by Lois Tverberg
Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. Matthew 10:29
Frequently Jesus speaks about how God deals with people by using animals as an example. God watches over the sparrow (10:29) and provides for the ravens (Lk 12:24). When Paul argues that preachers deserve to be supported by church, he quotes the law not to muzzle an ox as it treads out the grain, and then assumes that it applies even more to people. (1 Cor 9:9, 1 Tim 5:18).
How is it logical to infer that any law that applies to animals applies to people? A passage in the Mishnah points out the Scriptural basis:
Have you ever seen a wild beast or a bird who has a trade? Yet they get along without difficulty. And were they not created only to serve me? And I was created to serve my Master. So is it not logical that I should get along without difficulty? But I have done evil and forfeited my right to sustenance without difficulty. Simeon ben Eleazar, Mishnah, Kiddushim 4:14
This rabbi points out that in Genesis 1:26, humans were created to serve God. But they were also made in God’s image to reign over creation, so just as a king’s subjects are his “servants,” animals are man’s “servants.” If God gives a rule for how our animal “servants” should be treated, how much more should it apply to human beings.
This is also seems to be the logic behind Jesus’ healing the woman on the Sabbath. Many laws in the Torah sought to prevent distress to animals, like not yoking together two different animals (Dt 22:10), and letting animals rest on the Sabbath (Dt 5:14). They included even waving a mother bird away from a nest if you took the eggs or chicks to eat! (Dt 22:6) From this, the rabbis inferred that God was teaching the principle of Tzar Baalei Hayim, which means to “prevent suffering to living things.” From this they made special rulings to prevent distress to animals. Even though it was forbidden to untie a donkey on the Sabbath to do any work, taking the donkey to get a drink was permitted, to alleviate its thirst. Likewise, an animal that falls into a pit could wait until the next day to be rescued, but to prevent its distress, the owner was allowed to do work not normally allowed on the day.
Jesus was using rabbinic logic in Luke 13:15-16 to say that if some Sabbath laws can be set aside for the prevention of distress to animals, how much more can they be set aside to prevent distress to humans.
Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her? Luke 13:15-16
We hear the “how much more” comparison when he points out that an animal can be untied to be led to water to prevent its thirst on the Sabbath, how much more- -should a human be released from suffering, and even more, a “daughter of Abraham,” one of God’s chosen people. He’s taking the laws that consider distress of animals and expanding them to apply to humans too.
Christians and Jews both largely assume that Jesus broke with Judaism in his treatment of the Law. But here he employs the same logic and principles as other rabbis of his day—and built upon them to bring them to the highest level.