Monday, April 6, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:6

Matthew 7:6 (NRSV)reads: "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you."

What might we make of this neglected brief statement, sandwiched as it is between Matthew 7:1-5 and Matthew 7:7-11, classic, oft-cited passages?

The passage sounds like a proverb, and it certainly is so structured. If so, I think it best to treat it as a kind of wisdom saying. The sayings found in the book of Proverbs often sound jarring to Christian ears. For the most part, they lay out tactics for a stable, productive life. There is little "high sounding" about a proverb. Some, in fact, come across as harsh. In the context of first century Judaism, I suspect the terms "dog" and "swine" did so.

When I treat Matthew 7:6 as a kind of proverb, I interpret it as a necessary corrective to a tendency often found in Christians. I call it the "argue with a fence post mentality." It's characterized by a inability or unwillingness to recognize when someone simply is not open to the Christian way. Wise Christians drop the subject and move on. Many Christians, though, insist on forcefeeding their version of the gospel to the reluctant, closed or openly hostile person. The results are never good, either for the Christian or the person they've cornered.

In like fashion, Jesus counsels his followers to be gentle as a dove and wise as a fox. He tells them not to spend their time with villages immune to his message but to move on to another village.

Put positively, Jesus' point is this: Invest your time and message with those who will receive it, that is listen carefully and respond. Note, he does not promise such persons will always accept what you have to offer, but they will display an willingness to listen and interact.

This kind of wisdom finds its way into pastoral ministry. Many years ago, a well-known pastor often told young ministers: "Don't allow five percent of the people to take up ninty-five percent of your time." He meant we were to focus our time and energy on those receptive to our ministry, rather than burn up time trying help those who refused help. For the most part, I've found his insight on target.

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