Two Hard Sayings of the Lord that Offend Modern Notions

082013The Gospel of Matthew features two hard sayings, or expressions, of the Lord. They are “hard” because they offend against modern notions. 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 what I would call “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. Older commentaries felt less need to comment extensively on these verses.

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 these 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 was returned to the family to be eaten by them, and some was retained to be eaten by the Levites. But in no way was this meat that had been consecrated to God ever to be thrown to dogs or other animals to eat. If, for some reason,  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 value nothing they cannot 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. The pigs have no appreciation of pearls.

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 in 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. While 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.

 Regarding this video, the Text says, Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last. One of the things I like about the old spirituals was that they still used older biblical language that had fallen out of fashion. For example calling people “Sinner.” You don’t hear preachers speak like this much today in these hypersensitive times. But the truth is we are all sinners.

32 Replies to “Two Hard Sayings of the Lord that Offend Modern Notions”

  1. Dear Mgsr. Pope, thank you as ever for your fidelity and wisdom here on your blog. I have many, many of your articles bookmarked!

    While I do not intend to go off topic, I could not help but think of the so-called “traditionalist” sects or groups who may consider us (we who recognize Holy Father Francis and His Church) the swine; many of their concerns strike home at what you said, namely, relearning a deep reverence for Sacred Liturgy. What do you think?

    I am thinking mainly of SSPX. And wouldn’t you know it, tomorrow is the Feast of St. Pius X! If I were to be completely honest, as a lay Catholic born after Vatican II, I long for and admire some things I see in their observance.

    (I would very humbly ask, Msgr., you to consider writing about the topic of modern-day schismatic groups; I tried to use the Ask A Question button but it seems to not be working.)

    God bless you and your work!


    1. yeah, I am with them, but not with all the hostility that comes from some, which backfires. There are legitimate debates about what is sacred and the Church allows a good deal of diversity. What I wish TLMs would do is bloom where they are planted, enjoy the liturgy, seek to help it grow and draw others to appreciate it through a loving and enthusiastic celebration of it and an evangelical spirit. Most do this but the vocal minority of them with the sneering and denigrating of others is like poison. So my advice is be beautiful. Beauty attracts, arrogance repels.

    2. Dear Daniel –

      I attend the Latin Rite (Extraordinary Form) of the Mass. I support Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and I accept the teachings of Vatican II. There are two main groups that celebrate the old rite which are in full communion with the Church: The Institute of Christ the King and The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. It is quite possible, since the Motu Proprio, to find faithful parishes that celebrate the Extraordinary Form without trashing the Ordinary. Unfortunately, I am quite sad to say that there are many SSPX or SSPX-style churches that have turned in on themselves and have become quite strident in their rejection of so many things. These people are attractive to no one. I pray that any attending such a place will look for the Extraordinary Form in a church faithful to the Magisterium. I pray that any who have visited such a place and have not been shown charity might realize that there are many Extraordinary Form communities that are doing what Monsignor advises — blooming where they’re planted and trying to show forth the beauty of God. I am sorry for any who have experienced a lack of charity and invite you to find a different EF Mass.

      God be with you,
      Lisa Roberts

  2. The oversensitive & politically correct times we live in reminds me of a story regarding my daughter: When my daughter was in 2nd or 3rd grade she had bangs, whenever the bangs got too long and start to grow over her eyes I would say “You look like a sheep dog, let’s trim the bangs” One day my daughter said “you look like a sheep dog” to one of her classmates who happened to have bangs that were getting too long. Well she got in trouble for calling the other girl a unkind name and I had to call the school an explain to the teacher why she said this! Oye!
    BTW I agree that dogs were not the cute little pets that we have today, however Tobiah (in Tobit) seems to have had a pet dog. (probably a working dog for their flocks of sheep which Tobiah, as an only child, developed a relationship with). For me, the dog is part of the charm of that story.
    As a Novus Ordo Catholic I do agree that there is a lack of appreciating that which is sacred; but I think that this is just part of the gradual change in our society from formal to more casual. When I was young, women wore hats, dresses and white gloves. Men wore hats suits and ties. (and not just to church). I remember, in the NY area, all women went to a wedding wearing long gowns (not just the bridesmaids and the mom’s). For Sundays I always had at least one dress, dress shoes and a hat for church, or visiting grandma for Sunday supper. It was nice but it is in the past. People who attend TLM tend to be very serious Catholics and understand the sacredness of the rites. However, I think that if you got rid of all the N.O. masses and went with TLM in all places I think you would start to see that same lack of reverence creeping in on those masses because you would have all those “not so devout” Catholics in attendance. The noise level would increase, dress would become more casual and there would be those who still wouldn’t get what was going on (maybe more so – because TLM is in, well…..Latin).

