An Ox on the Sabbath

Compassion trumps correctness.
Relationship is more important than being right.

Over the past few weeks, my brother and I have been having a lengthy theological discussion over a point of Scripture.  Both of us see our stance as reflecting the heart of God, both see our point as being crucial to the future of people’s lives and immortal souls, and both of us seem committed to our respective sides of the truth.  (Hmm, could it be that we’re both right?)  I won’t prejudice the discussion by elaborating on it here since it is still ongoing, and although it is unlikely, knowing our personalities, that we’ll reach a point of agreement, what is remarkable to me is the willingness on both our parts to even have this dialogue. 

I respect my brother.  He is an honest man, one who seeks after God’s will, and as far as I can tell, he is a commendable husband and father and a successful businessman.  More important than all of that, I love him.  If we never see eye to eye on this particular “crucial” issue, I hope it never becomes a wedge in our relationship.  Oh, that this were how I felt about other people in my life with whom I have serious disagreements!

In the Bible, after hanging around Jesus for a while and slowly learning what is important to his master’s heart, Peter begins feeling a bit proud of himself, a bit holy.  He’s made strides in his spiritual life, he’s in tight with God’s appointed Messiah, and has been promised a prominent position in judging the tribes of Israel in the coming kingdom.  At one of those confident moments he asks Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Mt 18:22).

We’ve all had these thoughts.  Usually over some matter of personal offense: a common source of disharmony between close people, and a poisoner of relationships.  Peter probably thinks he’s going over the top with his generous offer. Seven times!  (Jewish tradition at that time suggested that one ought to forgive an offense up to the fourth time — that is, forgive three times, but the fourth offense has crossed the line — so Peter’s offer is twice the going rate.)  Jesus’ answer shocks everyone and puts Peter’s generosity to shame.  “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  Even today, we devoted believers find this number hard to swallow.

But along with the point that we shouldn’t be counting offenses and should forgive as many times as we’d like to be forgiven ourselves, Jesus illustrates the point that we should never let our disagreements, our offenses (no matter who is right), be cause for breaking fellowship. We’re to put up with each other’s faults, bearing in mind that we’ve got plenty of our own — that whole “don’t try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye when you have a log sticking out of yours” thing.  The relational bonds between people are more important than being right, or getting our just deserves.  Everyone needs forgiveness, everyone needs compassion.  We’ll never reach perfection in this lifetime, so we’re going to need as much forgiveness and compassion as we can get.

This is a spiritual law higher, and more important, than other laws we seem to become preoccupied with.  It is too easy for us to focus on our differences, to see what is clearly wrong with someone else.  It is too easy to hold grudges, to cut that person off, to dismiss them from our lives, or to surrender to the position of “irreconcilable differences” over matters that are in reality insignificant.  We focus on the trivial; we love the letter of the law.  We love to critique each other, and show how the other is falling far short of the standard.  This is our basic instinct, our flawed human nature.  But, borrowing an image from common life in ancient Palestine, if an ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath, isn’t it better to break the law forbidding work on that holy day, and save the poor beast out of simple human compassion?   The law of love, the principle of compassion, the bonds of relationship, override other considerations.  It makes all other disputes insignificant in comparison. 

What does this mean in real life?  Where does the rubber meet the road?  Whether it’s some major doctrinal disagreement between brothers, or a deep, grievous personal offense among co-workers at the office, disharmony is the greater evil.  Letting the offense fester and become a bitter source of division is a bigger wrong.  In the long run — and I believe, in God’s eyes — who is right is less important than preserving fellowship.  Being correct is less important than dealing compassionately with one another.  After all, God’s presence, his power, and his love are displayed most clearly when people united by a more powerful bond are gathered together.  And isn’t that a better thing than being right?

6 thoughts on “An Ox on the Sabbath

  1. Agreeable disagreement among Christians, brothers at that! Can you mass distribute this to church as a whole?! Seriously though, great post, refreshing.

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  2. I’m not sure people understand what Jesus is saying here. Peter is implying like so many do that because he is wronged by another that is automatically in a position of righteousness. Implying that in such a position he may righteously Judge his offender. I think what Jesus is trying to say here is that being wronged does not inherently place anyone in a position of righteousness and no matter how many times one is wronged you can not be justified by the wrongdoing of another. So your willingness to forgive should reflect this humble position rather than the prideful one of thinking yourself better than someone else because you are the victim.

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  3. Kurt, that’s an interesting perspective I never considered before — and people sure take that attitude sometimes: “you wronged me, so I’m (automatically) on the right side of justice. And that entitles me to extract my own justice on you ….” Hmmm. Food for thought.

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  4. I hope that the brother with whom you are debating saw your article. Seeing in writing that you love him may cause him to take a closer look at his stand. Not that he knowingly would differ with you on purpose, but I think that knowing one is loved somehow softens one’s intellectual ideas and gives them more room to reconsider their argument. Love is a very powerful weapon! Just thought I’d interject that.
    As to your thought that compassion for the ox supercedes obeying the law, well…..couldn’t someone possibly say, that if one truly believed the law was right and just, and that God was 100% behind it, couldn’t one go a step further, and simply pray that God would keep the animal from suffering and harm until the next day? (Just a thought!)

  5. Patrick, you’re a goofball. 🙂

    Pat,
    You’re right that love is powerful force; it is the motivating factor (I believe) for everything that God does. Of course, as that brother would point out, love is not blind, it is not ignorant of law-breaking. Love does cover over a multitude of sin, but … there was a price to pay for that.

    What I probably should have explored more in the post is that there is a hierarchy of Law that God honors, and that’s what Jesus was saying. The law of love (in the ox’s case, love in the form of compassion) “overrides” all the other laws because it fulfills them, it completes their purpose. All biblical laws are built on the foundation of love — loving God, loving neighbor. As a contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, once said, “all the rest is commentary”. So it’s not that we become a law-breaker by breaking the Sabbath under those conditions, we actually uphold the law in its fullest, most pure sense.

    Jesus’ actions demonstrate this. He forgave the adulterous woman and sent her away free, though the law required she be stoned. He healed, and prepared food on the Sabbath, which the law forbade. And he proved his actions lawful by citing David eating forbidden bread, and priests sacrificing and doing circumcision (working) on the Sabbath, etc., pointing us back to the very heart of the Law. Otherwise, by breaking the Law he would have been a sinner, and we know that he was sinless.

    Alot of Christians do kinda what you mentioned: just pray that God do something while we wait and do nothing. But I think God EXPECTS us to do something. He gave us stewardship of this planet, he placed US in charge and gave US responsibility. When he put Adam in the Garden, he told HIM to tend and care for it (Gen 2:15). So us ignoring the ox on the Sabbath would probably fall under the same category that James warns us about: “If one of you says [to a brother without clothes or food], ‘Go, I wish you well; be blessed, keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15).

    Apparently, we are not only commanded to love, we are expected to act that love out. And sometimes that “looks like” we’re actually breaking the Law.

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