Don’t Feed the Bears
Don't Feed the Bears
St. Matthew 7:6
by William Klock
In the late 1940’s until 1955 my grandfather was a California State Park ranger. My mom’s family lived at places like Palomar Mountain and the Redwoods. When I was little I loved going camping and used to envy my mom and uncle who grew up living in places that our family only got to go on holiday. That also meant that I grew up hearing stories from my mom and grandfather about life in those parks – usually how their family had dealt with living close to nature. Quite a few of those stories had to do with rattlesnakes and bears. And so I remember well visiting one particular park as a kid and noticing that at this park the food locker – which was usually mounted on up on a post – was actually hanging from a tree. My mom explained that was to keep the bears out of it. At night you hoisted it up and out of reach. You see, feeding bears is dangerous. My grandfather used to tell me: Once you feed a bear, he’s going to want more; and when you run out of food, you become the food yourself. Don’t feed the bears.
Well, today in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives us a warning that’s awfully similar. It comes on the heels of last week’s passage about judging not. Remember that in Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus warns that our mission isn’t to put ourselves in God’s position, as if Judgement Day were already here and we’re ready to condemn others to hell right now. Our mission is to lovingly correct, first having done everything in our power to apply God’s standard of holiness to our own lives. Our job is first to prepare ourselves for God’s judgement, then lovingly to help others prepare – all in the knowledge that the eternal destination of real souls is at stake.
But as I said, God still requires us to judge on some level – to be discerning. And so after telling us not to judge harshly and critically – not to usurp his role as Judge – he now warns us lest we go to the other extreme. Look at Matthew 7:6:
Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.
Now to understand what Jesus is saying, you have to realise that the dogs and pigs he’s talking about aren’t the kind of dogs and pigs we’re accustomed to. He’s not talking about cuddly lapdogs or man’s best friend. He’s talking about First Century Palestinian dogs that were wild and ran in packs, scavenging in the city dump and through the dark streets of the cities and towns at night. These weren’t the kind of dogs you wanted to have a run-in with – they were vicious and wild. And you need to understand that the pigs of that same place and era weren’t like our modern domesticated pig. They may have been domesticated to farm life, but they were still bad-tempered pigs descended from the European wild boar. On top of being dirty, they could be very vicious – not to mention that for the Jew, they were the most unclean of the unclean animals. Jews had nothing to do with pigs. Period. St. Peter brings these two animals together again in his second epistle, where he writes, “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” Not a pleasant picture. So in words we can understand, Jesus is saying, “Don’t feed the bears.”
It’s easy for Christians to fall into the trap of being undiscriminating. We’re told that as disciples of Christ, we’re to love our neighbours as ourselves and even to love our enemies. We’re called to mirror God’s graciousness – the God who sends his rain on the just and the unjust. Jesus has just warned us against being judgemental. And so there’s a danger that we become wishy-washy – that we refuse to make legitimate distinctions between truth and error or good and evil. And so Jesus tells us that we need to use some spiritual discernment when it comes to sharing spiritual truths with others, because there are some times that require we be discriminating – and that there are even some people out there with whom we shouldn’t share God’s truth.
I struggle with the idea that there are some with whom Jesus says I shouldn’t share the Gospel – and if I struggle with it, I’m sure you do too. What I fear the most is that if I take Jesus’ admonition here to heart, it might become an excuse to not share the Gospel with others – something to justify my laziness when it comes to evangelism. But Jesus said did say these words. To understand this it’s critical that we put it in the right context. And that context is the very Biblical teaching that some, but not all, will be saved and that among those who will not be saved there will always be some who are so opposed to God’s truth and the Gospel message that the Christian should have no dealings with them. Jesus warns – actually he gives these words as a command – that his disciple should not share the richest parts of spiritual truth with people who are persistently vicious, irresponsible, and unappreciative. Throwing your valuable pearls before a vicious pig is only going to end badly. The pig doesn’t appreciate them for what they are. At best he’ll think they’re food, eat them, and only get angrier when he finds they aren’t edible – and he’ll attack you instead. There are people out there who do the same thing with the truths of God and even the Gospel message itself.
