The general principle of this verse is pretty easy to get- don't waste something valuable on something that is not worthwhile.
That truth can be applied in a number of different situations. Don't waste your purity on someone who is not your spouse; don't waste your time and resources on foolish pursuits, etc.
But it's the context and the situation in which Jesus applies it that gives me trouble. He's just been talking about not judging people (Mt. 7:1-2), and then taking the beam out of our own eye so we can help removed the speck from someone else's (Mt. 7:3-5), and then goes straight into this verse about giving holy stuff to dogs and pearls to pigs. I don't know how else to read this verse in the context without it including making some sort of judgment about people and what we offer them.
The reason I have trouble with this verse is because I feel like I know for sure what Jesus could not have been teaching here based on his other teachings and his work. He could not have been saying that there are some people who are unworthy of being preached to. We are all unworthy of the gospel and Jesus made a point of reaching those who society shunned as "the worst." He could not have been saying that we are to be very selective about who we preach to based on who we think will respond and who will not. Otherwise, how could the kingdom of heaven be compared to the farmer sowing seed, some of which fell on the road, some on the rocky soil, some among the thorns, and some on the good soil?
Knowing Jesus most certainly was not giving us an out to pick and choose who we want to share the life-giving message with, how did he want us to apply this truth in the context of Matthew 7?
I consulted at least 3 or 4 commentaries and two co-workers (would have been 3 but one was at a funeral) trying to figure out how to apply this passage. Most people view Jesus' comments as a general truth that there are just some people who are not ready to receive the gospel. With that interpretation, the "holy" and the "pearls" are both the gospel message. The problem with that, in my mind, is that the "pigs" and "dogs" then become people that we must make a judgment call about whether or not they are ready to receive the gospel. None of us can see into someone's heart the way Jesus did so why would he ask us to do that? Not to mention the fact that Jesus still proclaimed truth to those that he already knew would reject him!
Another option I found makes much more sense to me in light of the context on Matthew 7 and in light of Jesus' other teachings and way of dealing with people. Since Jesus had just talked about the beam and the speck in someone's eye, what if the "holy" and the "pearls" he refers to in verse 7 refers not to the gospel message itself, but to a more specific message of reproof, rebuke, and correction? If that is the way Jesus intended it, then Paul gave a great commentary on it in 1 Corinthians 5 when he wrote to the church in Corinth about the brother who was sleeping with his step-mother.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.Notice that Paul draws a very clear distinction not in the way we love people or try to share the life-saving gospel with them. He draws a distinction in the way we deal with sin in the lives of those who are inside the church already and should have already been saved from sin versus how we deal with sin in those who are outside the church still living in sin. He goes on...
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
1 Corinthians 5:9-13
Here's the point:
I don't believe Jesus is referring to any group of people as "dogs" or "pigs" unworthy of the gospel. I believe he is using an illustration that everyone will understand to state the general truth that some people simply are not ready to hear some things. It makes no sense to offer some truths to people who are not ready to receive them, just as it makes no sense to offer holy things in the dog bowl or pearls in the pig slop. In the context of verses 3-5, I believe the holy things and the pearls Jesus is referring to are the words of rebuke and correction that would help remove a "speck from someone's eye." Why would anyone in the world welcome me pointing out their faults and sins before I have first pointed out the love of God and the life that He offers?
I read a Christian fiction novel a long time ago in which a Christian woman is very offended and shocked at an inappropriate advance by a man. Her son-also a Christian- shields her and diffuses the situation, and then asks, "why are we surprised when sinners sin?"
That line has stuck with me. Why are we often more outraged over the things we see in the news about the ways people are treating each other than we are about the things we see in the pews about the ways Christians treat each other? Why are we willing to wage political wars about homosexual marriage but willing to overlook the heterosexual lust and lasciviousness that invades our Christian homes through the media we use? Why do we mobilize and come together about abortion but overlook brothers and sisters in Christ murdering each other with their words?
Don't get me wrong...sin is sin. It kills and destroys and separates people from the God who loves them perfectly, sacrificially, and eternally. But perhaps Jesus would have us point out that God to the world and work to convert them to His love before we work to point out their sin and convert their actions. Just think about the anger and resentment that is often pointed at Christianity about the issues that get national attention. Could it be that we sometimes try to confront people with sin before we have confronted them with God and therefore they have "trampled [our well-meaning efforts at righteousness] underfoot and have turned to tear us to pieces?"
May we never downplay the devastating effects of sin. But may we heed Jesus' teaching here and be filled with God's wisdom to know when and how to confront sin in a way that focuses on winning souls and not just changing behaviors.
As I said earlier, I struggled with the application of this verse and would love to hear more discussion on it.