The Ox Falls Into the Ditch

I learned a lot from my former head of school, Steve. I was in my 20s, recently married, and armed with an engineering degree, youthful enthusiasm, and a cheerful disregard for the impossible. At our English-speaking Christian school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, we went through a lot together: hurricanes, riots, food shortages, dengue fever, and frequent power blackouts. It was in the midst of some of these trying times that Steve would be heard to say with a shrug and a smile, “Sometimes the ox falls into the ditch.”

This expression is taken from Luke 14:5, where Jesus is responding to a crowd who is openly critical of his ministry and methods. He had just healed a man who had a disease causing abnormal swelling, but he performed that healing on the Sabbath, the day of rest. The nearby naysayers were carefully and critically watching rather than praising God for the miraculous healing that happened before their eyes. They counted this good deed as “work”, and to work on the Sabbath was counted as sin. Jesus responded with his typical brand of irrefutable (but gentle) logic:

Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?

And his critics were silent.

Sabbath rest is a gift

The Sabbath—that is, taking one day to rest out of every seven—is a good and holy thing, not only prescribed by the Jewish law but also in concept predating it. In Exodus Chapter 20, the justification for the Sabbath is listed in the Ten Commandments: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day.” Keep it holy, says God, to follow my example and honor forever the rhythm of creation. This stands alongside “Thou shalt not murder” and “Have no other gods before me.” We ought to take Sabbath rest seriously and receive it as a gift.

Oxen fall into ditches

But Jesus also knew the realities of unpredictable human existence. While we should plan to honor God by observing his day of rest, emergencies happen. People get sick and hurricanes hit. Unexpected guests arrive from out of town. Cars break down without warning. Sometimes, as Steve would remind me, the ox falls into the ditch. And when that happens, we rightly interrupt our rest and pull the ox out, and God is not displeased.

I no longer live in Haiti, but it seems that Santa Barbara has more than its fair share of Defcon 5 disasters. Since my wife and I arrived in 2014, our community has gone through the Thomas fire, the Montecito mudslides, other fires and evacuations, and a few years of COVID-19. It is especially during such times that I have found myself saying out loud, “Sometimes the ox falls into the ditch.” I intended to rest from my work for the entire Saturday, or the entire Sunday, but here I am writing emails, grading assignments, or on a conference call coming up with a COVID battle plan. Just as Steve taught me, I have shrugged and smiled and taken refuge in Christ’s comfort, acknowledging that emergencies happen and I am right to address them in a common-sense way. Scripture also teaches that the Sabbath is for the benefit of man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).

The Meadth boys and dog enjoying a family walk.

Its time to fix the fences

But today, in October 2022, I find myself aware of a new dynamic that has crept into my heart and habits. Several years of COVID crisis mode has conditioned me to be perfectly content with a new rhythm, an unholy rhythm, where my ox falls into the ditch not as an exception, but as a rule. My Sabbath day arrives and he falls in right on time, lowing insistently for me to pull him out, and that’s pretty much our expected arrangement. In fact, if I’m honest, there’s a little bit of pleasure in the process. I consciously feel my own importance in rescuing my ox. Sometimes it’s the two-hour email session that feels so necessary, or maybe it’s running the family budget numbers for a while. Whatever it is, it’s always something that seems important in the moment, important enough to interrupt my God-sanctioned rest.

But, I say this boldly to the Providence community and beyond: we’re coming out of crisis mode. We need to come out of crisis mode. Even the news outlets are tired of COVID headlines and the pandemic no longer dominates our thoughts or our policies. There will no doubt come other emergencies, both personal and community-wide, and that is a normal part of the human experience. But in this season, I need to do a full reset on my co-dependent relationship with my poorly-trained ox. Perhaps I need to build some better fences so he doesn’t escape. Perhaps I need a stouter stick or a bigger carrot with which to guide him. Perhaps he’s only just stumbled a little—oxen do stumble, after all—and I don’t need to mount a full-scale rescue operation.

Take time this week to insist on a restful rhythm. I feel certain that the exact day of the week is not very important. I don’t think it matters whether you measure a day in the Jewish fashion of sunset-to-sunset or in the modern terms of midnight-to-midnight. But I do think that you should slow down and not crack open your laptop for a day. I do think you should go for a walk or a bike ride or go surfing. Watch a movie with the family. Have dinner with friends. You should definitely take the time to be silent and pray. And if you take your Sabbath on Sunday, include corporate worship in your day.

I still have much to learn, so I’ll continue to listen to the words of Christ and trusted mentors like Steve. May we all take such words to heart and practice true Sabbath, for our benefit and for God’s glory.


Rodney Meadth
Rodney Meadth

Principal of Providence Middle and Upper Schools and founding director of the Providence Engineering Academy, Rodney Meadth enjoys bringing innovative solutions to problems, encouraging his students to do likewise. If he’s not in his garage building the latest Engineering Academy invention, you’ll find him and his wife, Brittany, out exploring Santa Barbara trails, bike paths, and beaches with their four sons.

 

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