Think of Jesus when he talks about the Pharisees and tells his disciples: “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). Consider St. John. He’s the disciple and apostle best known for his love, and yet he writes that if a person who does not believe in Christ’s divinity should come preaching a gospel other than the Gospel of Jesus and the Bible, the Christian shouldn’t even let him into his house or even welcome him! John writes, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 10-11). St. Paul gives us some very sobering words in Galatians 1:9. A group had made their way into the Galatian church and were teaching that before you could become a Christian, you first had to become a Jew and practise all the Jewish ritual of the day. That wasn’t the Gospel and St. Paul wrote, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). Notice that he didn’t say, “Let him be converted.” And think about what Paul wrote to Titus about people in the church who sow dissension and division: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10). We tend to forget these words and examples.
So, practically speaking, what does it mean for us when Jesus says not to give what is holy to dogs?
The first thing it means is that not all of Holy Scripture is for the unbeliever. In fact, the only truth that is for the unbeliever is the truth of his own depravity and sinfulness together with the offer of salvation through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now, some might say, “But what about sharing with others about the ethics of Jesus – preaching to them about love, and sacrifice, and mercy, and all those other good things – like the Beatitudes?” And I’m telling you that those things aren’t for the unbeliever. I said that back in the spring when we first started our look at the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. Jesus’ teaching here is for those who are already poor in spirit and not the proud, for those who already mourn their sins and not for those who don’t care about them, and for those whom God has made meek and not for the boastful. Ethics are great, but the ethics of Jesus can only be understood and followed if his Holy Spirit is living in you first.
Some might say, “What about prayer? Can’t we teach unbelievers about prayer?” And again, we’ve already covered that. Jesus tells us that prayer is addressed to “Our Father,” and only those who have first made Christ their brother can rightly be called God’s children. Real prayer is in the Spirit, through the Son, and to the Father and none of that happens when unbelievers pray. The Holy Spirit is not in them, Christ is not there to lead them to the Father, and so if they dare enter the Father’s presence on their own terms they stand there only in condemnation. In fact, Holy Scripture tells us plainly God will not hear the prayer of an unbeliever. He said through Isaiah, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen” (Isaiah 1:15). The only prayer that God will ever hear coming from an unbeliever is the prayer in which he confesses his sins and asks for salvation based on the merit of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. That’s the only thing about prayer that we have authority to preach to anyone who has not already become a child of God through faith in Christ.
If you don’t believe me, take the example of Jesus himself. Somewhere we’ve picked up this popular image of him roaming the Judean countryside and towns preaching the Gospel and God’s kingdom to anyone and everyone who would listen. And yet if you look at the record left to us in the four gospels, it’s closer to the truth to say that Jesus was the most discriminating of all preachers in terms of what he taught and to whom he taught it.
Really. Think of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well that St. John tells us about. She was really interested in talking “religion” with Jesus. He could have talked to her on the basis of her understanding of theology or ethics. That’s what she wanted to talk about. But every time she brought up a subject, he took it and turned it back to himself. He offered to give her spiritual water, and she asked whether he was greater than her ancestor Jacob. He turned her back to the spiritual nature of what he was offering her. She wanted to talk about the right place to worship. (We might think of it in terms of an argument about worship style or liturgy.) But Jesus turned her back to the fact that salvation was of the Jews and that the Messiah was to come through Judaism. Finally, when she decided to pull him into a debate about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus said firmly, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26). That woman is like any other unbeliever. There was no solution to her religious and theological questions until she first accepted Christ and had a true understanding of his person. It’s not that those other things are unimportant (Jesus does call them “holy things”), but they don’t matter if Jesus isn’t your saviour and Lord in the first place.
There’s another way that we need to be discerning and it was the way the way that the Church Fathers took this passage, in that the “holy things” and the “pearls” referred to the Sacraments, and by extension to membership in the Church. If what I’ve just said is true that all the truths of Scripture are not for the unbeliever, then it’s also true that church membership isn’t for the unbeliever either. And that’s because membership in the local parish implies membership in the body of Christ – and how do we become members of Christ’s body? We become members when we believe and take the Gospel message to heart.
That’s why here at Living Word Church we ask prospective members if they agree with the Creed and with our own doctrinal statement. And members have to make their own statement of faith – not just that they positively affirm what we believe, but that they believe it and have made Jesus their Lord too. It’s important we do this. There are lots of churches that grant membership without asking a single question – and some where membership is automatic if you come and receive Holy Communion so many times in a given period.
