Three Hard Sayings of the Lord That Offend Modern Notions

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 (unnamed) 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 he means is that you have taken on some of the qualities of a wild dog. Now to what extent he means 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 two of 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.

The Third Hard Saying destroys a notion that is to most moderns a dogma. The “dogma” is that just about everyone is going to heaven. It is one of the most damaging notions of modern times since it removes a sense of urgency in earnestly seeking our salvation and staying on the narrow road that leads to salvation.  Against this destructive and presumptive notion of practically universal salvation Jesus says,

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How small the gate and narrow the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt 7:12-13).

Do you see that word: few. We need to sober up and come to a biblical understanding that our salvation must be earnestly desired and sought. God’s love for us is not lacking, but our love for him often is. “Many” says Jesus are on a path of indifference or outright rejection of the kingdom.

Now the Kingdom of God is not some abstraction, or some golf course, or playground in the sky. The Kingdom of God is the full realization of God’s plan and will. It includes Kingdom values like justice, love of the poor, mercy, kindness, chastity, love of God and neighbor, the praise of God, rejoicing in the truth of God’s word, and so forth. It is clear that many (to quote Jesus) live in opposition or indifference to these values. Only a few, (to quote Jesus) come to appreciate and are willing to receive these into their life wholeheartedly.

Yes, this is a hard saying of Jesus. Many are on the path to destruction, only a few in the road to salvation. The Lord is telling us the truth, not to panic us, but to sober us into earnestly desiring our own salvation and seeking it from God with devotion. It is also to make us sober and urgent about the condition of others, to stop making light of sin and indifference and to work hard to evangelized and call sinners to repentance.

We need to realize that our tendency and that of others is to turn away from God. There is a great drama to our lives and we are either on one road or the other. No third way is given. Not a popular teaching to be sure. It offends modern notions. But it is true because Jesus says it to us in love.

And old song says: Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last.

Photo Credit © Copyright Bryan Pready and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

34 Replies to “Three Hard Sayings of the Lord That Offend Modern Notions”

  1. Msgr. Pope: a question regarding the third saying. Does it tell us that in the end, when everyone who ever was, is or will be has died, there will be many more souls in Hell than in Heaven, or does it tell us that most people will have to pass through Purgatory first? And a second question: how do you imagine God views the behavior of those who are told by their pastor that everyone goes to Heaven (the explanation for this being that ‘since no mother would send her child to Hell, and God’s love for each of us far surpasses any mother’s love for her child, God wouldn’t send anyone to Hell either). What happens to people who are basically told in homilies that Heaven is a sure thing, no matter what? These people are encouraged to be ‘good’, but they are also told that there is no Hell.

    1. Some debate what the Lord means by “many” He does not say “most” they argue. They also argue that for God 1 is too many. THis seems a little fanciful however and to reject the rather plain meaning of the text. The Lord is not talking in riddles, it would seem and so we should not overly read into meaning. However in saying “few” are on the narrow road to heaven, it seems that such an interpretation that the majority make it to heaven is questionable. Yet, still, we can always hope in God’s grace. The Lord’s text here is surely meant to sober us, not make us overly pessamistic. So more than try to figure out the text by assessing percentages etc, we just ought to get to work evangelizing.

      As for priests who talk as you say and use silly analogies to give FALSE hope, what they say does not square with the word of God. No one spoke of Hell more than Jesus. Jesus loves us, but tells us the truth, that there are many who, by their own choice are far from the kingdom of God and heading for ruin. God loves us, but also respects our free choices and will not ultimately force the conclusion. I wrote more on that here:

      1. Msgr. Pope I am one of those people that states when the Lord means by “many” He does not say “most”. I also argue that for God 1 is too many. Why are you saying that that is wrong? If it were wrong, then why did the shepherd went to look for the lost sheep and the lady for the lost coin? You say that “This seems a little fanciful however and to reject the rather plain meaning of the text”. The statement is not fanciful at all or rejecting the plain meaning if the text. It is the simple recognition that some people will go to heaven and some people will go to hell because Jesus said so, nothing less and especially nothing more. It is also a clear message that people do not need to despair because we have free will and we can accept God’s graces, we are not Calvinists. Arguing that the majority will go to hell is trying to predict the future and God’s will and we are not to do that, we do not know and we are not to know how many will go to hell. Another point in case is that during the Mass at the consecration of the wine the narrative says that Jesus died for many (pro multis). Theology says that His death is for all of us but at Mass we must address only the fruits of His sacrifice (Council of Trent?) and so if I follow your logic then the narrative means that many, as in most of the individuals, will go to heaven and that would contradict the understanding of the biblical passage. I think that you are absolutely correct when you point to the fact that we simply have to accept the reality of hell and its certainty if we do not truly accepts God’s graces, and we also have to accept the fact that God wants us in Heaven and that he will keep giving us opportunities. I think that your emphasis on the point that we need neither presumption nor despair is the best help for a lot of arrogant or scrupulous people.

