Pearls before swine


Sometimes from an unexpected quarter one can get a new light on a very familiar phrase, so that it shows a completely different meaning. One of the best-known texts in the Bible is the one about the pearls and swine: ‘Neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.’

Now one can see that the pigs won’t value pearls, because they do not know what they are. But why should they turn on you and rend you? I’d always vaguely supposed this was a symbol of mindless malice towards what is felt to be spiritually superior, but that idea must be wrong; if they don’t know the pearls are valuable, they won’t know there’s anything superior to resent.

In 1963-4 I used to take part in a weekly radio dialogue, with a Japanese Buddhist priest, in the studio of the Asahi Broadcasting Corporation in Osaka. He was famous for ruthlessly castigating dishonesty, including the corruption of Japanese politicians of the time. His nickname was ‘Poison-tongue’, though he was always very pleasant in our interviews. He once said to me, ‘If I don’t say something sharp, people are disappointed.’ The Profumo scandal broke when I was there, and he asked why Profumo had had to resign. I said, ‘It wasn’t because he had a mistress, but because he told a lie to the House of Commons.’ To my amazement he shouted, ‘Bravo Britain!’ I didn’t know what to say, and kept quiet. He went on, ‘Yes, a British cabinet minister tells one lie and has to resign. But every time a Japanese cabinet minister opens his mouth, it’s a lie!’ That was the sort of thing he said.

Well, the phrase about pearls and swine came up in one of these discussions. Like many Buddhist priests, he knew the New Testament. The Japanese version is straightforward: ‘Do not throw pearls to pigs, for fear they tread them underfoot, and then turn on you and bite you.’

I said, ‘It just shows the mindless spite of people who can’t understand.’

To my surprise he answered, ‘No, it doesn’t show that at all. You are condemning the pigs, but Christ is blaming the man who gives teachings too high or difficult for his hearers of that time and place. Pigs aren’t vicious. The meaning is: don’t throw pearls before swine, because they will think it is food. They try to eat it, but find it is like stones. Naturally they are angry and turn on you. It is no fault in the pigs; it is your fault for throwing them what they can’t eat. Don’t throw pearls to swine: it is not fair on the swine.’

© Trevor Leggett

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