So, let me rock your world by suggesting an alternate view of this Hard Saying: what if the pearl and “holy thing” is a brother or sister in the Lord? What if, in line with verses 1-5, the lesson is that we should not allow each other to be trampled on through uncharitable judgment? If that’s the case, this Hard Saying falls perfectly in line with what came before it and the takeaways follow just as easily.

On Not Crushing & Devouring One Another

Christians are called to humility with one another

We are called to speak into each other’s lives – even when it’s difficult – but we are to do so with a right estimation of our own need before God. Look again at Matthew 7:5: You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” We are tempted to magnification in the sins of others, as if under a microscope, and to blindness of our own, as if looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. Here, it’s speck in a brother’s eye that looks small in comparison to the one in our own. Both have the same essential problem, you see. Awareness of that produces humility.

Paul writes in Romans 15:1-7, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” … May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Listen, in the way we deal with one another, be sure you do not take the seat of Christ. The judge has pardoned you, and so you must seek to give that pardon to one another. Humility in judgment. Humility when a hard conversation is needed. Humility in the failures of other Christians.

In the book Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, the life of criminal Jean Valjean is changed through an incredible act of mercy by a Christian bishop. Though caught stealing, the bishop forgives him – even telling the police that he forgot to take his best silver – the candlesticks. The chains of the police officers holding him have to be undone, and he is released. As the bishop raises him up, he says, “By the passion and blood, God has raised you out of darkness. I have saved your soul for God. You must use it to become an honest man.”

But Javert (Jea-ver), the inspector, the law man, will not let him go. He pursues Valjean all his life until the tables turn on him. Valjean has Javert cornered, but spares his life. The mercy of God is intolerable to Javert. In fact, it drives him to take his own life! “I am the law, and the law is not mocked!” he says. “I’ll spit his pity right back in his face. There is nothing on earth that we share – it is either Valjean or Javert!”

Friends, we must never become a Javert to one another, lest the demands of God’s good and pure law turn on us and devour us, too.

Christians are always to aim at repair and reconciliation

This teaching is not an excuse to ignore problems and sins within the Christian family. On the contrary, Jesus says, “remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” But, speak the truth in love and aim at peace. Be careful, says St. Paul, “Towalk…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)

What Jesus is ruling out is not discernment when discernment is needed. Not tough conversations when tough conversation are needed. Not church discipline when appropriate. No, Jesus is ruling out Christians passing final judgment on one another. You know what this sounds like when you hear it: “Oh, he’ll always be that way. Hopeless! She’ll never really get it. She’s just that way.”

Jesus tells us that rather that with the measure we use it will be measured to us (v. 2). Bishop Robert Barron offers some helpful insights on how to offer charitable criticism when needed:

One: Your level of criticism should be measured by your willingness to help your brother or sister. Two: If you are committed to helping the person you are criticizing, then have it. Three: If not, and especially if the problem is minor, then your criticism should be muted, too.

But what about gossip and unjust criticism? Dave Ramsey (surprising source, I know) defines gossip as “belligerent and negative commentary to those who have no capacity to deal constructively with the problem.” Ramsey holds to a zero-tolerance policy for gossip within his business organization. He tells the story of how, after presenting some new direction to his staff, he had to deal with a case of gossip. He had left the meeting, but forget his keys. He came back into the room only to find one of the women in the meeting addressing the rest of the staff in a way that was harshly critical of Ramsey. He brought her aside into his office and she was fired. Now in that business example, she quickly received the measure she gave. Instead of aiming to repair, help, and reconcile, she was tearing down and ended up tearing herself down.

We’re not going to be firing parishioners, but that is the model for the Church, too. In fact, we have a higher calling, don’t we? When someone in the church has offended you, here’s what you do: you go to them. Talk it out in a constructive, loving way. With the person. Not others who can do nothing about it.

Regular, Normal Christian Fellowship Reveals Warts

Why does Jesus have to tell his followers don’t throw each other out to the dogs and the pigs? Because authentic, deep, real Christian community will inevitably reveal your faults, shortcomings, and sins. “We all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:2) It’s par for the course. And unless you understand that that’s part of what God wants to do in your life, you will run for the hills! Being together in Christ means learning how to help each other and being gracious along the way.

Here’s my concern: if you don’t recognize the reality and necessity of Matthew 7, I wonder if you’re keeping yourself on the edges of the Christian community. If you keep yourself on the edge, where no one can ever see your faults and you need, then you may be an attender, but you’re not growing in love for the body of Christ. And others won’t get the joy of loving you well, either.

I’ll end with one final story. Recently in my walks around the community, I ran into a woman I’ll call Debbie. She told me she’s out of fellowship with the church, and here’s why: she can’t stand the cliques in church. She doesn’t like it when church becomes a popularity contest. I don’t either!

How did I respond? I told her what it makes all the difference is what you’re there for and why you’ve come. If you are here for Jesus, for what you have received from Christ, then how you are treat your brothers and sisters is clear. Better yet, you’ll grow together, helping each other to link arms, stand up straight as we learn to lean on one another. Then, our last thought in the world would be to see other torn apart or trampled underfoot.

For this and more we give all the glory, all the praise, all the honor to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.