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Two”Hard Sayings”of the Lord Jesus that Offend Modern Notions

June 22, 2010

The Gospel for today’s Mass features two hard sayings, or expressions, of the Lord. They are “hard” because they offend against a modern notion. And since they are difficult for us “moderns” to hear and we are easily taken aback by their abrupt and coarse quality. Here is the “offending verse:

Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine,  lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mt 7:6)

The modern notion offended against here is:  You’re not supposed to call people ugly names. This notion, though not wrong in itself, has become a rather excessively applied norm in our times and also misses the point in terms of this passage. We live in dainty times where many people are easily offended. These are thin-skinned times of fragile egos where the merest slight often brings threats of lawsuits. Even observations intended as humor are excoriated and hurtful and out of line. And so, horror of horrors, here we have Jesus calling certain (un-named) people dogs and swine! Explanations are demanded in times like these of such horrible words coming forth from the sinless Lord Jesus.

Sophistication is needed – One of the reasons we are so easily offended in our modern age is, frankly, that we lack sophistication. We seem to have lost understanding, to a great extent, of simile and metaphor.

A simile is a figure of speech comparing two unlike things and normally includes words such as “like” and “as.” For example: “He is as swift and strong as a horse!” Similes have the two ideas remain distinct in spite of their similarities.

Metaphors compare two things without using “like” or “as”. For example, “He’s a real work-horse!”  Metaphors are usually more forceful than similes since the distinction intended between the compared things is often ambiguous. For example if I were to observe someone doing something mean or cruel I might say, “Wow, what a dog!” Now the expression does not mean I have gone blind and think that this person is actually a dog. I mean that he is manifesting qualities of a (wild or mean) dog. However, just how distinct he is from an actual dog is left open to interpretation. But for the record, I am NOT saying he is a dog.

The point here is that some sophistication and appreciation for the nuances of language and the art of comparison are necessary as we negotiate life’s road. In modern times we seem to have lost some of this and so, are easily offended. This does not mean that no one ever intends offense, it only means that more is necessary than simply hearing everything in a crudely literal way. The usual modern person in my example would object, “Hey, he called me a dog!” No, what I mean is that you have taken on some of the qualities of a wild dog. Now to what extent I mean you are like a dog is intentionally ambiguous and an invitation for you to think of how you may have surrendered some of your humanity and become more like baser creatures.

Examining what the Lord says – This sort of sophistication is necessary as we examine the Lord’s “offensive” sayings here. Let’s look at them both in terms of their historical root and then to what is being taught.

1. First of all let’s be clear that the Jewish people were not indicating positive traits when they used the term dog or swine to refer to someone. Dogs in the ancient world were not the pets of today. They were wild and ran in packs. Pigs were unclean animals and something no Jew would ever touch, let alone eat. These are strong metaphors indicating significant aversion to some aspect of the person.

2. Do not give what is holy to dogs– This was a Jewish saying that was rooted in tradition. Some of the meat that had been sacrificed to God in the Temple could be eaten by humans, especially the Levites. But in no way was it ever to be thrown to dogs or other animals to eat. If it was not eaten by humans it was to be burned. Hence holy and sanctified meat was not to be thrown to dogs because it was holy.

3. [Do not] throw your pearls before swine,  lest they trample them underfoot – Pearls were an image for wisdom in the Old Testament. Now the point here is that Pigs valued nothing they could not eat. Pearls could not be eaten, thus if they were placed before pigs they would sniff them, determine they were not food, and simply trample them underfoot.

4. So what is being said? Sacred matters, sacred things, wisdom and participation in sacred things should not be easily offered to those who are incapable of appreciating them. There are those who despise what we call holy. There is little that can be done in such cases except deny them the pleasure of tearing apart holy things  or trampling them underfoot. Jesus is saying that some people are like dogs who tear apart sacred things and have no concept of their holiness. Some people are like pigs who do not appreciate anything they cannot eat or use for their pleasure. They simply trample under foot anything that does not please them or make sense to them in the same way that pigs would trample pearls underfoot or dogs irreverently tear apart blessed food dedicated to God.

Further, there are some who, though not hostile, are ignorant of sacred realities. They do not perhaps intend offense but it is necessary that they should be taught and then admitted to sacred rites or further instructed on deeper mysteries. Children, for example in the Western Rite,  are not given the Holy Eucharist until they can distinguish it from ordinary food. Further, it is a necessary truth that some more advanced spiritual notions such as contemplative prayer are not often appreciated by those who have not been led there in stages.

The Lord is thus indicating that holy things are to be shared in appropriate ways with those who are able to appreciate them. It is usually necessary to be led into the Holy and just walk in unprepared or unappreciative.

