Prior to making these remarks, Jesus warned against judging people hypocritically. He was calling out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. They failed to see their own faults, but they were always quick to pick on the faults of others. They were judgemental and condemning in their attitude toward people.
Jesus did not stop there. He went on to caution against going to the opposite extreme of being undiscerning. This is the problem with many Christians. They mistakenly believe that we should completely abstain from all manners of judging. This arises from reading the statement made by Jesus – “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) - without reading the rest of His comments.
While Jesus is against hypocritical judgement and judgementalism, He wants us to judge, that is, evaluate and assess, people and situations with discernment. That is what the comments on dogs and pigs are all about. It is obvious that Jesus is not talking about these animals literally. These are people whom Jesus wants His disciples to be wary.
In the Law of Moses, dogs and pigs are ritually unclean animals. They can also be dangerous. In the mind of modern readers, the mention of dogs conjures up images of cute and loyal pets. However, in ancient times, dogs were strays. They lived in the streets and scavenged for food. Likewise, pigs were also scavengers. They roamed the fields. Both these animals could be dangerous when they were provoked or hungry.
Jesus warned His disciples to be discerning. Evaluate people appropriately. Judge the situations carefully. In its context, these people are those who have rejected the message of the Kingdom of God. So, in your zeal, do not always assume that the best thing to do is to keep preaching the gospel to them. You offer them the “pearl.” Instead of showing appreciation, they may turn around to attack – mock and ridicule – you.
This principle also applies to life in general; not just to spiritual things. Do not always assume that everyone will be appreciative of your kindness, both in intention and gesture. Be wise and discerning. Learn to make decisions, which are appropriate and fitting for the situations and people with whom you are dealing.
King Solomon put it this way: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-5).
This is a fascinating piece of advice. At first glance, what Solomon said seems somewhat contradictory and confusing. However, on deeper reflection, you would realise that there is much wisdom in this proverb.
Sometimes, you refrain from answering the fool – the equivalence of dogs and pigs in Jesus’ comments – because it is pointless. Either they cannot understand your sound reasoning, or they refuse to consider your point of view. A fool is not necessarily a stupid person, but one who thinks that he is smarter than everyone else, and therefore, he is always right. To get into a protracted discussion with a fool is a waste of time. It will be silly of you to do so.
However, sometimes, you do not have much choice but to engage the fool because failure to do so may cause collateral damage. People around may be adversely and negatively influenced. In such instances, you have to handle the matter firmly and decisively. That is the reason Jesus often engaged the scribes and Pharisees in debates, unpleasant as they were.
The apostle, Paul, found himself in such a situation once with the Corinthians. They had written to him arguing that it was permissive to eat food, which had been offered to idols. You can find Paul’s lengthy response in I Corinthians chapter 8, 9 and 10. The Corinthians boasted that “all of us possess knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:1). They claimed that they were just as knowledgeable as Paul. How did Paul respond to their cockiness? He said, “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up… If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-2). Essentially, Paul was telling the Corinthians not to be wise in their own eyes because they were not as knowledgeable as they presumed.
In the minds of many Christians, the matter of food offered to idols is such a small matter. So, why make a fuss of it? I suppose that is also the mindset of the Corinthians. However, Paul thinks otherwise. He engages in this debate because it is a serious matter concerning worship. The central issue is who are you worshipping – God or the demons? Paul forbids eating food offered to idols – you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). This is probably one of the reasons when giving instruction on the Holy Communion, Paul said: For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself ((1 Corinthians 11:29). This is a serious matter.
So, whether to respond to a fool or not is situational. You need wisdom and discernment. Bear in mind also that in evaluating people and judging situations, you must exercise discernment without being hypocritical and judgemental. We judge with discernment while at the same time holding to a merciful and forgiving posture. In doing so, we practise love without being naively accepting and discernment without being judgemental and condemning.
May our Lord Jesus grant you a wise and discerning heart!
Pastors Leslie & Adeline Chua