Pigs and pearls

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. Matthew 7:6

Jesus said many wonderful and beautiful things – we all know that. But he also said some pretty disturbing things – and this, surely, is one of them! Talk of people as “dogs” and “pigs” doesn’t sit easily with us; it seems, well, rather distasteful, even insulting. Is this really Jesus speaking?

Still worse, this little saying comes immediately after a passage (verses 1-5) where Jesus tells his disciples “Do not judge”. Is he contradicting himself? How can you treat people as dogs and pigs if you haven’t first judged them?

What’s going on here?

It’s tempting to try and water Jesus’ words down. But that can’t be right. We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that he liked to provoke his hearers into thinking, and sometimes he used what we might call shock tactics. That, I think, is the case here. So we need to take his words entirely seriously.

What he is saying seems to be something like this…

The word of God, and especially the good news of the gospel, is a precious and sacred thing. It is holy. And it is to be treated as such. It is not to be held up for ridicule and mockery before people who treat it with contempt.  We might just as well scatter precious stones before a herd of pigs.

So if we as Christians find ourselves interacting with people who take that approach, we should break off the contact – not in a self-righteous, holier-than-thou manner, but simply ending our part in the conversation. We’re wasting our time and degrading the word of God. What is the point of that?

It’s a classic case of “let your living do the talking”. That approach is far more likely to touch a person’s heart and change their minds. I don’t think that Saul of Tarsus, the fire-brand Pharisee, was remotely impressed by what the Christian leader Stephen said (Acts 6-7). But when he saw Stephen submit with dignity to the stoning that killed him – well, something happened inside him that changed him forever.

Jesus, then, isn’t saying that we should give up on people who are violently opposed to the gospel – just that we need to find another way to get through to them.

He does in fact give us illustrations of how this principle might work in practice. As he sent the twelve out to preach the kingdom of God, he told them: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town” (Matthew 10:14). To shake the dust off your feet was, according to one commentator, “a dramatic gesture of repudiation” – as if to say “We won’t have anything more to do with you – we refuse to be contaminated by your godlessness”.

Some people suggest that “pigs” and “dogs” were a way of talking about gentiles as opposed to Jews. This was certainly the case, but it isn’t what Jesus means here, for the people who deserved to be repudiated were in fact Jews.

The same thing applies to the practice of the apostles later on. We read in Acts 18:5-6 that when Paul first came to Corinth he tried to preach Jesus to his fellow-Jews. But “when they opposed him and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles’.” Whereupon “he left the synagogue…” Using Jesus’ image, he was refusing to “throw his pearls to pigs”.

Let’s be really clear about all this… The good news of Jesus is for anybody and everybody. We as Christians are to make him known in every way we can to anybody we might come across. We are to be welcoming to everyone. We are to love everyone. We are not to be judgmental.

But… a situation may arise when persevering with those who are adamantly opposed to the things of God will do more harm than good. It will only harden those people’s hearts still further. It will bring the gospel down into the mud. It will turn us into a laughing-stock (they may “turn and tear you to pieces”).

So… We are to be non-judgmental, yes. But we are also to be discerning. We are to be “as innocent as doves”, yes. But we are also to be “as shrewd as snakes” (Matthew 10:16).

I think it was the great Victorian preacher C H Spurgeon who said that while we are all called to be saints, we are not called to be simpletons.

Well, what do you think?

Lord Jesus, give me love and concern for even the most bitterly hostile enemies of Christianity. But teach me too to be wise and discriminating in knowing how best to reflect your love, purity and holiness to them. Amen.

Bathing the world in prayer

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 1 Timothy 2:1-2

It’s a good job I wasn’t drinking a cup of coffee when I clicked on the email – otherwise I think I would have spluttered it all over the wall…

I had received a message from one of the leaders of the church where I was due to preach on the coming Sunday, and he was giving me an idea of the usual format of the service. At the end of the email he wrote, “Perhaps we might have some prayers of intercession if we have time”.

“If we have time”… those were the words that left me almost reeling. I mean, how is it possible not “to have time” for intercessory prayer in a Christian service of worship! The very idea is preposterous.

To be fair, I don’t think it came across in quite the way he intended – when I met him the next Sunday he made that clear. But taken in the way it first appeared, the remark chimed in with several experiences I have had in the recent past. These experiences suggest to me that, in modern worship, intercessory prayer – which means, of course, prayer targeted at clear, specific issues in either our personal circumstances or in the wider world – is falling by the wayside. We just aren’t doing it much any more.

Three examples…

First, an absolute first for me was a service where there was not only no intercessory prayer, but actually no prayer at all. Oh yes, we sang, and we read scripture, and we listened to a sermon. But at no point did we pray. Extraordinary.

Second, a Bible college student obviously keen that no-one should get bored by a tedious service: “Before we read this passage, let’s just have a quick prayer…” As if apologising for making such a demand upon us!

Third, the Sunday after some appalling tragedy had been on our television screens – I think it may have been the tsunami of 2004 – and we got right through the service without it being so much as mentioned. How could that be?

All right, when I was a teenage Christian I can remember intercessory prayers that seemed to go on forever – all round the world and back again, from a violent revolution in some far-off country to Mrs Biggins’ ingrown toe-nails and everywhere in between. You felt you were likely to die of sheer boredom.

There must be no going back to that!

But perhaps we need to be reminded that the church is “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). And one of the functions of priests is precisely this: to intercede constantly for the needs of the people as a whole. If we, God’s people, aren’t praying for our troubled world, who will be?

Which brings us to Paul here in 1 Timothy 2. Various things are worth noticing about his appeal.

First, prayer must be our priority: “first of all,” says Paul. It isn’t something we just squeeze in if or when convenient.

Second, our praying should be thorough: Paul lists “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving”. To be honest, I don’t really know what the difference is between the first three there. But what is clear is that Paul was keen to cover all bases!

Third, our praying should be comprehensive: “for everyone,” says Paul. Yes, that includes Mrs Biggins and her ingrown toe-nails, by all means – but notice the particular focus on “kings and all those in authority”.

All right, there aren’t that many kings around in our modern world; but we know what this means for us. There are plenty of leaders, local, national and international, upon whom the very safety of our world depends. Shouldn’t we have them constantly in our prayers?

Fourth, our praying is for the health of the world: “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” Isn’t this every human being’s ultimate dream and longing? And prayer is a key element to bring it about. Our world today is full of division, anger, violence and fear. God help it if we Christians don’t pray!

Fifth, our praying is an essential part of our full identity as followers of Jesus: we are to be marked by “all godliness and holiness”. Prayer in general, and intercessory prayer in particular, is no optional extra.

The person at the front in services sometimes says “Let us pray”.

Well, yes, let us indeed! Our world needs it – desperately.

Lord Jesus, we would pray with your disciples so long ago: teach us to pray. Amen.