Sunday, April 22, 2018

On the Mount (27)

They say you’re either a cat person or a dog person. Or neither, I suppose.

I’m the former, I think, but dogs are just fine with me too. A little more work, perhaps, and a little less intelligent than a feline, but a worthy beast when trained in some basic ways and when living in harmony with man. Huskies will pull sleds, sheepdogs will tend sheep, and many other breeds have uses both practical and otherwise pleasing.

So when the Lord refers to someone as a dog, and it’s inarguably an insult, one has to stop and ask, “In what way?” What qualities of doghood are so very undesirable?

Likewise the pig. Now, admittedly, you wouldn’t want one in the house. But outside, doing their thing, a pig too is a useful creature. So when the term is employed in a demonstrably negative way, we must ask what qualities of swinehood are to be avoided.

Pearls for Dinner

Here is what the Lord has to say about dogs and hogs:
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.”
Now, we could meander our way through the Old Testament asking ourselves what associations each of these animals might have brought to mind for the Lord’s original, Jewish audience at the Sermon on the Mount. That, after all, is the key to understanding the Lord’s warning. It is useless for us to project modern associations — pampered show dogs being put through their prize-winning paces; streaking greyhounds; or tiny, inbred pets in expensive purses wedged under a rich woman’s arm — back into the text in hope of discerning its meaning. That will not help us any more than the image of a Baconator at a Wendy’s drive-through window will help us think rightly about swine.

Doggishness and Hoggishness

Better we picture distended-ribbed, flea-bitten mutts licking at the sores of Lazarus as the beggar lay dying in the streets outside the rich man’s gate; or perhaps the demon-possessed herd of swine careening into the sea near the land of the Gadarenes. That comes closer to the mark.

The sorts of associations we find with the word “dog” in the Old Testament are almost exclusively negative: male prostitution, insignificance, savagery and danger. A pig likewise: uncleanness, unfitness, inappropriateness and predation.

So which of these is it?

None of the Above

Well, how about none of the above. The verse is, as with others in the Sermon, in the form of a standard Hebrew parallelism, suggesting to us that we need to look first at what dogs and pigs have in common rather than free-associate about them. And what they have in common is simply this: in certain areas they demonstrate an absolute incapacity to learn from experience, along with an inability to distinguish both good things from bad things and desirable states of being from less desirable.

It is Peter, the Lord’s contemporary, who later articulates this most salient point of comparison:
“What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.’ ”
The “true proverb” he quotes (at least the first part) is one of Solomon’s that didn’t make his original edit of his book; it comes from the section of Proverbs copied by “the men of Hezekiah” from other records at a later date. That doesn’t make it worthless, of course. It had obviously survived and become familiar enough for Peter to quote as authoritative.

So our dogs and pigs are people who demonstrate an inability to appreciate anything of value. The dog has an undiscerning palate. The cleansed pig has no hesitation about plunging back into what made her filthy in the first instance. No learning curve whatsoever is demonstrated.

Pearls and the Gospel Message

What then are the pearls? Is the Lord really telling us not to bother sharing the good news with people incapable of receiving it? And if so, how will we know our audience is indisposed to the gospel unless we first preach it?

No, I don’t think pearls signify the gospel, not least because referencing salvation by faith would have been speaking over the heads of all present including the disciples, not just the obdurate Pharisees. The Lord had yet to go to the cross.

Further, making decisions about who is a suitable audience for the gospel is above our pay grade. Paul and Barnabas indeed told the Jews in Pisidian Antioch, “Since you judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles,” but only after repeated “castings” met with gainsaying and angry resistance. So, no, they didn’t interpret the Lord’s warning as having to do with gospel preaching, and I trust their take. In the very next city, they went straight back to the synagogue and tried the same thing again, notwithstanding the fact that they would surely encounter the very same sort of reaction there.

It’s not the good news of salvation that’s in view here.

Things Set Apart

What are the pearls then? Well, in the parallelism, the pearls are a restatement in different terms of the “holy” things from the first clause. I would suggest they are valuable spiritual truths; things “set apart”, distinct from the merely ordinary or profane. And one thing we now know about spiritual truths is that they are spiritually discerned, which is to say that God himself must be present to make them known. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

Ever tried to have a conversation with an unsaved friend about the insight you gained in your personal devotions this morning? It’s like talking to a brick wall. At very best they indulge you; more likely they will feel you are being pretentious or holier-than-thou. Or try sharing the spiritual significance of the tabernacle with a Religious Studies major who intellectualizes the experience of opening the scriptures. It’s like breaking rock. He will despise your ignorant layman’s take on his area of expertise. Or again, try giving practical, biblical advice to a thoroughly secularized co-worker struggling with her teen’s misbehavior and looking for answers in psychology. You’re more likely to get an angry “Who do you think you are?” than a “Thank you very much.”

The natural person does not accept such things. They are foolishness to him. He is not able to understand them. The Holy Spirit’s work is required first.

A pearl is probably sufficiently robust to survive the hoofs of a hog or the paws of a dog, but do you really want to be the one testing that proposition? It’s not just an exercise in futility; it may even predispose such a creature to ignore anything else you may one day throw their way.

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