Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pigs & Pearls

Has being called a “pig” ever been a compliment? I sincerely doubt it; and the fact that the latest influenza outbreak was linked to pigs hasn’t helped their image. About 25 of our Middle School students had a great time at camp this summer but right after they came home (wam!) they all got sick with swine flu. It was passed around as they were sharing a huge 50 scoop Sunday at the camp clubhouse...which seems to prove there's a link between swine flu and eating like a pig (sorry).

Pigs were held in contempt by Jews of the first century. The flesh of a pig was considered to be unclean; and so Gentiles and "non-believers" were often referred to as "pigs" or "dogs." Jesus had a few run-ins with pigs himself. In Gergasa, he cast a legion of evil spirits into a herd of pigs, who ran headlong down a hillside and drowned (Mark 5: 1-20); and then there is Jesus' arresting proverb: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (Matthew 7:6). It's obvious that Jesus thinks there are things in our possession far more precious than pearls...and that he doesn't want us to abuse them or cast them aside.

In Matthew 13: 45-46, Jesus says that the gospel of the kingdom is like “a pearl” of the greatest value that a merchant sold everything to possess. It would seem that the primary meaning of Matthew 7:6, then, is that we should not continue to push the good news about Jesus and his kingdom on those who are unwilling or unable to receive it; or who reject and despise it. The message of the gospel has been entrusted to us…and we are to be wise in how we share it. Let's face it, not many of us would bring our dog to church. We love our dogs but we know they would have trouble sitting up straight; and it would be difficult for them to even hum the songs. Nor would many of us buy a pearl necklace and then throw it to a wild pig at the LA Zoo! The fact is, pigs can’t digest pearls; and dogs don’t sing or pray. All that is to simply say that we can’t force good things on other people…not even the Gospel. They must be ready to receive what we have to give. Jesus is giving us permission to walk away…and to put that person in God’s hands.

But more often than not, our problem is not that we are too pushy with the gospel; but that we fail to share it at all. Our fear of appearing “pushy” should not discourage us from listening and getting to know the people around us who don’t know Christ; nor discourage us from sharing our faith in a relaxed and non-manipulative way. Having said that, there may still be a person who is simply not ready or willing to hear the gospel. Does this proverb about pigs and pearls mean that we simply write people off as hopeless? That doesn’t sound like Jesus. Let me suggest, then, that when our testimony is not welcomed -- our actions are more important than ever.

In his book, A Modern Epiphany, Cecil Prescott shares about a discussion in a camp of students from many nations regarding the various ways that Christ can be shared with other people. At one point, Maria, a girl from Africa, was asked what she did in her country. “We don’t have missions or give pamphlets away” she said, “We just send one or two families to live and work in a village; and when the people see what they are like, they want to become Christians too” (William Barclay, Matthew vol. 1). Do you think that strategy would work in West Los Angeles? And if not, why not? We cannot always tell a person about Christ…but we can show them Christ. Are you breathing a sigh of relief right about now? "Good," you say to yourself. "I don’t have to tell anyone about Jesus, I can just show them with my life." To that I would say that showing people Jesus with our lives is in many ways our greatest challenge…which is why I want to talk about another way that we can understand this proverb of Jesus. Namely, that there is a time to cherish and protect our God-given gifts & there is a time to share them freely with others.

Casting your pearls before swine, in this case, means to treat something precious with contempt; with disrespect; with carelessness. To live out the Christian life before others often means that we must learn to cherish the pearls that he has given us; it means that w e must often guard and protect them in a way that may seem strange, or unpopular, or out of step with the rest of the culture. What are the pearls that God wants you to guard and protect before sharing with others? How can you be a witness to Christ in the way you handle the precious and holy things that God has given you? Some examples would be helpful here, so let me suggest a few.

One very obvious “pearl” that deserves to be cherished and not hastily or thoughtlessly cast away is our purity. Our purity is something which God has given us…and as children and teenagers we have a God-given desire to protect it. We live in a day and time in which innocence is being violated at pandemic levels. Did you know that youth and children right now comprise 50% of the 15-30 million people who are being abused and trafficked as slaves?According to World Vision, at least 1 million of these youth and children are being trafficked as sex slaves (seekjustice.org). I believe that we as a church should be involved in working against this plague. Why am I sharing this? Because it made me aware that what one million children are having violently taken from them by force; many young people everyday are casting aside without the slightest thought – I’m talking about their innocence. Our purity is like a pearl; and God calls us to guard and protect this pearl until the day we are ready to make a lifelong commitment in marriage. I want to challenge you to reclaim as your own what many would like to steal from you or drag through the mud. I would also like to say that Christ can heal and restore what has been lost as we come to him in humility and repentance….for he says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Speaking of children just now, I want to also say to moms and dads that our children are precious; that they are far more valuable than silver or gold or pearls; and yet we often spend far more time trying to accumulate silver and gold than we do cherishing our children. It’s not too late to re-evaluate our priorities; to begin counting our children and our family more important than our work or out hobbies or our so-called success. Having just celebrated a wonderful week of Vacation Bible School, I’ve been reminded again that Jesus was never too busy to spend time with children… and we shouldn’t be either.

Here is a third pearl that comes to mind today: our spiritual gifts and, in general, our capacity to serve the Lord in ministry and mission. It’s easy to underestimate the spiritual gifts and talents of our young people. Just last week I learned that one of the middle school students in our church completed a 2 mile ocean swim as a junior life guard. It takes incredible strength, endurance, and determination to do something like that…and it makes me want to get serious in the pool too! She has taken her God-given athletic ability, and developed it. Sadly, a lot of us are sitting on the beach…when God wants us to get in the water and start swimming. That wasn't the case with two of the daughters of our church who told me last week that they will be involved in hands-on mission work this next year. One will be working at Cal State LA with Campus Crusade for Christ; and a second has just been accepted as an intern with Youth for Christ and will be serving for six months in Mexico. God is calling these women into spiritual leadership; and he can do the same with us…but we must allow him to develop and to use our spiritual gifts and talents.

We’ve talked about purity, about our children and families, about our God-given talents; but I want to mention one more pearl – and that is our God-stories. While Lisa and I we were en route to Marina Del Rey on one of our early "pre-marital dates"… I had been sharing a lot about my background in response to some questions Lisa had asked me. But then I asked a rather dumb question of her: “Lisa, I’ve been sharing a lot about myself; how come you haven’t been sharing very much about yourself? You’ve been kind of quiet and reserved on our last two dates?” Then she quipped: “Well, I like to be asked; I don’t like casting my pearls before swine....” I laughed out loud as I was put soundly in my place; but inwardly I realized how insensitive I had been. It was then and there that I realized how important it is for Lisa to know that someone is actually interested in finding out how she is doing before she shares anything. And Lisa practices what she preaches…she is great at asking people how they are doing, but she likes to be extended the same courtesy. Don’t we all? How easy it is to get lost in our own world…and forget that the person sitting right across from us has a life too. Lisa reminded me that each of us wants to feel like a pearl of great value; respected, cherished and important; enough to merit concern, compassion, and curiosity.

That (painful) story brings me full circle, because until we truly value and respect each person we meet as a pearl that Christ has purchased at the price of his own blood… we will be in no position to share the pearl of the gospel with them. Until we are willing to climb out of our own world of self-concern and self-interest enough to get to know other people, to show genuine interest in them as human beings; the gospel message we have to share will ring hollow. We cherish the gospel message more than pearls…by learning to respect and value the people around us; and earning the right to be heard. Put another way, we can’t cast our pearls…until the common herd before us become in our eyes children of God whom he has called us to love and forgive just as he has loved and forgiven us.

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