Seeing with a man with a withered hand in the temple, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees with a question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Matthew continues the narrative with Jesus’ response; “He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.”
A reasonable argument can be made that a sheep that falls into a pit and is clearly still alive is likely not in danger of imminent death. After all, all a person living in Jesus’ day could to help such an animal would be to ensure it has water and food and not require it to move. There were no veterinarian hospitals to bring it to, so if the animal rests at the bottom of the hole or in a stable is more a matter of geography than help. The practical implication is that if one fell in on a Sabbath day the Jews could wait till the day after to pull it out. A day at the bottom of a hole might be a sentence of some significant discomfort for a distressed beast, but it is not an automatic death sentence.
Yet no one in their right mind would respond that way. If your animal fell down a pit and could not get itself back out, you would feel compassion for the animal and immediately go to its rescue. Even if you didn’t have any love for animals at all – you would still respond on account of your concern over your investment. After all, you had to pay for the animal and have made an investment of your time in raising it to this point. That it could stay in the pit for the day would not really be the point. The point is your concern for the welfare of a being of which you have some sense of compassion (or at least ownership).
How much more then, does God have compassion on those He made and cared for all their lives? For who can argue that a sheep is more important or valuable then a person? A sheep is livestock – at most a pet that lives a fraction of our lifespan. A person is irreplaceable. And who can argue that God should not have compassion for that which He has a sense of ownership? For He defines Himself as, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”
It is no wonder Jesus healed the man. God has compassion. God is gracious. God is abounding – overflowing with love and faithfulness!
The principle here is yet another example of God’s moral law taking precedence over His ceremonial law, which defined the Jewish people. This is a key take-away for all who call themselves disciples of God: Compassionate ministry trumps legalistic obedience. Not because God’s ceremonial laws are unimportant, but because compassion for people is a far greater expression of God’s character than adherence to the cultural rules that define our particular people group.
Compassion costs. It is easy enough to argue, criticize, and condemn, but redemption is costly, and comfort draws from the deep. Brains can argue, but it takes heart to comfort.Samuel Chadwick
We are thankful that God cares so much for us that He acts out His compassion for us. How much more than should we do likewise for those just like us!