In the ancient Church there was something known as the disciplina arcani (discipline of the secret) wherein only the baptized and confirmed would be admitted to the sacred mysteries of the Liturgy. Given the holiness with which the early Christians regarded the Mass,  they exactly observed what the Lord is saying here. Careful instruction and gradual introduction to sacred truth was necessary before entering something so holy as the Sacred Liturgy. Even the unintentional trampling underfoot of sacred realities through simple ignorance was to be strictly avoided. To be sure, these were difficult times for the Church and persecution was common. Hence the Lord’s warning to protect the holy things was not just that they might be trampled underfoot but also that those who were like unto wild dogs and swine might not turn and tear you to pieces (Mat 7:6).

In the centuries after the Edict of Constantine the disciplina arcani gradually dissipated. Some remnants of it revived in the modern RCIA wherein the Catechumens are dismissed halfway through the Mass to reflect more fully on the Liturgy of the Word. And yet we have much to relearn in modern times about a deep reverence for the Sacred Liturgy. It would NOT seem opportune to lock our Church doors as in ancient times. But preserving good order in the Liturgy, encouraging reverence, proper dress, and instilling deeper knowledge of the true meaning of the Sacred Liturgy are all important ways to ensure that we do not trample underfoot what is sacred.

This Song is from the Eastern Church. Holy God, Holy and Immortal one, Have mercy on us. It reminds that in the Sacred Liturgy we are with the One Who is Holy.

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Comments (19)

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  1. Anna Maria says:

    I’m always struck by how hauntingly beautiful the Eastern Hymns sound. Our God deserves no less than reverence and awe while we worship Him.

  2. jj says:

    I have had to learn many of the truths listed in this article the hard way. Sometimes it is better to take people in baby steps than to have them not appreciate the holy things of God. Well said Msgr. Teach us how! Preach on my brother!

  3. Lisa says:

    The chior is not exactly a “praise band” is it?

  4. Yan Petrovsky says:

    We don’t lock our churches anymore? On the contrary–except for special times, they are almost never open!

    Thanks for allowing me to vent about a pet peeve. I just wish I could stop by at any time in a busy day to worship the Lord in the Holy sacrament, or pray in holy solitude. In order to do those things these days, you have to be retired in order to have enough free time to arrange your schedule around those specific times when the sanctuary is open. Otherwise you will meet with locked doors!

    This situation takes the experience of the holiness of God away from the people in the midst of living their everyday lives.

    In my diocese there is a daily mass at noon at the cathedral downtown, and many faithful Catholics go out of their way to go there. That means they probably have to sacrifice their lunch, or eat it in the car on the way back to work (they can’t eat it on the way to mass, obviously, if they are going to participate in communion.)

    I thought Vatican II was about making God more accessible, not less! Isn’t there something that can be done about this situation?

    Bishops and priests always complain that people do not go to confession anymore. But there is hardly a good time to go available to the faithful! If the church is open, and people are going in and out, don’t you think that a lot more people would be influenced to go to confession?

    • J says:

      Yan,

      at my parish, which is Maryland in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the church is always open. My son and I make visits to the Blessed Sacrament all the time (we live across the street from the church).

      I’ll note however, that when I lived in the Bronx, our parish church was locked unless something was going on inside. But I think you have to lock it in that case to prevent theft of valuable objects.

      As a side note, I always cringe when I read a sentence that begins with the phrase, “I thought Vatican II was about…”, or, for that matter, whenever I read or hear a sentence that begins with the phrase, “I thought X was about…” where X stands for “Jesus”, “Christianity”, “Kant”, “Marxism”, etc.

      It’s a fallacious appeal to authority and it usually comes from, and leads to, confusion about the present subject in its most innocent form. In a more culpable form, it signals manipulation of that confusion or ignorance in others for another purpose.

      I agree with you wholeheartedly about confession though. Who thought it would be a good idea to have ONE hour of confession per week as the standard?! There are many other ways to go to confession, however, and I would love to hear Monsignor Pope’s thoughts of the disused but ancient and (in the humble opinion of the majority of Christians of the last 2000 years) essential tradition of the spiritual director.

  5. susan s. says:

    I would be happy if every church looked like this, with hymns like this and even disciplina arcani, to bring back reverence.

  6. Anne says:

    Why do we sing”Lord of the Dance” at our Mass? I would appreciate the mystical beauty of the above, “Holy God”. The composer of “Lord of the Dance” said he was inspired partly by Jesus and partly by Shiva, and that Jesus is only one of many possible Messiahs. All this info is on Wikipedia. It is very sad to think what we are missing when subjected to songs such as “Lord of the Dance” which is in many Catholic hymnals.