  3. Every time I say a Hail Mary I accuse myself of being a sinner and in that state I ask prayers from Our Blessed Mother. Sadly, five minutes later I’m apt to sally forth as though the “sinner” label belonged to everybody else but not to me. I think I will stop worrying about the advanced stages of contemplation (not that I have ever done much thinking about such lofty states) and spend some time contemplating the Hail Mary.

    1. Mike, I associate with your struggles in the spiritual life. I’ve found that the devil loves to weigh me down with guilt whenever I (frequently) sin. Don’t forget the Jesus has forgiven you, and offers you an amazing means to that forgiveness through Confession for mortal sins and the Eucharist for venial sins. Have as much mercy and patience with yourself as Jesus Our Lord Himself does.

      As for establishing meaningful habits of prayer and meditation, I highly recommend “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales and “Prayer Primer” by Thomas Dubay. May God bless you in your pilgrimage towards Him.

  4. Thank you for this article. I think about this Bible verse often when dealing with some acquaintances.

  5. The modern emphasis within the Church to emphasize man’s dignity, with its fruit of standing against torture, and mistreatment of immigrants among other wonderful things, is sometimes taken to such a degree that we Catholics forget the complimentary truth that we are all sinners in desperate need of Jesus’ healing grace given through the Sacraments. It feeds right into the modern fashion of free speech so long as it’s not “intolerant,” i.e. offensive to politically correct sensibilities determined by those deemed Culturally Elite. We’d all do well to meditate on the “Hail Mary” by which we invoke Our Lady to “pray for us sinners, now at the hour of our death.”

    Jesus loves us so much that he wants us to be his brothers. Human dignity and human concupiscence need not conflict any more than any other seemingly paradoxical truth, such as Jesus’ two natures, or the Holy Trinity’s three persons in one divine nature. Truth is profound and mysterious.

  6. Msgr. Pope,

    if I may humbly add to your excellent exegesis, I’d like to suggest a point regarding why even our sensitive, modern sensibilities shouldn’t be offended. Namely, that the prohibition against passing judgment does not, obviously, apply to Jesus.

    1. Nor does it always apply to us. There are certain judgments we cannot make, eg. the final state of a person’s soul. Neither can we make the judgement that condemns one to hell or consigns them to heaven. But obviously we must discern right from wrong and make judgments as to who is a dog etc.

    2. Which is why Jesus told us to remove the beam from our own eye before complaining about the splinter in somebody else’s eye.

      And, considering that Jesus will judge us, it certainly does not apply to Him.

  7. I had been wondering why some Catholic things aren’t mentioned in The Apostle’s Creed, especially as to why there is no mention of the Eucharist in The Apostle’s Creed. This post, especially the part about disciplina arcani, may explain that. Maybe there is another or other reasons as to why there is no mention of the Eucharist in The Apostle’s Creed.

    1. They weren’t mentioned because they were things believed everywhere and always. The Creeds were prayers put together to affirm specific doctrines in the face of heresies of the time.

      If you are interested in a Creed that affirms the Eucharist, I would suggest Holemni Hac Liturgia (Credo of the People of God), paragraphs 24, 25, and 26. Paul VI promulgated it on June 30, 1968.

      With respect to the disciplina arcani, yes, a “remnant of it” survives in RCIA. However, this was a “reclaimed” remnant which only entered back into the practice of reception of pagans, dating from 1962. It hadn’t been around since the very early Church, and then it was added back in 62.

