Will the Real Ox in the Mire Please Stand Up
June 1972

“Will the Real Ox in the Mire Please Stand Up,” Ensign, June 1972, 18

Will the Real Ox in the Mire Please Stand Up

During his ministry the Savior had an experience that appears to have been misinterpreted by many of the saints:

“And it came to pass, as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the sabbath day, that they watched him.

“And, behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy.

“And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?

“And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go;

“And answered them saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?

“And they could not answer him again to these things.” (Luke 14:1–6.)

Some have understood this to mean that under certain circumstances it is permissible to violate covenants we have made with the Lord, the justification being that we are getting our oxen out of the mire. Undoubtedly there are situations when the content of the Savior’s question to the Pharisees can be taken in such a manner. However, evidence suggests that many of us misinterpret and misuse the intent of this principle.

A good example of this misuse emerges from a study we recently conducted that focused upon the Sunday shopping activity of active Latter-day Saint Church members. We surveyed two ward memberships as well as a cluster sample of a predominantly Mormon community in an attempt to establish, among other things, (1) Church commitment, (2) understanding of the Church position on Sunday shopping, (3) personal feeling about Sunday shopping, (4) incidence of Sunday shopping among respondents, and (5) reasons for Sunday shopping.

We were primarily interested in the behavior of active, committed members of the Church. Consequently, we examined only the behavior of those people who reported that they are LDS, very or partially active in Church, attend Church activities weekly or oftener, and feel religion to be extremely or quite important in their lives.

Any respondent who was not consistent in his responses in the above areas was not considered. In other words, if an individual reported that religion is important in his life but he does not attend meetings at least weekly, he was not included in this phase of our study. We desired to examine the behavior of people who are considered to be the backbone of the Church—active in the full sense of the word.

Of this group of active Church members, 78 percent reported that they shop on Sundays. This is surprising when we consider that 99.6 percent of this group reported that they understand the Church’s position to be, in principle, against Sunday shopping; when 89 percent reported both that they personally feel that the principle against Sunday shopping is important and that in principle Sunday shopping is wrong.

Note that this group not only indicates knowledge of the Church’s teachings on the subject but also indicates personal agreement with it.

Table 1 indicates the relative frequency of Sunday shopping among the active Church members we sampled. When frequencies are totaled and then an average calculated, we find that as a body this group shops eleven Sundays per year. Individually this may seem rather moderate, but collectively it represents a large number of Sunday shoppers. If, for example, 78 percent of a community of 50,000 potential shoppers were to shop eleven Sundays during the year, it would provide an average of 8,250 shoppers each Sunday of the year. If the average amount of money spent by each shopper were $5.00, the group would collectively spend $41,250.00 each week. This would represent a real incentive for merchants to stay open on Sunday, which in turn would require that their employees work.

Table 1

Percent Frequency of Sunday Shopping Among Sampled Committed Mormons



Nearly every Sunday


Two times per month


One time per month


Six to ten times per year


Less than six times per year


Anticipating that some members would shop on Sunday, we included in our survey items developed to determine why they do so. Response to these items indicates that 63 percent of the active Church members gave reasons that center exclusively around two ideas—“denial of responsibility,” and “appeal to higher loyalties.”1 Ninety-six percent listed at least one of these among their justifications.

The content of these two explanations suggests that Sunday shopping is due either to necessity arising from situations that cannot be controlled or out of a need to serve others. Sometimes, it is reasoned, it may be absolutely essential to shop on Sunday because failure to do so would cause others to suffer. A typical comment reflects this sentiment: “I feel it’s wrong [shopping on Sunday], but I don’t feel guilty because I shop on Sunday only in an emergency.”

This comment typifies the majority of justification given for shopping on Sunday and clearly falls within the parameters of an “ox in the mire” rationale. This reasoning suggests that it is generally wrong to shop on Sundays, but in case of an emergency it is permissible.

Inasmuch as so many Saints used this rationale to justify their Sunday shopping activity, we tried to determine what constitutes an “ox in the mire” situation. In attempting to do this, we asked subjects to respond to a list of conditions that might be construed as requiring Sunday shopping.

A review of Table 2 indicates that a majority agreed on only two as representing “ox in the mire” situations. No general agreement was reached on any of the others. The interesting fact is that so many members found so many situations as representing cases of “getting the ox out of the mire.”

Table 2

Respondent Response to Sunday Shopping Situations


Percent Of Respondents Defining Situation as Necessary

1. Someone is sick and needs medicine.


2. Stake conference is some distance from home and one tank of gas won’t get you there and back, so you stop at a gas station on the way back.


3. You get to church and discover that there is no bread for the sacrament, so you go to the store to buy some.


4. The car is out of gas and you want to use it, so you go to the gas station.


5. Your parents want to take you out to dinner on Sunday.


6. Friends come from out of town. There is not much in the house to eat, so you ask them out to dinner.


7. It is your anniversary and so you go out for Sunday dinner with your wife (husband, boyfriend, girlfriend).


8. Friends are coming on Sunday evening and you forgot to buy refreshments, so you pick up a few things at the store to serve them.


9. Your son has given a talk in church and so you treat the whole family to ice cream at the malt shop as a way to encourage more behavior of that kind.


10. It is almost time to go to church and you need a new pair of hose as your last pair just ran, so you go to the store and get a pair.


11. You (or a loved one) need a new pair of shoes, and you haven’t much money. A local chain store is having a sale on Sunday only, so you buy a pair.


12. Someone you really like asks you to go to a show with him (her) after church, and you go.


At this point one may wonder just what the Savior meant when he asked the Pharisees that precedent-setting question. One may feel that he needs to examine his judgments on issues such as what he should and should not do on the Sabbath, what constitutes and does not constitute a modest dress standard, what distinguishes honest business dealings from shrewd dealings, what is and what is not gossip, and so forth.

The law of Moses represents the kind of guidance that might aid us in these types of judgments. Abinadi, commenting on the law, said:

“And now I say unto you that it was expedient that there should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law; for they were a stiff-necked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God;

“Therefore there was a law given them, yea, a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him.” (Mosiah 13: 29–30. Italics added.)

However, when the Savior came, the law of Moses was ended: “Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfil the law; therefore it hath an end.” (3 Ne. 15:5.)

A higher law was initiated that was founded on the fullness of the gospel. Agency came to play an increasingly significant role as man was given principles by which he could work out his own salvation. Central to this plan is the need for him to seriously commit himself to the covenants he makes with the Lord.

This commitment removes the obligation from the law and places it on the individual. Under these circumstances it is imperative that we deal honestly with ourselves.

If we are to do this and be true to our covenants, we must deal with the phenomenon that the above study encountered—rationalization. We must very carefully differentiate between deceitful rationalization and honest justification of our actions. We must continually reexamine the commandments and our judgments concerning how to behave relative to these commandments.

Only through this examination and dedication will we become a great generation of people who truly serve the Lord.


  1. These are two of five techniques that Sykes and Matza developed to explain how juvenile delinquents often explain away their deviant behavior. See Gresham M. Sykes and David Matza, “Techniques of Neutralizations: A Theory on Delinquency;” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 22, pp. 664–70.

  • Brother Dunford, a candidate for a Ph.D. in sociology at Brigham Young University, is counselor in the BYU 44th Ward bishopric, BYU Sixth Stake.

  • Dr. Kunz is associate professor of sociology at BYU and author of three books and many professional articles in his field. He is bishop of the BYU 22nd Ward, BYU Second Stake.