Who Counts as Swine?

Black swine with grass in background

Whoever they are, don’t give them your pearls.

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 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. Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:3–6)

Evaluating others according to Jesus

Matthew 7:3–6 is the first of two examples that unpack the topic of proper evaluation of others that has been laid out in the heading of 7:1–2. The theme of discerning right and wrong in others takes the form of a memorable and even humorous image—a person with a plank stuck in his or her eye attempting to remove a speck from another’s eye. This image is evocative of an actual carpentry shop with two siblings working side by side (cf. Jesus as the “carpenter’s son” in 13:55), but with an obvious broader application to the Christian community.

The problem with this speck-plank practice is not, as we have discussed regarding 7:2, that Christians can never discern right or wrong in another but that disciples often do so without awareness of their own blindness and inability to judge rightly. Indeed, 7:5 envisions a potential situation in which the speck in another is observed and help is given in removing it, though the extreme example of the plank-eyed person puts the emphasis not on speck removal but on self-awareness in evaluating others.

As Donald Hagner observes, “The obvious implication [is] that an awareness of one’s own faults … will make more charitable one’s judgment of others,” tying back into 7:1–2.1 There is a call inherent in these verses to examine oneself with humility, become aware of one’s faults, and repent. Only then can one be in a place to hope to see things clearly.

Jesus condemns the way of being in the world that focuses on specks without awareness of one’s own faults with the strong sermonic word “hypocrite” (7:5). This is the only time in the Sermon (or Matthew as a whole) where “hypocrite” is used in reference to a disciple rather than those outside.

In Matthew 6 it was the anchor term to describe the ones whose piety lacked wholeness and completeness (6:1–21). These same people are identified more explicitly in chapter 23 as the scribes and Pharisees who live for the praise of others (23:5–7) and who are hypocrites because of an inconsistency between external keeping of the law and the intent of the heart (23:13–36).

It is appropriate to warn disciples with this same strong term here because of the seriousness of the inconsistency of evaluating others (and condemning them) while being unaware of one’s own faults (cf. Jas 1:26; 3:9–12). This hypocrisy is yet another example of the Sermon’s theme of wholeness. Righteousness requires consistency between one’s inner person and one’s outer actions. Discerning the state of another without first examining one’s own heart is a dangerous and deadly business precisely because it is a kind of doubleness.

Dogs and pigs

There is one more saying in this subsection, and it is not without its difficulties in interpretation. At a fundamental level, Matthew 7:6 is unclear because of the many possibilities of each of the metaphorical nouns that are used—dogs, that which is holy, pearls, and pigs. It is the nature of such a highly abstract aphorism to use terms poetically; it makes for a pithy saying but not always clarity of intention. Or to understand this phenomenon more positively, this is the beautiful nature of poetic and proverbial sayings: they invite many applications. This is certainly the case here.

For this particular teaching of Jesus we have a very early interpretation that applies this saying to the “fencing of the table” of the eucharistic meal from outsiders. Didache 9.5 states that those who have not been baptized into the name of the Lord should not receive the Eucharist since this would be giving that which is holy to dogs. This applicational reading of Matthew 7:6 is certainly appropriate while also not limiting the other possible readings of this memorable saying.

This is the beautiful nature of poetic and proverbial sayings: they invite many applications.

In Matthew’s day, “dog” was certainly a term of contempt, as was “pigs” or “swine.” These epithets are clearly parallel in usage here and are used as descriptions of those who are despised, both in Jewish and non-Jewish usage. For Jewish people, with their strong traditional sense of clean and unclean animals, these terms are the most derogatory descriptors in their vocabulary.

Likewise, “that which is holy” and “pearls” are put in parallel and thus mutually color each other’s sense. “Pearl” in early Judaism often refers to a valuable saying or excellent thought, which inclines one to interpret “that which is holy” as teachings or truths. Regardless, “pearls” and “that which is holy” are unmistakably seen as valuable, in contrast to the despised “dogs” and “pigs.”

The question remains, What is this saying primarily communicating as a piece of proverbial Jesus wisdom? McKnight, following N. T. Wright, suggests that, with “dogs” and “pigs” referring to gentiles, this text fits with 10:5–6 as “a simple prohibition of taking the gospel and the kingdom vision to the gentile world until after the resurrection, the Great Commission, the ascension, and Pentecost, which unleashed the gentile mission.”2

I suggest instead that this means that the disciples should not waste their time wrangling with those Jews who refuse to believe the wisdom of the kingdom message. Matthew 10:14, in which the disciples are instructed to shake the dust off of their feet as they depart from those who do not receive them, is more appropriate here.

This reading is informed by other passages in Matthew that center on the theme of revelation and separation: Jesus reveals God’s wisdom, and this results in the separation of all peoples—regardless of ethnicity—into those who believe and follow and those who do not. Elsewhere Matthew ironically and pointedly uses “gentiles” to refer to Jewish people (especially the Pharisees) who do not believe (e.g., 18:17).

So too, here, the normal terms of derision for gentiles (“dogs” and “swine”) are used to refer to unbelieving Jews (or anyone else) opposed to Jesus and his disciples. We may thus paraphrase this verse: “Do not toss your teaching to outsiders, lest they scornfully reject it and you.”

We may rightly discern behind 7:6 some more direct reference to Matthew’s own historical setting. That is, it is certainly possible that this saying is a direct and needed word to early Jewish Christians who are still connected religiously and culturally to the synagogue and temple. While all sayings have a broader, perpetual application to Christian readers, it is not difficult to discern that in its writing and first hearing this verse would prove very relevant and practical to such believers.

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This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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  1. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 170.
  2. Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 238. I think this reading does not accord with the emphasis on gentile inclusion that is already underway in Matthew’s narrative.
Written by
Jonathan T. Pennington

Jonathan T. Pennington is a pastor and New Testament scholar. He is author of The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary.

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