Pearls Before Swine: Jesus the Riddler and What He Might Have Meant


The Greeks and Romans didn’t use paragraphs.

So when my Bible lumps Matthew 7:6 in with the discussion on judgment right before it, I take it on faith that they’ve got the flow right. In this case, though, I’m not sure they do.

It’s curious either way that Jesus would follow up a long teaching on learning not to judge one another with a harsh-sounding injunction against “casting your pearls before swine and giving what is holy to the dogs.”

To be exact, he said:

Don’t give what is holy to dogs or toss your pearls before swine, or they will trample them with their feet, turn, and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6)

Clean and Unclean

Before we explore the deeper meaning of this statement, it’s good to acknowledge a few foundational points that were obvious to Jesus’ audience.

The Jewish people had a well developed doctrine of holiness, expressed in the terms “clean” and “unclean.” It was given to them in Leviticus 19 and other places, in a series of “Holiness Code” laws that drew sharp distinctions between clean things and unclean things, holy things and unholy things. These things are never to be mixed.

Even in the law itself, it’s fairly clear that these laws are largely symbolic in nature. For example, the Jewish people were forbidden from eating a number of “unclean” animals, even though all animals were given to the human race as a whole for food in Genesis 9:3.

These dietary distinctions, which we call the kosher laws, were given for the express purpose of setting the Jewish people apart from the nations around them.

Mankind has always fellowshipped and found community around food: by declaring much of the pagans’ diet off-limits, God declared pagan-Jewish fellowship off-limits as well. This is the symbolic significance of Peter’s vision in Acts 10, where God himself lowers a sheet full of “unclean animals” from heaven and instructs Peter to eat them. When Peter protests, God answers, “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.”

While most Christians have (rightly, I think) understood this as meaning the kosher laws are not incumbent on believers, the bigger point is that the Gentiles, those who have been separated from the people of God, are no longer to be thus separated. The way has been made for the two to become one, as was the ultimate plan from the beginning.

But to reiterate: Jesus’ hearers had a strong sense of clean and unclean that stood at the core of their identity as a holy people, separated for God.

Dogs and pigs, which Jesus mentions here, were both unclean animals. In fact, it was common to refer to Gentile PEOPLE as “dogs.” Pigs are probably the most infamous of non-kosher meats.

To turn over “that which is holy” to something unclean, something outside of the covenant and a symbol of separation from God, would be unthinkable.

The image is that of feeding a dog consecrated meat from God’s altar, or tossing pearls—a precious substance identified with holiness and the kingdom of God in various places throughout Scripture, Old Testament and New—into a pig pen.

To do so wouldn’t just be foolish, it would be a heinous insult to God—a desecration. It would make a mockery of their own set-apart identity as God’s people.

An Awkward Juxtaposition

There are scholars who posit that the Sermon on the Mount is not a sermon, with a proper flow; that it is a collection of sayings given by Jesus at different times and places and compiled by Matthew. But many scholars (and me) disagree. Jesus’ teachings DO follow on one another and create a master teaching on living by faith and walking by the Spirit.

So why the startling juxtaposition, here, of “do not judge” followed by what appears to be a harshly judgmental statement?

After all, many have taken Jesus’ words to mean PEOPLE. View certain people as swine or dogs, and don’t share holy things with them.

But if we’ve taken Jesus seriously for the previous five verses, we would need to be very cautious before making that kind of value judgment against someone.

His own life also warns us against it, because he had a habit of associating with, eating with, healing, and helping people others considered “unclean,” including Gentiles, Samaritans, prostitutes, demoniacs, tax collectors (considered thieves and traitors, Jewish people who essentially capitalized on the misfortunes of their own people by selling them out to the Romans), and lepers.


This Isn’t About People at All

Maybe the imagery of swine and dogs isn’t about what we share with other people, but about how we ourselves use the holy things in our lives. The way we treat the gifts God gives us: our own chosenness, our own relationship to God, our right to approach him in prayer, the revelations and truths we’ve been entrusted with.

Maybe it’s about how we view and treat God’s goodness to us.

In this sense, choosing to judge someone else, when we ourselves are in desperate need of grace and understanding, is a “tossing your pearls before swine.” It so misses the value of the pearl, God’s mercy and forgiveness extended to us, that it uses it in a wrong way.

Who would ever choose to throw pearls to swine?

Only someone who doesn’t understand the value of the pearl.

Or maybe …

The People Are the Pearls

The people ARE the pearls. Maybe when Pharisees threw the prostitutes in their culture “to the dogs,” Jesus said they were throwing away something holy.

Jesus came to redeem, literally to buy back, his people. He redeemed them from sin, renewed their covenant with him, and made them holy once more.

He drew pearls out of the mud, rescued them from swine, and polished them back to beauty again.

Maybe that is what he is saying here. Maybe his talk of swine and dogs is ironic, meant to call the attention of his audience to how judgmental and condemning they had been heretofore and how they were in fact reversing the truth: what they called clean was unclean, and what they called unclean could be made clean again.