        1. Well, I guess we just disagree. I am not a Calvinist. Many and few have a fairly straight-forward meaning especially when used in combination. I do not deny that he died for all. But the gift is not forced on anyone and Jesus says in texts like these that many reject the offer. I am not a man without hope. We knock on doors in my parish boundaries and (as you say) let the Lord give new opportunities. We do this because we are confident of God’s grace, yet sober that many are on the wide road to destruction. Regarding the words of consecration, “many” and “all” are probably not all that far apart. Jesus died for the many (which is the most faithful rendering of the Biblical text. The current text that says all, while not inaccurate is less precisely translated.

          In the end though I think you really need to talk to Jesus about this, since he said it not me. I am just taking him to mean what he clearly says and consider your interpretation unwarranted based on it’s straightforward meaning and Jesus’ repeated warnings about Hell. No one talked about Hell or warned about it more that Jesus himself.

          1. I apologize if I gave the impression of calling you a Calvinist. I am a great fan of yours and I have learned so much from you during the years that I would never dare to question you orthodoxy. My problem with the specific passage comes form my daily usage of statistics and how I cringe every time people make generalizations that even if true are not described by the information available. Probably I should say that I am just being too nerdy for theology. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us.

            P.S. I recycle a lot of your material for discussion during catechism classes with high school students.

  2. Thank you for being a Priest, Monsignor.

    People now-days don’t even like being called a sinner. It is difficult to always tell the truth – to those to whom the truth is due. It’s even harder to tell the truth to people – with Charity in my heart.

    It is a nice old song, ‘Sinner Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.’

    Hymns in the Church — once sung = twice prayed. The Holy Father sings to God – for all of us. I like it. The Pope has a good voice for a man his age! (off topic but like all Catholics – when we see your name —)

  3. Another hard saying is “If you eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of the Son of Man, you shall have eternal life.”

  4. Dear Msgr. Pope, Thank you for this post. I have often wondered about Matthew 7:12-13. It is sobering and somewhat frightening. In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict, in sections 45 and 46 describes the type of individual who will go straight to heaven and those who would seem to be candidates for hell. However he seems to say that these two types are unusual and the majority of human beings will be purified in Purgatory. Just wondering how to reconcile Matthew 7:12-13 with the above mentioned passages in Spe Salvi. Thank You. Anne

    1. It is my understanding that the Pope is talking about believers. Of course, belief here refers to more than lip service but I suspect among those who beleive and do not fall away, the majority of those who are serious in their practice of the faith with need purgation, some will fall away and a few will go straight to heaven. The problem comes in when we realize the fact that most Catholics and other Christians are not serious about their faith, they are not praying, they are not receiving sacraments or going to Church, and many, if not most, are in serious, unrepented sin. We have to be sober lest we casually slip into this condition and be urgent about waking others from their moral and spiritual sleep. ***

  5. dear msgr. pope- i once sat with a concert pianst(priest) composing a full score for a mass. i was amazed beyond comprehension of what must be going on in those creative juices as he did this. in like manner, i am amazed at “your” communication skill on not only scripture but also other relevant topics. thank you for sharing “your” gift and hopefully, finding yourself present to god as you do!! lastly, in light of priests and other church leaders falling from grace for various reasons, please, at the slightest hint of trouble in your life, first run as fast as you can to jesus and if necessary to others for protection and help. i do not want to see you “go down” but rather go up in god’s graces of holiness!! love and prayers- bill, from cyprus(not cypress, fl.)

    1. Thank you for your encouraging words! As I read the later half I was mindful of an old spiritual which says, “I Love the Lord, He heard my cry, and pitied every groan, Long as I live and troubles rise, I’ll hasten to his throne.”

