Open Matthew 7:1-6.
Before being judgemental of others, judge yourself. Jesus’ teaching is as relevant as the day he first gave it.
But there’s more going on here. Why did Jesus need to say this? Who did he have in mind? Why did his followers need to be aware of this? And who are the “dogs” and “swine” Jesus warned about?
As always, we need to ask what it meant for them before we ask what it means for us. Otherwise we’re likely to apply this text in inappropriate ways (e.g. to undermine investigative journalists).
Jesus warns the crowd against being judgemental, but the message is directed against some who see it as their job to keep the rest in line. He already named them in 5:20: Pharisees who want to make everyone Torah-obedient, and scribes who teach the Torah’s application. These leaders were already judging Jesus to be a fake leader, not the king of the kingdom. They were present on the mountainside not to learn but to pick holes in Jesus’ teaching so as to undermine his authority.
They critically evaluated every word, looking for grains of untruth. It didn’t even occur to them that they had already made up their minds about Jesus. Their prejudice against him was the log in their own eye. They had already judged that Jesus was not the king of Israel, so their own judgement would become the basis on which they will be judged as unfit leaders of Israel.
Old Testament prophets focused on judgement and salvation. When Israel would not follow their heavenly king, the prophets announced that God would judge their disobedience. From the time of Judges, Israel had been repeatedly trodden underfoot by gentiles. In the worst cases, the holy place itself was “trampled underfoot” (Daniel 8:13).
Imagine the priests in Jerusalem preparing the morning sacrifice meal for God, and a dog snatching the holy food and tearing into it. What a terrible Torah violation! “Dog” was one of the insults used to describe gentiles (non-Jews). Gentile dogs in the holy temple space would violate the holy covenant. It had happened a couple of times — when Babylon invaded (587 BC), and when Antiochus Epiphanies IV entered (167 BC). A pig was even more unclean than a dog. To desecrate the holy altar so the Jews could no longer offer sacrifices, Antiochus sacrificed a pig.
A pearl trader might keep his most precious pearls tucked away, laying them out only for the discerning buyer who could appreciate them. The holy things of God were like that: not to be put on display for gentiles who could see only commercial value and not their true significance. Hezekiah made that mistake: showing his treasures to the king of Babylon, only to have Babylon turn and trample Judah underfoot (Isaiah 39).
But Jesus is not speaking of gentile oppressors. The dogs and pigs he has in mind are the leaders of Israel who will judge him unfit to live. These dogs will desecrate what is holy — Jesus’ own life, a precious sacrifice. He’s careful what he lays out before the swine who will trample what is precious and tear him apart.
The way Jesus tells the Jewish story is a bit like Animal Farm. The farm creatures rejected the true Farmer, so the pigs were running the farm. Given the way humans (including Israel) had rejected God as sovereign, it was clear they would also reject his appointed ruler (Christ). Then they would turn on those who carried the message of Jesus’ kingship. Ultimately Jesus’ disciples also died as martyrs — saints torn apart by swine who refused Jesus’ authority.
At the heart of this this pericope is a warning regarding how we judge Jesus. If we judge Jesus wrongly, we will never see clearly to help our family members find freedom.
Matthew 7:1-6 (my translation)
1 Stop judging, so that you won’t be judged. 2 The judgement you use will be used to judge you. What you mete out will be meted out to you (plural).
3 Why do you see the sawdust in your brother’s eye, and pay no attention to the timber in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, “Let me get the sawdust out of your eye,” … and look: the timber in your own eye! 5 Actor! First get the timber out of your own eye. Then you will see clearly to get the sawdust out of your brother’s eye (singular).
6 Don’t give holy things to dogs; don’t lay out your pearls for pigs. You don’t want them walking all over them and then turning to tear you (plural) apart.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 276–278:
The choice of dogs and pigs, both regarded by the Jews as unclean animals, provides a suitable contrast with “sacred things,” but does not identify what sort of people they represent. …
The imagery is compressed. The “sacred things” to be kept from the dogs may well be consecrated food … The animals’ reaction is perhaps to be read chiastically: the pigs trample the pearls and the dogs attack those who feed them, though pigs are quite capable of a violent attack if provoked. The last clause indicates that the saying is aimed not only at keeping sacred and precious things safe from misuse, but also more prudentially at the disciples’ own safety: those who fail to exercise a proper discrimination are liable to get hurt themselves.
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