Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t cut deals with dogs and pigs: Trust God!

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September 5, 2012 by jmar198013

“Don’t give your allegiance to stray dogs, and never negotiate with wild boars. They will betray your trust and tear you apart. If you start asking God, you’ll receive. If you’re seeing to his empire and justice, you’ll find out. He’ll open closed doors if you’re knocking. Whoever asks, receives. Whoever searches, finds. The door is opened to whoever knocks. Think of it this way: if your child asked you for bread, would you give him a rock? Or if she asked you for fish, would you give her a rattlesnake? Well, if you sinful people know how to respond appropriately to your children’s needs, don’t you trust that your heavenly Father knows even better how to respond appropriately to your requests? So give only as you would get—that’s what Moses and the Prophets were trying to teach you all along.” (Matt. 7.6-12)

Matt. 7.6-12 is the last teaching of the body of the Sermon on the Mount. Matt. 5.21-48 is the first movement of the Sermon’s body, and is comprised of Jesus’ commentary on the Torah. Matt. 6.1-18 is the body’s second movement, and it gives instruction on common practices of piety: alms, prayer, and fasting. The third movement of the Sermon’s body, Matt. 6.19-7.12, takes up the popular wisdom of Jesus’ day. The teachings tend to have a proverbial character and structure to them. This is the case with Matt. 7.6, which has a tight, symmetrical structure common to Jewish wisdom:

A Do not offer what is holy to dogs

B or put pearls before pigs

B’ or they will trample them underfoot

A’ and turn to tear you to pieces.

Matt. 7.6 has puzzled interpreters time out of mind. Many choose to place Matt. 7.6 with the material in Matt. 7.1-5. We are not to judge, then, but some just aren’t ready to hear the gospel and will react violently if you try to force feed it to them. However, other interpreters have seen, I believe correctly, that Matt. 7.6 is a new subject, distinct from 7.1-5, and vv7-12 are the commentary on Matt. 7.6. Among those who argue thus are Glen Stassen and Gene Davenport. Stassen and Davenport suggest, quite independently of one another, that offering holy things to dogs and pearls to pigs is a metaphor for giving our worship, trust, and loyalty to that which is not God. Says Davenport:

To … offer pearls to swine … is not simply … a matter of confusion … Rather it is a matter of sin … The passage is a warning of the consequences of succumbing to the enticements of Satan and Mammon. The gods of the Darkness are devouring gods … Sooner or later our gods will turn on us and will either—like the werewolves of myth—make us like themselves, destroy us, or do both.

Stassen, noting that Jews often referred to Gentiles as dogs and pigs–especially in reference to the Roman occupation of Palestine–argues that Jesus is specifically warning disciples not to place their trust or loyalty in the power structures of the world and its empires. Rather, the church is called to live out Matt. 7.7-12: trust our Father in heaven and model his generosity.

It is telling that Jesus has to warn us not to give what is holy to dogs or pearls to pigs. That he must tell us so means that we do not, on our own, know any better than to do that. As I noted at the end of my previous post in this series, this is the reason we are not qualified to judge others. People who do not know any better than to give what is holy to dogs or pearls to pigs do not always know what judgment is appropriate. That we would, left to our own devices, do what Jesus warns against in Matt. 7.6, signals that our judgment is deficient.

Rather than give our loyalty and trust to the gods of empire and mammon (in all their various permutations), Jesus tells us to trust in our heavenly Father. He furthermore says that everyone who asks, receives. But this bold assertion is not unqualified, for Jesus does not mean that we get everything on our wish list. Again, people who do not know any better than to give what is holy to dogs or pearls to pigs are unlikely to always know what we need. Jesus says that even such a confused and sinful people knows better than to give stones to their children when they ask for bread. And yet, it is also the case that such people as we are might be prone to asking God for stones when we need bread.

What we place our trust in shapes our values, our ethics, and our forms of life. We tend to embody what we worship. Jesus warns that if we place our trust in the gods of empire and mammon, we will be trampled underfoot and torn to pieces. That is because the engines of mammon and empire are violence, greed, and wantonness. By placing our trust in our heavenly Father, we learn to model his generosity. Thus the “Golden Rule” of Matt. 7.12: do unto others as we would have done to us. But this teaching is not without context. Again, Jesus frames that teaching in his discussion about how our heavenly Father cares for us. We do not get to decide what the Golden Rule looks like in practice, for we do not know better than to give what is holy to dogs or pearls to pigs. We do not always know what we need, so how can we know what is best for others?

The Golden Rule is what happens when we care for others in the ways God cares for us. And this is precisely what the Sermon on the Mount has schooled us in. To live the Golden Rule is to work to make peace with those with whom we are angry, rather than seeking to destroy them (Matt. 5.21-26). It is being faithful to our marriage covenants (5.27-32). It is telling the truth without apology (5.33-37). It is patiently refusing to believe that violence is a solution (5.38-42), but instead loving our enemies and extending to them God’s hospitality (5.43-48). It is quietly go about our forms of piety, without preening (6.1-18). It is investing our treasure and ourselves in God’s time by caring for the needy and vulnerable (6.19-34). It is refusing to judge others, but confessing our own need, humbly reaching out to others (7.1-5). These forms of relating to others in their own ways all witness to God’s generous care of us. When we so live, we are living faithful to the Golden Rule.

Jesus says that the Golden Rule is the Torah and Prophets, not that it replaces them. Living faithful to the Golden Rule means that we know the Torah and the Prophets. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has schooled us in them thoroughly, and is the hermeneutical lens through which the church reads the Torah and Prophets.

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4 thoughts on “Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t cut deals with dogs and pigs: Trust God!

  1. Jack Hairston says:

    Teacher to departing listener: “Wait! I have more pearls to cast!”

  2. jmar198013 says:

    @Jack: That’s how it happened to me!

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