  6. Msgr.,

    I was wondering whether you interpret Mt 7:12-13 (and Lk 13:23-24) to mean definitively that a minority of people will be saved. This seems to be the traditional teaching of the Fathers and Doctors, but it has been questioned by more recent theologians (e.g., Hans Urs von Balthasar). The late Cardinal Dulles summarized the history of the issue a few years ago: Also, in Spe Salvi (para 46), Pope Benedict seemed to imply that a “great majority” of people may end up in Heaven, after a stint in purgatory, when he prefaced his discussion of the justice and mercy of purgatory with the statement: “For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur?” I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this question.

    1. Anne’s post did not show up on my computer until after I submitted mine… I guess you already answered my question. Thanks.

    2. No, I wouldn’t use the word definitive in regard to anything I have said here. I’m just Msgr. Pope. It is my usual approach to Scripture to work with its plain meaning. There is surely need to understand nuance and mystery of how all this works out. But working with the plain meaning of a text like this and, given that Jesus warns so frequently about Hell, it seems safe to just take it at face value. One text does not the Bible make, but there is a very substantial body of texts where the Lord warns that Hell is a very real end. Perhaps I will amass these in a future post.

      As for Spe Salvi, one will note that the Pope is wrestling with topic. He uses words like suppose, and uses questions rather than statements. I am personally also a big believer in purgatory and have written substantially on it. I think it is a very great blessing that this has been revealed to the Church, for without we are left with a pretty all or nothing scenario. Yet, still I don’t want to brush aside one doctrine for another. Jesus actually means something in what he says here and in numerous other texts and so I don’t want to just trot out purgatory as a way to be forgetful of the teaching on many and few. A balance would be necessary. I like the Pope, especially at funeral Masses hold out a lot of hope based on purgatory and preach on it a good bit in the funeral sermons I do. This is the case even with hardened sinners I have buried. SInce I cannot know their judgement I figure let’s presume our prayers still make a difference and get to work. For the living though, I think we need to get back into the business of saying what Jesus himself said and not try to parse it all too much. Let’s be sober, accept that many are in grave condition and get to work dispensing the medicine

    3. “there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God . . . the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul”

      Let’s not forget that God delights not in the death of anyone. If there is but a spark, a mere ember of desire for Him who is Love and Truth, even just the hint of a knock on the door, then God will do what He can to see that the person gets the rest of the way. We all need a helping hand to get up to heaven. If we are so broken that all we can do is raise up a little finger, rather than our whole hand and arm toward Him, He has the ability to nevertheless reach down and pick us up.

      The question is — how many still have that ember? How many are willing to “do what they can” and let God provide grace for the rest?

  7. In Matt. 13: 24-30, Oyr Lord speaks about the wheat and the cockle. It intrigued me; how much cockle was there? I found an old Hungarian study on the subject and it said it is between 20% to 60 % in healthy wheat fields. More importantly the wheat needs the cockle to survive. If it is less than the 20% or higher than the 60%, the wheat dies. I’m not saying this is some secret gnostic horsefeathers, but it is interesting. If the sudy extends to the parable, that is a lot of us in Hell. Thanks, Msgr. Pope, hell has gone out of style, and we could use a heavy dose of preaching on the last four things.

  8. Mary: **since no mother would send her child to Hell, and God’s love for each of us far surpasses any mother’s love for her child, God wouldn’t send anyone to Hell either**

    Well, that’s right. God doesn’t send anyone to Hell. Not one person. Nada. Zilch.

    Everyone who is in Hell is there because he sent himself there.

  9. As a community college math instructor for many years, I taught a lot of beginning and intermediate algebra. Since these topics can get a little numbing at times, I tried to include interesting sidebar comments about numbers or the history of mathematics and usually having something to do with the topic that day. I should note that I had positive feedback from students about these asides. But – inevitably – I would hear “Is this going to be on the exam?” If I said ‘No’ the response from the questioner was – pencil down/brain off/cell phone out for text messaging. The experience for me was like getting hit with a bucket of ice water. It was then that I would remember – “Do not cast your pearls before swine . . . “

  10. We also have Jesus teaching the parable of the Last Judgment (Matt: 25: 31-46) and the story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31). In effect, Sin is not limited to specific obvious violation of the Ten Commandments, but also can be negligence. In Luke’s story, the rich man may have thought of the beggar as part of the scenery, rather than a fellow human being.
    My sins then include those of thought, of word, of what I have done and what I have failed to do. We need to be alert for situations where we are called to help someone.

