Worth More than Animals: Jesus’ Anthropocentrism in the Matthew and Luke

This section is less about social identity between groups of humans and more about humans vis-à-vis animals.  It is a few sayings that lay bare Jesus’ anthropocentrism to a degree that many modern eco-apologists find uncomfortable.  If there were more of these, they would deserve their own chapter.  All of these work by similar forms of reasoning: from lesser (animals) to greater (humans). 

            The first operates within the context of the legality of Sabbath healings.  It is when Jesus healed the mean with the withered hand, but it is couched within a controversy dialogue (Matthew 12:9-14).  When asked whether or not it is permitted to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus responds, “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 is out?  How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep.” (12:11-12).  Jesus, himself, is pretty anthropocentric!  He assumes human life is much more valuable than a sheep’s life.  If we are willing to help out a sheep on the Sabbath, how much more should we be willing to help a human being. 

The same episode in Mark (3:1-6) omits the reference to sheep or any animals for that matter.  Luke has a different sabbath healing episode in which a woman had a spirit that crippled her for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-17).  Jesus heals her on the Sabbath and the leader of the synagogue opposed the healing on the Sabbath – any other day of the week would be just fine.  Jesus responds: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16).  Admittedly, the logic in this healing is not quite as anthropocentric as Matthew’s.  In Matthew, it was if you are willing to do this for an animal, how much more so should you do it for a human being?  In Luke, it is more like if you are willing to do this for an animal (here give it water), just so should you do it for a human being – a daughter of Abraham(!) for that matter.  Another sabbath-healing controversy occurs in the next chapter (a rare doublet for Luke), in which a man with dropsy comes to Jesus for healing (Luke 14:1-6).  Jesus says “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5).  There is a text critical issue here: some manuscripts read “child” (ὑιός); others read “donkey” (ὄνος).  Others have πρόβατον (“sheep”); others still have all three. It is likely “child,” and “donkey” was substituted by later scribes to conform with the wording of Luke 13:15.  No matter how one resolves the text critical problem here, it is almost exactly the same counterexample given in Matthew: if a living being falls into a well on the Sabbath, you would try to get it out.  In Matthew, it just happens to be a sheep; in Luke it is an ox and something else.  Nonetheless, Luke still does not follow the same reasoning as Matthew exactly.  Luke still does not clearly argue from lesser to greater as it is in Matthew.  If, in fact, “child” is correct here, then it is not animal versus human that matters, but giving life to those who need it that matters, whether animal or human. 

Another example of the animal-to-human argumentation occurs in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and in Luke’s parallels.  In the portion about not worrying about basic necessities, Jesus says: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26-27).  Luke 12:24-26 is almost exactly the same, except it refers specifically to ravens.  It may heighten the lesser to greater argument, in this case, since ravens – as scavengers – were considered unclean (Lev. 111:15; Deut. 14:14). Both, however, maintain a highly anthropocentric attitude: humans are worth more than animals.

Matthew has a similar saying later in the gospel: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).  Luke is very close, except saying that five sparrows are worth two pennies, but otherwise has the same material as Matthew here (Luke 12:6-7).  So, while Luke did not have the same anthropocentric attitude as Matthew in terms of the Sabbath-healing controversy dialogues, here they both are clear: you, human being, are far more valuable than animals.  If God watches and takes care of even minor or unclean birds, then how much more so will God take care of you. 

It is interesting, whether looking at the triple tradition (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) or the double tradition (Matthew and Luke) that Jesus is the most anthropocentric in Matthew and Luke and less so in Mark.  The most anthropocentric statements occur in Matthew’s editing of the Sabbath-healing controversy dialogues and Matthew and Luke’s shared material (Q).  Why would Q – if Q existed – actually be more anthropocentric than Mark? 


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