The phrase, “cast not pearls before swine,” is a verse from the Bible that has entered the parlance of the English language. People often utter this phrase in frustration or dismissal when someone does not heed advice or wisdom. This usage follows the predominant interpretation of this verse from the Bible. However, when one looks at the passage in context, perhaps the dominant understanding of this phrase is somewhat misleading.
Matthew 7:6 says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Society in Jesus’ day held dogs and swine in very low regard. Dogs were not the cute and cuddly pets that we adore today. Most dogs were barely domesticated, roaming free in towns and cities, scavenging for meals amongst the refuse and decay. Of course, swine were well-known as unclean animals, unfit for consumption according to the dietary laws of the Torah. Therefore, this phrase can serve as a parable that we are not to give what is valuable and sacred to individuals unworthy of such honor.
The major question of this verse concerns the identity of those who are deemed “unworthy”. Who are the dogs and the swine? If you were to look up this verse in bible studies or online resources, many would interpret this passage to mean the believers should not waste their time sharing the message of the gospel to those who refuse to hear the good news of Jesus. Some point to other passages of scripture, such as Matthew 10:14, where Jesus instructs the disciples to shake the dust off their feet, if a house or town rejects their message. In other words, the unworthy in this sense are those who reject the gospel. This could be the meaning of the verse, but there might be another interesting interpretation based on the context of the passage.
Jesus just finished teaching in Matthew 7:1-5 that believers are not to judge and have a condemning heart, labeling anyone as unworthy of God’s love and gospel. How are we then to properly discern who is undeserving of the good news of Jesus? For, even if individuals reject the gospel, they still have the potential to believe Jesus. Statistics vary, but most agree that it takes multiple exposures to the gospel before someone will definitively respond (positively or negatively). The Bible also calls on believers to never give up sharing the word and love of God, even to those who continually reject.
Perhaps the dogs and swine are not identified as those who reject the gospel, but those who are judgmental and condemning in their heart. This verse may be referring to those who are self-righteous, like the Pharisees. In Philippians 3:2 the apostle Paul labeled individuals as dogs who demanded believers to follow the prescriptions of the law in addition to faith in Jesus. These were individuals who had “confidence in the flesh,” just like Paul, when he himself was a Pharisee.
What Jesus may be teaching is that disciples should not put their trust in leaders or invest time with supposed believers who judge others. He illustrates that if we cast our pearls before swine, they will trample them and tear us to pieces. Pharisees, characterized by self-righteousness and pride, used the respect others gave them to oppress and exclude through legalistic religion. Do not cast your lot among those whose character is patterned by judgment and condemnation of others. Jesus may also be playing on the imagery of this verse. Most of Jesus’ day would label the dregs of society or Gentiles as dogs and swine, but not our Savior. He showed compassion towards them. He turns the tables and targets the self-righteous as the truly unclean and villainous. If you give these swine your “pearls” (your respect, your attention, your devotion), they will trample over it and take advantage of you. Beware the dogs of legalism, who put their confidence in the flesh. Do not judge, think more highly of yourself than you ought (Romans 12:3), and do not associate with those who easily condemn others.
Josh Moore is the Pastor of First Baptist Church, Sharon, Tennessee. To learn more about Sharon First Baptist Church, please visit facebook.com/sharonfirstbaptist.