  8. “Do not give what is holy to dogs” has literally happened at my former parish. I left that parish 3 years ago because of irreverent Masses and near heresy being taught but I still attend a men’s prayer group there. The guys told me that Father decided he wanted his dog to be with him during Mass. Sometimes father drops the Eucharist on the floor (which I have witnessed). Now that his dog is there the guys have told me they have seen the dog eat the Eucharist when this happened. This upset me to no end and the men in my group now know how horrible this is but I know from past experience that nothing will change if this is brought up to father. How serious does the Church take this type of offense?

  9. Anyone who was around when the Novus Ordo was inflicted on the Catholic Church should remember the violent glee with which the Traditional Latin Mass was jettisoned, altars ripped out of the walls, statues of the Blessed Virgin “disappeared” overnight. The life of ethnic Catholics was totally disrupted. Those of us who worshiped together in Latin along with our parents and grandparents who spoke only German, or Polish or Italian or other languages could worship together no more. It is still extremely difficult to find the Extraordinary Form in most parts of America. It takes the dedicated nagging of quite a few people to get one allowed, and it will only be allowed at the most inconvenient time and place.

    It seems to me we have not thrown our pearls before swine, we have simply thrown them away. Gone the ancient language, the Gregorian chant, the best of our music, art, architecture, and our sense of the sacred. What is left over, most of the time, is an “Ordinary Form” that I wouldn’t give to a dog.

    1. I dont recall the glee you mention and I dont recall a lot protest from the pews either. I was fairly young about 8 or 9 when the changes emerged. But the spirit of that age didnt really incline people to fret over the loss of old stuff. I do remember being surprised when i saw that the marble rail was removed. But my surprise was more that something expensive like marble (my mother had a fancy marble table) had been removed. But again there were no big protests from the pews in the several parishes I attended in the changeover. I think the arguemnts began a few years after the newness of English and facing the people wore off and some of the stuff started to seem dopey.

      I agree that we have lost some of our pearls and would like to get more of them back. However, I am afraid that your dismissive tone and us v them stuff does not advance that cause. Perhaps just going to a T L M and trying to grow that community rather than dissing others or things that took place over 50 years ago with cartoonish simplicity will be of greater help.

      1. Sorry, Father, but you misunderstand me. I was trying to give a flavor of where some of the bitterness against the changes of Vatican II, and the way those changes were implemented, comes from. Your parish may have been peaceful about what was going on, but I assure you many were not. People were treated terribly and shamed for wanting to continue their life long traditions. Many people were in shock and most were told that there was nothing that could be done, the changes had been make. There is still trauma, anger and scars from those changes that will die out when my generation dies. Meanwhile, I won’t pretend that nothing was lost or that what was lost isn’t getting more difficult to retrieve over time. I have traveled extensively and know there are some lovely Ordinary Form masses out there, and I seek them out whenever possible. However much of what I’ve seen are really not very, well spiritual, and I don’t see them getting better. Why can’t we have beauty?

  10. I find it amusing observing how easily “upset” and offended some in our modern society are. It is is a hypocritical phenomenon, given that so called mothers terminate their babies lives as easily as they switch shoes. That fornication and all sorts of lewd behaviours are rampant here. Referencing your fine homily here, i’ve had numerous cafeteria Catholics hasten to assure me, that Jesus did not mean what is quoted in Scriptures. That since He is all love, He would never ever offend anyone by calling them dogs, swine or hypocrites. That yes He mentions Hell a lot (their words), but it was only to scare everyone into listening to Him.

    When i tell any one of them the truth, they get upset lol! They think me cruel and unfeeling and out of touch with the reality of Jesus. These are the self same Catholics who, after a long two days of bar crawling and fornication, bounce into Mass, partake of the Eucharist and bounce on out. God help us all.

    1. People are indirectly led to this ethos by the new theology and secularization that has crept into the Church with the Second Vatican Council.

  11. I am sad that you have to be around these people.
    Their words and actions mock God, I am truly sorry that you have to witness to such “dog” like people.

