Food in the Bible: Matthew 12:9-14

Matthew 12:9-14 He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Here again, as in the previous passage, Jesus is not doing away with Sabbath, but instead challenging our understanding of Sabbath. Personally I bristle at the statement Jesus makes, “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! ” That is so anthropocentric! Isn’t this part of what has brought us to this place? We think that we are the pinnacle of creation and that somehow makes exempt from the laws of nature. We don’t have to deal with the repercussions of the way we treat the earth because somehow we’re more important than sheep and animals.
Well, as always, it would serve us well to read the Bible in context. The original hearers would certainly not have read (or heard) that into the text. They were agrarian people who depended on the land. Jesus in fact points out that saving an animal on the Sabbath trumps the rules about resting precisely because the Sabbath is about life, not rules. So, this passage might actually be highlighting the dependence of human beings on creation. It’s our modern mind that reads such a technocratic elitist idea into the text.
Perhaps Jesus’ words about the value of human beings is also to point out the inhumane way in which people treated other people, the sick, the lame, the blind, etc. Jesus restores humanity to the man with the withered hand by rightly relating people to each other and to the Sabbath. Remember that the Sabbath commands are about economics and ecology, our relationship to the earth and to each other. In other words, Jesus says, “You would break Sabbath in order to be rightly related to that which you depend on for sustenance. Recognize that you depend equally on being rightly related to your fellow human being. This is the meaning of Sabbath.”

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