    • CastingCrown says:

      It’s on Wikipedia? Then it *must* be true! 😉

      Whether this is true or not, it is certainly true that there are many hymns and songs which are dearly held by the Church which have rather dubious origins, but have been adapted for Christian use. However, this does not change the truth contained in them in the context in which they are used today.

      I’d also say it’s easy to fall into an either/or mentality – either concentrating on God’s might and transcendence or on his humility and closeness. Both are true. To ignore one is to miss out on the broader vision of God.

      “Who is like Him, the lion and the lamb seated on the throne?”

  7. David says:

    I get your point, Msgr. But for the record, in India, a not-so-modernized country, calling somebody a dog is fighting words. I learned this from a friend who grew up there.

  8. Zenaida says:

    Yan, maybe you could request your local church to open the doors for longer period of time. I work in an area where there is a church that is always open and I think it must be the community’s desire. In terms of confession, again probably a request is in order.

  9. Eric Pinola says:

    Great article!

    >>>Yan Petrovsky

    AMEN!

    I am only 32, but I would leave work some days due to high stress and diffuicult decisions that I was making and would “flee” to my parish church; for some much needed time alone with God.

    Then one day I got there just to find the doors locked. The office was open, but they were not allowed to let me in across the parking lot……? ! crazy

    I went another 5 or 6 times, and found the same locked church. So I have not been back unless it was a parish sponsered and approved time.

    (foolish)

    I am going to test it again this week, and if needed I will ask our new priest if we can change this policy in any way.

    I know that things are bad and there are bad people in this world, but we need to trust God’s plan and do better than we have been.

    Eric Pinola

  10. Tony Layne says:

    “Dogs” and “swine”, according to some sources, were epithets for Gentiles. I wouldn’t be surprised; bigotry isn’t a one-way street, I know that a couple of Yiddish expressions were fairly common at one time: “goyisher kop” (loosely, “Gentile brains”) and “Dos ken nor ayn goy” (Only a Gentile could do that). But it doesn’t follow that, because Jews disliked Gentiles after twenty centuries of being done hard by the latter, the terms “dogs” and “swine” must have had the same connotation. And even the latter-day Yiddish insults spoke to a religious insensitivity verging on a kind of idiocy. (I don’t know why I just thought of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins ….)

    Great article, Monsignor!

  11. esiul says:

    Thank you Msgr. Pope for explaining today’s Mass. That was most enlightening. I did understand Jesus’
    references of those days, but you made it so much clearer.

  12. Ismael says:

    The last part is especially striking too: “and turn and tear you to pieces.”

    This makes me think of authors like Dawkins and Hitchens, who trample on holy things and visciously attack all believers.

  13. Yan Petrovsky says:

    J,

    Regarding ‘what x is about’, please–I just meant a little light-hearted sarcasm. Frankly, after having read every document from Vatican II, I am probably still as confused as the next guy as to ‘what Vatican II was about.’ Ask 10 people and you’re likely to get 12 explanations.

    I am pleased that so many other people find their church doors regularly open! I am disturbed as to why I have never found that to be the case in any place I have lived! Thank you for the feedback!

    • J says:

      I’m sorry if I was excessively critical. Sometimes I focus too much on details peripheral to a person’s actual point.

  14. adele says:

    In my small town of less than 5000 people (North central Pa.) our Church is open and the Blessed Sacrament is
    acessible 24/7…..and yet unless there is a specific function such as mass, Adoration, etc. almost no one is
    visiting the Lord…just to be in His Presence. This was not true when I was growing up when there was a real
    belief taught and held by most if not all Catholics in the REAL PRESENCE. I have yet to hear the Pastor ( and we
    have had several in the almost 10 years I have been a member of the parish)speak to the congregation about the
    benefits of such private visits to the Blessed Sacrament…thus where Churches are open and accessible few take spiiritual advantage…and where the doors are locked for fear of theft and crime people are begging for this
    privilege …and un-heeded. Where is the lesson for us all here? Perhaps, Monseignor could address this in a
    post here. Today’s posting is a wonderful meditation on some of the most central teachings of our Faith…seldom
    heard or spoken in such eloquent words. Deo gratias for Monseignor’s insight and prayerful wisdom.

  15. Thomas says:

    You are entitled to your view, for me trying not to offend others is good. On occasions when i cross that line I notice the relationship with my heart and Soul are shattered. Not a good place to be.

    Thomas

  16. Anne says:

    I think here in the year 2014 that “swine” and “dogs” might be referring to the muslims and ISIS. If we give them pearls, pearls being money for guns and such, THEY WILL TRAMPLE US. These are different times we live in.