David A. Davis
April 2, 2017
Pearls. Do not throw your pearls. Don’t throw your pearls before swine. They will trample them, turn, and maul you. Don’t give the meat of ritual sacrifice to the dogs like some kind of table scraps and don’t toss your pearls. Pearls. Pearls?
The pigs will turn and maul you. That’s harsh, graphic, violent for a sermon, for THEE sermon. But remember this is the same preacher who said “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away: it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Same preacher. Same sermon.
Pigs and pearls. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus offers a riff on the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. And this too, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” One fine pearl. Searching for, finding one fine pearl. Don’t throw your pearl.
Here as the Sermon on the Mount comes to an end, Jesus is tossing out the memorable phrases, the one liners, like a rap artist stringing images together one after another, after another. “Do not judge, so that you may be judged… first take the log out of your own eye… Ask, and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you… In everything do to others as you would have them do to you… The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life… You will know them by their fruits.” Right there in the rapid delivery, in the pounding 16th notes of the sermon’s last pages, “Do not throw your pearls before swine…” It’s that one line in the song, that one line in the soliloquy, that one line in the poem that you weren’t sure you heard right. If you did hear it right, you have no idea what it is supposed to mean. Pearls and swine.
Jesus’ quote, it has a sort of folklore status to it. Casting pearls before swine. Lift it from his sermon, turn it into a proverb all its own, drain it of the theological/spiritual context and meaning. The standard fare sounds something like this: “Don’t waste something of value by giving it or sharing it with someone who can’t appreciate it.” The common example given is not to share a sonnet from Shakespeare with someone who lacks the education, the sophistication, to appreciate and enjoy it. That’s the “Jesus as Ben Franklin” approach to understanding the pearls. Jesus as Ben Franklin, or Aesop, or Dear Abby. Jesus with a bit of an intellectual, condescending attitude.
In his contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, Eugene Peterson has a whole other take on throwing pearls before swine. “Don’t be flip with the sacred,” he writes. “Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege.” For Peterson, Jesus is warning against turning faith into kitsch. That you can’t reduce discipleship to a bumper sticker, a t-shirt, or a decorative plate on your grandmother’s wall. While that might be a fair warning and a realistic concern when it comes to trying to live the Christian life, when it comes to Peterson’s paraphrase I found myself missing the dogs, the swine, the trampling, the mauling, and the pearls.
I have told this before and some of you will remember. Years ago Paul Jeanes, the rector at Trinity Church, Paul and I were the wine-pourers at a wine tasting that was a fundraiser for Housing Initiatives of Princeton. Paul and I were part of the show. Sometime after all the white wines were served and early into the reds, one of the guests at a table called me over, not for a fresh pour but for a question and a comment. “Dr. Davis, you don’t believe in the resurrection, do you? Forty years I have lived in Princeton,” he announced in a loud voice, “and I have yet to find anyone who believed in the resurrection of the body!” I can tell you that with his tone it wasn’t really a question and he wasn’t looking for a conversation. With me standing there with two bottles of wine in hand and a napkin over my arm, I think the belittling intent was clear. His sneer was probably intended less for me and more for the faith. It was wise of me not to call him a pig that afternoon. But according to Jesus, maybe he was. Pigs and pearls.
Several commentators, current and long, long ago, surmise that Matthew’s Jesus was concerned with those who had fallen away from faith and the community. That when someone is openly hostile to the church or disobedient in faith there comes a time when leaders have to stop trying and admit that the effort is going nowhere and the breath is being wasted. The “wash your hands” interpretation calls Jesus’ instruction to the disciples in Matthew 10 to mind. “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town” (14-15). Don’t waste your pearls if they’re never going to listen, if they’re too far gone. Toss your pearls, shake the dust. The glitch in this approach is that it makes Jesus sound more like Paul in one of his letters addressing congregational turmoil and there is little else in the Sermon on the Mount that would have such an intramural flavor to it.
Pearls. Pearls? Pearl of wisdom. “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” That’s a pearl. “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” A pearl. “You have heard that it was said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you…” Jesus had all kinds of pearls. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing… do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” The Sermon on the Mount is full of pearls.
And not just the Sermon. How about “Behold! A sower went out to sow” and “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” and “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” and “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” and the parable of the ten bridesmaids and the parable of the talents and the parable of the sheep and the goats…” as you did it unto the least of these.” When it comes to Jesus, his teaching, his gospel, there is no shortage of pearls. Do not throw all that teaching away to those who will devour it, trample it beyond recognition, and turn and come after you in the process. Do not give what is holy to dogs and do not cast pearls before swine.
But notice Jesus didn’t say his pearls. He said your pearls. “Do not throw your pearls before swine.” Yours, not his. Your pearls. Pearls. It must have something to do with all that is precious about our life now in the kingdom of God, the Christian life, and Christ’s call to discipleship. Precious pearl. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, your pearl is more than the sum of Jesus’ teaching. Plucked from the last notes of the Sermon on Mount, your pearl must have as much or more to do with how you live than what you say, how your light shines, your saltiness. Your pearl, it’s the sheen of your yearning to forgive in a culture of vindictiveness. Your stretching to love more than your neighbor in a time when every stranger is portrayed as an enemy. Your giving, your generosity because God has poured out an abundance of blessing on you rather than always expecting something in return. Your pearl, its beauty shines in your times of prayer and when God takes away the worry of the day and instills a settled-ness, a peace deep within you, and when you are longing, striving, thirsting for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.
The dogs and the swine. It’s not just that guy at the party who mocks your faith and thinks you must just not be smart enough. It’s the powers and principalities that foster the notion that the church is dying and the Christian life is nostalgic and the millennials just couldn’t be bothered anymore. It’s not just the kid at school who seems to enjoy intimidating the most vulnerable and making fun of someone who is different. It’s a dark and growing darker environment that spawns puffed-out chests and finger pointing and belittles any, who, inspired by faith, stop to hear the voices of peoples long silenced and dare to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. It’s not just that prejudiced, unrelenting sister-in-law you unfriended on Facebook, it’s the forces of evil at work in every generation trying to separate being Christian from the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Separate discipleship from loving your enemies, and caring for the poor, breaking down dividing walls, and the work of reconciliation. It’s not just that ardent, self-proclaimed Christian at work who just won’t let it go when he found out you went to church. It’s a bitter movement of those who hold to an unrecognizable Christianity, thinking its more important to be right than to love, too often confusing the cross with the flag, stoking fear rather than claiming a peace that passes all understanding. Dogs and swine. Some days it feels like the world is just waiting to stomp all over your pearls and come at you to gnaw at your faith until there’s nothing left.
Pearls. Pearls? Don’t just throw your pearls into what the Bible calls the outer darkness. They are too precious. Your life in Christ is too precious. It was Christ himself who said, “I will be with you always.” You and I, we have to pray for wisdom, and strength, and courage, and persistence in discipleship, because the world is just so full of… don’t make me say it!
The dogs, the swine, the trampling, the mauling, and the pearls. There’s such a twist to it all. Because the world needs your pearls more than ever. Just don’t let the world destroy them along the way. Your pearls. Your life in Christ. Your discipleship. Your life now in the kingdom of God. It’s all so precious. It’s all such a gift. With God’s help, Christ’s promise, and the Spirit’s guidance, let them shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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