“If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit ...” (Matthew 12:11-12)

“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.” (Matthew 12:11-12)

Can Jesus heal on the Sabbath?

Jesus has walked into a synagogue, and there in the synagogue was a man with a shriveled hand. The Pharisees tested Jesus with the question:
“Ís it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matt. 12:10)
Jesus then responds to this question, first with an analogy, the meaning of which is explained below.

Next, Jesus states with clarity that it is indeed lawful to heal on the Sabbath.

One of the key elements of Jesus' statement is the word "good" - translated from the Greek word, καλῶς (kalōs) which means "fine," "beautiful" and "noble" according to the lexicon. Thus the act that Jesus is speaking of - healing a man - is more than just "good."

We can see from his answer and other statements that Jesus’ focus was not on rituals. His focus was the welfare of others - especially related to their spiritual lives.

What is the Sabbath?

Jesus practiced the teachings of the Jewish Prophets and Priests, just as his teacher John the Baptist. Those teachings had been practiced for thousands of years prior.

Jesus also taught his own followers to practice these same teachings. This included honoring the Sabbath as the Holy day of the week, and honoring Passover as the Holy eight-day period each year.

Honoring the Sabbath has its origins from God's instructions in the Old Testament:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
This instruction has been followed for thousands of years now, though some sects have abandoned the Sabbath in lieu of honoring the "seventh day" as Sunday. In this case, it is still honoring the principle instruction.

The principle of "rest" on the Sabbath is being questioned here by Jesus. In Matthew 12:3 Jesus brings up the example of David with regard to fasting on the Sabbath.

We also know that other Prophets and observant Kings did do some things during the Sabbath. This included the priest Jehoiada organizing the removal of queen Athaliah and replacing her with Joash. And Joshua marched on Jericho during the Sabbath. These were things done for the good of their people during those times.

There are many other examples, but doing work for money or business was condemned by the Prophets as a result of Exodus 20. Buying and selling on the Sabbath were particularly condemned.

But as we see here, the priests of Jesus' time took this a bit too far. They applied this principle to any type of work, including work for the purpose of helping others on the Sabbath. Jesus clarifies that this form of work certainly "lawful" on the Sabbath.

What does the sheep analogy mean?

Jesus is asking if they would save a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath, and if so, then why would helping a man on the Sabbath be wrong?

The metaphor with regard to the sheep and the pit indicates a deeper element - one deeper than simply healing a person's physical body. Jesus frequently utilized the sheep metaphor, because this communicated innocence, especially among those who needed help.

This was illustrated repeatedly. For example:
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5)
We can understand from this that healing the body was not as important as healing the soul - the living being occupying that physical body.

And the relationship between the "pit" and those Jesus was trying to teach and save is that we have all fallen into a pit - the pit of the physical world.

In this pit of the physical world, we are blinded by our misidentification with our physical body and our mistaken dreams that the forms and things of this world will make us happy.

Who gets pulled out of 'the pit'?

This illusion that the things of the material world will make us happy requires our being pulled up out of this pit. We cannot pull ourselves up. We might try very hard, but the illusory nature of the physical world will keep us down into the pit unless the Supreme Being pulls us up.

This is why Jesus chose to utilize a pit in his analogy of the sheep: It is because his teachings regarding the Supreme Being provide a means to pull us out of the pit of self-centeredness.

What does getting out of this pit look like according to Jesus?
" 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: love others as yourself." (Matt. 22:37-39)