Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Cautionary Pig Tale

It has been a very painful week for those of us who are called to love and serve the Church of England. We risk the danger of adding very public recrimination to very public disagreement and very public disappointment. This evening at the vicarage we were looking at Matthew 7:1-6 with a few teenagers – we’re working through the Sermon on the Mount together – and while we didn’t speak of the events of this week, these verses felt very pertinent.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way that you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (vv1, 2)

Law is there to lead us to grace: to teach us that we cannot live rightly, in the fullness of freedom God intends for us, in our own strength. Even if the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak – a weakness calls out for compassion, not condemnation. Law is there to lead us to grace, but we cannot receive grace for ourselves while insisting that someone else be judged for failing to meet the requirement of the Law. To do so cuts us off from grace, by our own choice.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (vv3-5)

This image seems random and bizarre to us, because we are so unfamiliar with Torah (the first five, foundational, books of Scripture). But Jesus and his listeners memorised Torah from childhood. Here they would have recognised that Jesus was quoting from God’s warning to his people as they prepared to enter into the Land he was giving them.

“‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.’” (Numbers 33:55, 56)

Barbs in your eyes. And planks. Essentially, as I understand it, Jesus is saying, Don’t accuse someone of being led away from closeness with God by the company they keep, having failed to recognise the ways in which the company you keep has led you so far away from closeness with God. This is, after all, precisely what he accuses the Pharisees of doing, believing themselves to be in the right but blind to the distance between them and God. So, take an honest look at your particular tribe first; and then when you look at someone else, someone who belongs to another tribe among the people of God, you’ll be in a position to help them keep close to God – not judge them.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls before pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (v 6)

This verse is also bizarre – and these verses don’t really relate to one another – unless we understand that Jesus is again quoting Torah in order to make the same point for a third time (that is, to really make the point): don’t judge.

“‘...You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud...And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you. Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all the creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins or scales – whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water – you are to detest. And since you are to detest them, you must not eat their meat and you must detest their carcasses. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.’” (Leviticus 11:3-12)

Pearls before swine. Pigs are unclean. But so are pearls. Pearls come from oysters, and really God’s people shouldn’t even know about pearls because they shouldn’t even be touching an oyster to open it to discover them. And to buy pearls from the Gentiles is just a neat trick to get around the letter of the Law. Pearls – a symbol of status - are pronounced unclean in the very next breath as pigs. Pearls aren’t mentioned very much in the Bible, and when they are, it tends not to be positive. They are associated with Gentile Empires that oppress God’s people. Jesus does tell a parable about the kingdom of heaven as being like a merchant searching for fine pearls – which is not to say that pearls are good, but that the kingdom of heaven is scandalous, pursues scandalous ends – and this utterly scandalous nature is underlined at the very end of the Bible where the gates to the New Jerusalem are made of single pearls. But to return to Matthew 7:6, Jesus’ point seems to be, don’t misuse Scripture to your benefit (allowing you privilege that is not God’s best for his people) while putting others down (calling them unclean) – if you do, it may very well turn out badly for you.

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