When we miss the truth in such a soul-bending way, our mishandling of one another will certainly “turn again and rend us.”

Or maybe …

It’s About Caring for the Pigs

The spiritual writer Dallas Willard wrote of this passage that it calls us to be careful in the way we “minister” to others: that even when we know we have all the right answers, if others are not ready for them, the right answers can do more harm than good. Pigs that try to eat pearls will be hurt by them. They can’t be digested or made use of. The result is hurt both to the minister and to the one ministered to.

There is undoubtedly truth to this. Jesus exercised caution in what he said to whom, and when he said it. The deepest parts of his message he shared with no one but his closest disciples, and he told them to tell no one else until the time was right—after his death and resurrection.

So maybe that IS what he was saying. The reality is, not everyone is receptive. Not everyone will honor what should be honored. Some will take it, trample it, and do great harm to us and to our message. We are not to judge one another, but that doesn’t mean we are blind to plain facts.

When Mary was told she would bear the Son of God by the Spirit of God, she “pondered these things in her heart.” She was wise: she protected the pearl God gave her. She did not expose it to mockery or herself to unnecessary danger.

In the church we can feel a certain amount of pressure to share everything, especially if it comes from God: we are after all people of the Great Commission. But Jesus here gives us permission to keep some things close, to keep them holy, personal, secret, treasured in our hearts where they transform us but do not invite the attacks of others.

So maybe that is what Jesus was saying.


The truth is, I don’t know.

And this leads me to my favorite interpretation of them all …

Why God Hides Things

God hides things. This is a fact, and it’s stated all throughout Scripture. He doesn’t hide things maliciously or to our harm—it’s more like he has built riddles into the universe.

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to investigate a matter. (Proverbs 25:2)

When Jesus is hardest to understand, I often ask myself if he’s riddling. And sometimes, I believe he is. Like here. I think the gist of this passage may be something quite different: that it’s Jesus saying, “This is why God hides things.”

Don’t expect pearls to be lying around in the mud. Don’t expect holy things to be scattered in the gravel, out in the open, where they will be trampled, scorned, misunderstood, misheard.

If you want to go deeper with God, if you want to understand and walk in greater things, you have to put in more effort than just strolling around checking out the ditches. God’s most precious treasures are not lying on the sidewalk like a misplaced ten-dollar bill.

So the correct paragraphing, maybe, isn’t, “Don’t judge … don’t cast your pearls before swine.” It’s “Don’t cast your pearls before swine …. Seek.”

The first part may be a riddle, a proverb, a statement of the way things obviously are that’s meant to make us ask what treasures might exist for us if we go seeking.

“Seek,” Jesus says in the very next verse, “and keep on seeking. Ask, and keep on asking. Knock, and keep on knocking.”

There is more here, more treasure, more beautiful and sacred and precious things, than you can dream of.

So lift yourself out of the pig pen and come looking.

Living with the Maybes

My friend Mercy Hope once compared two different approaches to truth: a “checklist approach” and a “journaling approach.”

We are both fans of the journaling approach, not because we don’t think you can learn anything with certainty (you can, and absolute truth is a real thing), but because there’s always MORE. Because we never really understand when we think we do.

So taking an approach to learning and receiving from God that is always digging another layer, always asking another question, and always being willing to question assumptions, revisit conclusions, and sometimes be wrong is a powerful way of life.

I don’t know what Jesus means in Matthew 7:6.

I’ve found digging to be fruitful: in this post, I’ve outlined multiple possible explanations, and they all challenge me. They are all true on some level. And yet, maybe none of them are really what Jesus was getting at. Maybe that’s something I’ve yet to learn.

I am committed to asking, seeking, knocking, and constantly looking for the holy and the true. I believe it is there to be found and that God rewards the seeker.

That means being often unsure, and living in a lot of maybes.

And that’s okay. It turns out, it’s a good way to live.


(This is Part 82 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!


Image by Charlotte Coneybeer on Unsplash



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5 responses to “Pearls Before Swine: Jesus the Riddler and What He Might Have Meant”

  1. Brian Modra Avatar
    Brian Modra

    Verse 6 seems to be part of 1-5 which says “judge not – that you be not judged”. So did he mean don’t take the knowledge and discernment, undeserving given to us by the Holy Spirit, and cast it before a wild unclean spirit that wants to make us despise others and judge them for not having what we have. If we do this, that spirit will turn on us and tear us to pieces “… that you be not judged”.

  2. Tim Irwin Avatar
    Tim Irwin

    This is beautifully written, and includes some really good food for thought.

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thank you, sir!

  3. Becky Avatar

    Someone told me recently I should not cast pearls before swine and I was talking with Jesus and praying about what he meant, and I heard him say, “Who are the swine?” And I realized we would have to decide that in order not to share our Good News with them, which would go back to Verse 1 Judge not lest ye be judged. Would not we be judging them unworthy and who are we to judge that?

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Great insight, Becky!

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