When Jesus said, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine (Matthew 7.6),” what did he mean? Christians often quote this phrase as a sideways insult, implying their own value and another person’s piggishness. Somehow believers think they can disparage each other and get away with it, just because they’re quoting Christ. When Jesus said this, did he intend it as an insult? Was he stroking the egos of his listeners, telling them that they were full of pearls of wisdom, compared to the ignorant swine around them?
Working Within Our Delusions
Jesus recognized that in our own minds we’re all wise. After all, you’re the smartest person you’ve ever known! Jesus also knew that we are all the good guys in our own stories. He was aware of our tendency to describe our antagonists as bad guys, or swine. In this particular case, Jesus chose not to contradict our presumptions but to work within our delusions.
It’s the way you would not contradict someone with Alzheimer’s if they mistake you for their granddaughter. Instead, you would play the part to care for them to communicate at the highest level possible. If what they need at the moment is a visit from Ashley, you would be Ashley for them. Jesus did this—he worked within the delusion, and didn’t correct our notion that we are wise and holy.
Jesus prefaced his “pearls before swine” phrase with, “Don’t give what is holy to dogs.” Again, he knew that we suffer from the delusion that our own ideas are good and holy. We also tend to label those who don’t see things our way, as if they are dogs. Jesus didn’t argue with this delusion—instead, he advised that we keep our opinions to ourselves.
Jesus was trying to communicate a truth that was best understood without challenging our subtext. But it’s time to look beyond our delusions of good guys and bad guys, wise people and fools, protagonists and antagonists. Then we could realize that we are not as smart as we think we are and the other folks in the story aren’t dogs or swine.
The Righting Reflex
So, if Jesus didn’t actually mean that some people are swine and that only his listeners possessed pearls of wisdom, what did he mean? When someone shares their problem, our natural inclination is to try to solve that problem. This is called the “righting reflex.” If they feel ambivalent about a decision they need to make, our natural response is to give advice. But the problem with giving unasked-for guidance is that people become defensive. Instead of receiving the suggestion, they usually double down in the direction that they shouldn’t go. They don’t listen because they don’t own the solution you presented. In fact, they generally reject your recommendation in favor of their own counsel which may not be the best for them.
Jesus called our tendency to fix things and give advice, “casting your pearls before swine.” Not that these dear people are pigs, but their boorish resistance can be quite problematic. Jesus was saying not to give advice unless someone asks for it, and not to provide a solution until someone requests it.
Jesus reminds us that it’s not about us—and that we need to keep our opinions to ourselves. In the previous verses, Jesus says,
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7.3-5 NIV).”
He didn’t challenge our wisdom in discerning that the other person has a speck that needs to be removed. Instead, he told us to deal with our own issues before we try to handle someone else’s. Because we have so many issues of our own, Jesus said, “Do not judge (Matthew 7.1a NIV).” Instead of trying to fix someone else’s problems by giving advice, suppress the righting reflex within yourself. Deal with your own issues on your own time. There’s a far better way you can help than giving advice.
Better Than Giving Advice
Instead of providing advice and solutions yourself, it works far better if you help the other person discover what is best for them. As a Behavioral Health Specialist, I use Motivational Interviewing techniques to do this–but you don’t need special training to help someone discover their own gems of wisdom. You can do this by asking open-ended questions rather than questions designed to elicit yes or no answers. Give frequent affirmations throughout the conversation to let the person know you value them and trust their ability to make the right choice. Reflect back to them the things you’ve heard them say. Use different words, to make sure you are understanding them completely. This also makes them feel heard—and if you’ve misunderstood, it gives them the opportunity to clarify. Summarize the main points that they have told you, listening for change-talk that indicates they are ready to decide. Let them make their own choices—because if you make their decision for them, they won’t own those decisions, and it won’t work for them anyway.
Listening is the Most Important
Casting your pearls before swine means being more interested in sharing your own gems of wisdom than you are interested in helping the other person find their own nuggets of truth. Alternatively, listening to other people means drawing out their own thoughts and ideas. It means understanding that they have the Holy Spirit inside them just like you do. It means recognizing that the other person is not a pig, but that the real swine is the ambivalence that has them trapped. It can be frustrating listening to a person’s ambivalence. But when you take the time to listen to another person, you will find treasures of wisdom inside them. They don’t need you to throw your pearls at them. They need you to help them find their own.
Don’t Get Trampled
Jesus said if you cast your pearls before swine, they will trample them underfoot, then turn around and tear you to pieces. This is an important lesson to learn. You probably know someone who has come to you with problems and then thrown up roadblocks at every solution you have presented. You got frustrated with them because they weren’t taking your advice. They got frustrated with you because you weren’t being helpful. You blamed them and said they just weren’t ready for change. In truth, it wasn’t their problem—it was yours. You were too interested in throwing your pearls to them, and not interested enough in listening to them and helping to draw out the treasure that was inside them.
Jesus’ famous phrase about pearls and swine doesn’t give you license to use it as an insult. Instead of identifying the other person as the boar, understand that the boorishness itself is the problem. Don’t cast your pearls before someone else’s rudeness, ambivalence, and indecision. Instead, practice good listening skills. Ask good questions. Give affirmations. Use reflections and summaries to make sure you are understanding correctly. And draw the other person’s inherent treasure into the light.