That should never happen and we should consider it scandalous. Malachi warns us against doing just that sort of thing: “And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the LORD of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart” (Malachi 2:1-2). Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ should be a thing of great blessing, but if we don’t respect it for what it is, it becomes a curse.
The same goes for the Lord’s Table. The Sacraments are some of God’s greatest blessings for us, but for many they have become a curse when they come to the Table unworthily – or worse, when they approach the Table thinking that coming here makes them right with God. It’s a terrible thing for a man or woman to come to the Lord’s Supper and think that they’re somehow in a place of special favour when in reality they have no true fellowship with God. St. Paul warned the Romans that for many of them the Table had become a snare. And the same can be said just as much of us today. The Table isn’t the Table of just any professing Christian; it’s the Lord’s Table. And it’s a Table that can be a snare that hardens the heart and makes a man or woman think that he or she has satisfied God’s demands of inner justice and righteousness just because he’s gone through an outward form.
Remember that when we receive these outward signs of bread and wine, our focus is on the spiritual food that Christ gives us. At his Table we receive the seal and outward signs of the new life we find as he daily nourishes us with himself. The Lord’s Table is a blessing only for those who come in faith and with a desire to find their life in Christ. For all others the Table only brings condemnation.
Let me make on final application. It is, I think, the clearest application, but at the same time the most difficult to hear and put into practise, and that’s because it has to do with people who are more than the run-of-the-mill unbeliever – the ones whom Jesus calls “children of the devil.” If we look at the full teaching of the Word of God, we are to preach the gospel to unbelievers, but, to those who have heard the Gospel and who, in the hardness of their hearts, actually despise and mock it, we are to say nothing. Instead of persisting, we’re to do what Jesus, St. Paul, and all the other disciples did: we’re to shake the dust from our feet and move on.
I know that that statement runs counter to what we’ve often understood and we might refuse to admit it, but this is what Jesus tells us and the Bible is full of examples. Think of the people who make light of spiritual things and blaspheme God. They think they’re oh so smart and witty: “Jesus saves! He shoots! He scores!”; “Jesus is the answer. But what’s the question?” Think of the folks driving around with “Darwin fish” stickers on their cars. Those aren’t meant to be an assertion of belief in evolution. They’re a direct response to the Christian fish stickers that claim belief in Christ. And those are mild. There are far worse that involve the vilest and most disgusting and blasphemous things you can imagine. We’ve all seen those statements. They grieve the heart of any true believer who understands just what Jesus has done for our sinful race. Their words are the barking of dogs and squeals of pigs, and the Christian is disobeying God when he casts his pearls before them.
There may or may not be hope for people like that, but if there is it lies in the sovereignty of God and in the visible witness of true Christian living – not in words. William Barclay makes the same point I would when he writes: “It is often impossible to talk to some people about Jesus Christ. Their insensitiveness, their moral blindness, their intellectual pride, and cynical mockery, the tarnishing film, may make them impervious to words about Christ. But it is always possible to show men Christ; and the weakness of the Church lies not in lack of Christian arguments, but in lack of Christian lives.”
And I want to end on that thought. Part of the reason why so many scorn and mock the name of Christ is because of our poor witness. Too many people call themselves Christians, but never live their lives in conformity to that of Christ’s. Too many Christians are willing to say they trust Christ for the salvation of their soul, but refuse to trust him for the things of this world. They live in open anxiety and worry for all to see. Too many people call themselves Christians and live in open mockery of God’s Law and the knowledge of what we know to be pleasing to him. And too many churches allow these people to remain unrepentant in their sins, practicing them openly before the world, and then allowing them to come and offer false worship to God and to come to his Table to eat and drink condemnation on themselves. Jesus calls us to discernment in how we share the truth of the Gospel in our words. The blasphemous mocker of Jesus Christ may not be worthy of our Gospel preaching, but our lives are the best witness he’ll ever be exposed to. So take serious Jesus’ call to holy living – to be conformed to his image – and in all things consider that how you live is the greatest witness you have to an unbelieving world.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, we ask that you would keep us always mindful of the great grace and mercy you showed us while we were yet sinners. And as we remember with gratitude what you have done for us, give us a passion to share it with a lost world. And Father, since we know that there are those who will not hear our words, give us the grace to aspire to holiness, that we might effectively show your grace and mercy to the world. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.