  11. Dear Father Pope,

    Thank you for all your work and for sharing so generously and beautifully. May God continue to bless you, and all our Priests and our Church throughout the world.

  12. Dear Father, we are sharing these wonderful posts with our children. School is finally out and we will begin going to daily Mass. Thank you so much for bringing clarity to the Bible. God bless you.

  13. Dear Msgr.
    Practically how do we evangelize adult children who are not living up to their Catholic faith and are totally engulfed in worldy pursuits. These adult children take offense if anything is mentioned about their behavior, lifestyle, dress code, etc. which is offensive to God. Many of my friends and relatives are deeply concerned about their children who have left home and are in danger of losing their salvation. The modern secular culture supports their lifestyle. If we are to admonish the sinner especially in our own family, just how do we go about doing this. If are adult children are in danger of eternal damnation either through ommission or commission should we be more assertive? It appears now that most of us feel handcuffed and only witness through kindness and acceptance in order to avoid conflict. Could you be specific?

  14. “Let’s be sober, accept that many are in grave condition and get to work dispensing the medicine”

    Jane just asked what I’ve wondered for a long time. That would also include fallen away adult siblings who seem to have rejected Christ on His terms so they could have Him on their own terms. I’ve been told (by my priest) to be charitable and WAIT FOR THEM TO ASK QUESTIONS rather than bring up the subject myself. They left the church as adults and DON’T WANT TO ASK QUESTIONS! I don’t understand this and so I wonder how serious it is that they have rejected Christ at His Word? To me it’s very serious and I think my bringing the subject up is the charitable thing to do but not according to my priest, who I consider to be a holy man. It’s very confusing to me. It’s like seeing a sister jump off the ship, I know she can tread water for awhile, but do I wait until she asks before throwing her a lifejacket? OR do I go ahead and throw her the lifejacket without her asking, that way she has it and it’s her choice to put it on or not? She may get too weak to ever ask for it if I don’t. Mother Teresa said “If we give them the truth, they have the choice of choosing the truth. If we don’t give it to them, they don’t have that choice.” So do we risk offending our siblings and adult children by bringing up the truth to them or not? Do I just keep the peace by keeping my mouth shut? Please advise me on this as it eats at me. Thank you.

  15. Thank you Monsignor for an informative post. Yes, Our Lord’s saying about the narrow gate is hard. Therefore, we must all evangelize our friends, family, neighbors. At least we must at some good opportunity give them a challenge based on the Word of God and/or the definitive teaching of the Church. But it would be imprudent to cast the pearl of the Faith to an angry bigot or cynic. Jesus spoke not a word to Herod. The one dogma of Faith that is most effective in moving the souls of sinners and non-believers (upsetting lax consciences), defined three times, is extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the Church). Protestants who fear God respect Catholics who tell them this straight out. And you need only say it once. It’s like a nail deeply set, a permanent prod in their conscience, especially if they were once Catholic. This is not a judgment, but a statement of doctrine. No need to get into “what ifs,” or “how abouts.” This challenge is a great act of charity, coupled with good example, kindness and humility. The salvation dogma is an invitation to address the greater mysteries of Faith, the Eucharist and the Mystical Body.

  16. This whole business about metaphors made me wonder whether the reason some Protestants do not believe that the Bread and Wine is Jesus is because they think Jesus spoke in a metaphor at the Last Supper: This is my Body. He also said the very difficult teaching about eating the Flesh, without which we could not have eternal life.

    I also wonder about the Protestants who do believe in transsubstantiation. Are they receiving the Body and Blood of Christ during Holy Communion (at their own church) even if they are not in communion with the Catholic Church? Will they be saved?

    1. If all one had were the Last Supper discourses one MIGHT excuse them for thinking in terms of metaphor. But add John 6 where Jesus emphatically refuses to be understood in a metaphorical way but speaks literally, then what we have is a clearly erroneous interpretation on their part.

      As for Protestant services, they do not receive the Body and Blood of Christ, most of them do not claim to, but see it only as a symbol. Even for the few who do confess some form of the true presence we believe that there is none for them unless their priest was ordained by a Catholic, or Orthodox Bishop.

      They can be saved. Although we are bound by the sacraments, God is not and may have other ways of saving people outside the revealed means. It still remains our obligation to get everyone into the ordinary and revealed ways of God.

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