Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 12:1-21; Acts 16:16-40; Psalm 31; Exodus 13-14
In Matthew 12:12, Jesus declares, “How much more valuable is a man than a sheep!” Here is one of the clearest statements in the Bible that humans are of greater value than animals. This is one of the reasons why we may use animals in ways that we should never use people. We may keep animals as property, sell them and put them to work for us, and some we may even kill and eat. Such treatment arises from the fact that only humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Also, humans are given dominion over all other species (Genesis 1:28). Animal rights advocates go too far when they claim that humans are of no more value than animals, or that it is ‘speciesism’ to treat animals differently to humans.
However, animals and other species have suffered much at the hands of humans. Jesus’ comparison should not be taken as license to do whatever we want with animals. His statement is not an isolated proverb, and demonstrates the importance of interpreting biblical verses in their context. Jesus makes his statement after pointing out that it would be good, and lawful, to rescue a sheep that had fallen into a pit—even on the Sabbath. The original audience was concerned that doing certain things on the Sabbath would be viewed as work and therefore against Jewish law. Jesus’ statement is made to point out that since they accepted that it would be good to rescue a sheep on the Sabbath, they should be even more willing to do good for humans—since humans are more valuable than sheep. Justifying any sort of cruel or inhumane treatment of animals from this passage contradicts its message. The biblical distinction between humans and animals does not justify mistreating animals.
The beginning of Matthew 12 gives the broader principle of this passage. Even the breaking of temple laws can be justified because God desires compassion, not sacrifice. The guiding principle for our behaviour towards animals should be to demonstrate the character of God—in this instance, showing compassion. Similarly, animals were not to be muzzled when threshing because of how unfair it would be to prevent them reaping some reward from their work (1 Timothy 5:18). Our treatment of animals, and all of creation, should reflect the character and likeness of God to a watching world. That is why God compares himself to a Good Shepherd—one who guides, protects and feeds those under his care, even to the point of laying down his life for them (Ezekiel 34; John 10).