The Gospel for today’s Mass features three hard sayings of the Lord. They are difficult for us moderns to hear because they offend against modern sensibilities; we easily taken aback by their abrupt quality. Here are the first two “offensive” sayings:
Do not give what is holy to dogs, (Mt 7:6)
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 this: You’re not supposed to call people ugly names. This idea, though not wrong in itself, has become rather excessively applied in our times. We live in thin-skinned times of fragile egos; people are easily offended. The merest slight is often met with the threat of a lawsuit. Even observations intended to be humorous are labeled hurtful and out-of-line. But horror of horrors, here we have Jesus calling certain (unnamed) people dogs and swine; we demand an explanation for such horrible words coming forth from the sinless Lord Jesus!
Sophistication is needed. One of the reasons we are so easily offended today is, frankly, that we lack sophistication. We seem to have lost understanding of simile and metaphor.
Metaphors and similes are figures of speech that achieve their effect through association, comparison, and resemblance. They can highlight hidden similarities between two different things.
A simile directly compares two different things and normally includes words such as “like,” “as,” or their equivalent. Similes are “hit you over the head” comparisons such as this: “He is as swift as a cheetah!”
Some references say that similes are just a specific subset of metaphors, while others say that metaphors cannot use “like,” or “as.” But in either case, here is an example of a metaphor that is not a simile: “He’s a real workhorse!” Metaphors (that are not similes) are usually more effective (and subtle) than similes because the basis for comparison is often ambiguous. For example, if I were to observe someone doing something cruel I might say, “Wow, he’s a dog!” Now obviously I don’t mean that I believe that he is actually a dog. Rather, I mean that he is manifesting some of the qualities of a dog. However, just how many or which qualities he shares with an actual dog is left open to interpretation.
The point is that some sophistication and some appreciation for the nuances of language are necessary as we negotiate life’s road. We seem to have lost some of this today and so are easily offended.
This does not mean that no one ever intends offense; it only means that more care is necessary than simply interpreting everything in a literal way. In my example, the man acting cruelly would likely take offense and say, “Hey, he called me a dog!” What the speaker means is that you have taken on some of the qualities of a wild dog. Now to what extent he means that you are like a dog is intentionally ambiguous; it’s an invitation for you to think about how you may have surrendered some of your humanity and become more like a baser creature.
Examining what the Lord says – This sort of sophistication is necessary when examining the Lord’s “offensive” sayings. Let’s look at both of them in terms of their historical roots and in terms of the lesson being taught.
Obviously the Jewish people were not pointing out positive traits when they referred to people as a dog or swine. In the ancient world, dogs were not pets; they were wild animals that 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.
Do not give what is holy to dogs. This was a Jewish saying rooted in tradition. Some of the meat that was 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 consumed by humans, then it was to be burned. Sanctified meat was not to be thrown to dogs because it was holy.
[Do not] throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot. In the Old Testament, pearls were an image for wisdom. But pigs only value what they can eat. If pigs were to come across pearls, they would sniff them, determine that they were not edible, and then simply trample them underfoot.
So what is being said? Sacred things, sacred matters, and participation in sacred matters 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 to deny them the pleasure of tearing apart or trampling underfoot what is holy. Jesus is saying that some people are like dogs, who would irreverently tear apart blessed food dedicated to God, having no concept of its holiness. Some people are like swine, who would trample underfoot anything that they could not eat or use for their pleasure.
There are also some who, though not hostile, are ignorant of sacred realities for some reason. Even if they do not intend offense, they must be instructed before being admitted to sacred rites. In the Western Rite, for example, children are not given the Holy Eucharist until they can distinguish it from ordinary food. In addition, more advanced spiritual notions such as contemplative prayer are often not appreciated unless one has been led 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 were admitted to the sacred mysteries of the Liturgy. Given the holiness with which the early Christians regarded the Mass, they exactly followed what the Lord is saying here. Careful instruction and gradual introduction to sacred truth was required before someone could enter something so holy as the Sacred Liturgy. Even the unintentional trampling underfoot of sacred realities through simple ignorance was to be strictly avoided. These were difficult times for the Church and persecution was common. Hence, the Lord’s warning to protect the holy things was not just so that they would not be trampled underfoot, but also so that those who were like dogs and swine would 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 were revived in the modern Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), wherein the catechumens are dismissed halfway through the Mass so that they may reflect more fully on the Liturgy of the Word. Despite this, we have much to relearn today about a deep reverence for the Sacred Liturgy. It would not seem appropriate to lock our Church doors as was done in ancient times. But preserving good order in the Liturgy, inspiring reverence, encouraging 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 Lord’s third hard saying destroys a notion that is, to most moderns, practically a dogma. The “dogma” is that just about everyone is going to Heaven. It is one of the most damaging notions of modern times because it removes the necessary sense of urgency in earnestly seeking our salvation, in staying on the narrow road that leads to salvation. In direct opposition to this destructive and presumptuous 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).
Pay close attention to the word few. We need to sober up and come to the 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. In contrast, Jesus says that many are on a path of indifference or outright rejection of the kingdom, which leads to destruction.
The Kingdom of God is not some abstraction. It’s not a golf course or playground up in the sky. The Kingdom of God is the full realization of God’s will and His plan. It includes values like justice, mercy, kindness, chastity, and love of God and neighbor. It is clear that many (to quote Jesus) live in opposition or indifference to these values, while 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 while only a few are on the road to salvation. The Lord is telling us the truth not to panic us, but to jolt us into earnestly desiring our own salvation and seeking it from God with devotion. It is also to make us sober about the condition of others; we must stop making light of sin and indifference, and work urgently to evangelize and to call sinners to repentance.
We need to realize that our tendency is to turn away from God. There is a great drama to our lives; we are either on one road or the other. No third way is given. It is not a popular teaching to be sure. It offends against modern sensibilities. But it is true; Jesus says it to us in love.
Ad old song says, “Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last.”