    1. If they weren’t so comfortable in their lying, I’d pity them more. All anyone can do is pray the Rosary daily for their souls.

  12. Excellent article, Monsignor. Never had that piece of the NT explained so well as you have done. Food for lots of thought. Thank you.

  13. What a beautiful new understanding of those works. Thank you Msgr reminds me of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quote from his book “Orthodoxy”, “good is not only a tool to be used but a relic to be guarded”. The Catholic faith is awesome.

  14. My offering in this area is ‘letters to the editor’. Not many of mine have been published but I think that I am beginning to get the way to make fun of bad moves and then to admit that I make mad moves too. George

  15. Monsignor, Monsignor! Can you please watch Brené Brown’s TED talks (the original in 2011 and the 2012 follow-up)? I’d love your commentary on this woman’s work on vulnerability and shame. Personally, I find her message incredibly humane and in our godless culture, a humble articulation of the transcendent dignity of man (words from the Catechism). Like the findings of any true science, her natural research can affirm supernatural truth. For example, her assertion that “(I won’t ruin it for those who haven’t seen)” is riveting (2 Corinthians 12:10). Dr. Brown also talks about the difference between shame and guilt. I think the latter is popularly misconceived as justification against sacramental confession, as if our religion was about perpetuating feelings of petty wrongdoing. Anyway… please let me know what you think.

    Finally, I’d like to mention that your post “A Case for Communion in an unlikely place” is one of the most influential pieces of commentary in my life at this point. It’s part of an important ethos of American Catholic thought which I’ve discovered through bookmarking articles over the last year (the other voices are all Catholic bloggers too). For the life decisions that I’m currently making, I’ve found immense practical guidance in your writings. Thank you and God bless.

  16. Sadly today’s public schools don”t teach children how to conjugate a sentence much more make an emphasis on proper spelling much more teach cursive writing. That’s not to say we are turning idiots out at the end of their primary and secondary educations but they lack an ability to communicate. Communication is our ability to express ourselves and understand the feelings, intentions and knowledge of those around us. Uninformed,under-educated and disinterested people are empowered in today’s society to express themselves and stand-up against what threatens their ability to be uninformed, under-educated and disinterested because those that make them feel lacking are bigoted, racist, and unprogressive. In this secularist educated system it’s more a matter of keeping the sacred and moralist in check.

  17. Thank you Monsignor…I often use you articles for my high school religious ed. class. I appreciate them so much. Need something on the Trinity as a circle of love…thanks.

  18. Misconceptions is what makes the big difference between conservative Catholics and traditional Catholics. While traditional Catholics know perfectly well what the conservatives hold about the Church, liturgy, doctrine, conservatives live in a dreamworld when it comes to discussing the traditionalst Catholics. First of all it’s important to know that, save for some schismatic groups like the sedevacantists, traditionalist Catholics ARE NOT and NEVER HAVE BEEN schismatics. They acknowledge the pope, the Church and everything else. What makes them traditionalist then? Besides their allegiance to the discipline of the Church they know perfectly well what the conservatives do not. They know that the discipline of the Church, the liturgy, countless parts of the doctrine has been changed by the Vatican Council II. They see, what the conservatives do not, that the modernist “new theology” once condemned by the Magisterium from popes Gregory XVI. down to Pius XII. has been installed in the Church. They have grasped that the new liturgy is a shift toward secularization. They see that there is an abysmal difference between what had been taught by the Magisterium before the late Council concerning many many points of our faith and what is being taught today after the late Council. These things are reality and allegiance to the Church do and can never mean a blind eye to these facts. They see that the ecumenism in its new understanding leave Catholics confused about their faith. The new ecumenism leads people to believe that all religions in the world are just as fine as Christianity and just as efficacious for the salvation. Reverence and obedience does not mean blindness. However, this crisis of faith has been prophesied by Marian apparitions. Traditionalist Catholics are those who see this reality while remaining in the Church because they know that in spite of all the odds we see nowadays this Church is the Bride of Christ and thus they suffer with her in her late crisis.

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