Matthew 10:24-31

Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Why sparrows?

When I started thinking about this ‘in a nutshell’ saying of Jesus, I thought it likely that there was some significance to sparrows in the Jewish tradition that Jesus was tangentially alluding to.

I remembered that in the law there were special arrangements for those who were too poor to afford the lamb that was supposed to be brought as a sacrifice to give thanks to God after childbirth; that you could instead bring two sparrows to the temple. Surely this was in the back of Jesus’ mind when he spoke of ‘two sparrows, bought for a penny’. By Tuesday morning I had lots of ideas about where that might take us.

And then I checked. Leviticus 12:8. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons. So much for that line of thinking.

So why sparrows? Perhaps there were other references to sparrows in the Hebrew scriptures that might give a lead. In fact, there are exactly two.

Proverbs 26:2

Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying,

   an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

which didn’t seem very promising, and Psalm 84:3

Even the sparrow finds a home,

   and the swallow a nest for herself,

   where she may lay her young,

at your altars, O Lord of hosts,

   my King and my God. 

Here, at least, we find something of the same vibe as Jesus’ words. Even the sparrow finds a home at the altar of God (presumably the fact that sparrows aren’t used as sacrifices helps a bit there).

Because, of course, the most significant thing about sparrows in Jesus’ saying today is that sparrows are not very significant.

So, perhaps gesturing to some sparrows, he notes just how unimportant they are. Two for a penny. Sparrows didn’t contribute to life; they were an absolute last resort for food for the desperate (not a lot of eating on a sparrow); in fact, they were regarded as a bit of a pest, a bit of a nuisance.

“But don’t be afraid,” Jesus says, “you are worth more than sparrows.”

Such an odd thing to choose. If you wanted to tell someone that they were important, that they were valuable, why choose something worthless to compare them to?

Don’t be afraid, you are worth more than this stick.

You are worth more than a handful of fallen leaves.

You are worth more than that fly.

It’s setting the bar pretty low. Wouldn’t you want to be told you were worth more than something a little bit more valuable than a sparrow?

Even “many sparrows”?

Of course, I’m being a bit disingenuous here, not considering the words Jesus had just spoken:

not one sparrow will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.

However unimportant a sparrow might me, Jesus reminds us, God still notices it. It isn’t below God’s attention; it isn’t too small a detail for God’s interest. As the psalmist said,

Even the sparrow finds a home …

   at your altars, O Lord of hosts

If God notices even the sparrow, if even the sparrow can make its home at God’s altar, how much more can you – for surely you know that you are worth more than many sparrows.

And that is the main point of this nutshell saying: you are not too small, too unimportant, too insignificant, for God to notice you, pay attention to you, care about you. God has the bandwidth to even know a trivial detail about you like the number of hairs on your head (easier for some of us than others).

But there is, I think, another layer to this. I suspect that when Jesus said “you are of more value than many sparrows” there might have been a bit of ironic humour in the words.

Because this was Galilee. And the people of Galilee knew what was said about them. When Nathaniel asked, “can anything good come from there?” he was echoing a popular prejudice of the day. To those in Jerusalem, or the surrounding area of Judea, Galilee was almost a foreign country. There were far more gentiles in Galilee than Judea, and the practice of the faith didn’t come close to the standards of the Temple authorities. A good Jew would find it hard even to travel to Galilee – you would have to go through Samaria, or through the even more Roman province of the Decapolis.

The Jews of Galilee knew what the Judeans thought of them; second class citizens at best, Jewish by name and by descent, but not proper Jews like them.

And this wasn’t a new prejudice. When Solomon gave Hiram the cities of the area as payment for the cedar, Cyprus, and gold provided for the Temple, Hiram asked “What kind of cities are these that you have given me, my brother?’ So they are called the land of Cabul to this day” – a play on words in Hebrew, for
“land of Cabul” sounds almost exactly like “land good for nothing”.

In the eyes of the Temple, the question “which is worth more, a Galilean or many sparrows” might have prompted a thoughtful “how many sparrows?”

I’m not suggesting that the people of Galilee thought of themselves in these terms, that they had chronically poor self-esteem. But they were used to being looked down on by the ‘properly religious’ people of the day. So for Jesus – himself a Galilean – to say that they were “of more value than many sparrows” may well have been both a reminder of the truth, and at the same time a bit of a sideways dig at the self-righteous.

And I don’t think we have to think too hard to see that the very human tendency to find another group, some people who, in some clear way, are ‘not us’ to look down on, has never gone away. And, despite the fundamental theological truth that we are all made in the image of the same God, and despite the obvious way that Jesus’ ministry included, even favoured, those who were conventionally excluded and rejected, despite that, it’s a tendency that keeps creeping back into the Church.

So, as is often the case, I want us to hear these words of Jesus from both sides.

It might be that you are a Galilean. That you have been on the receiving end of that sort of prejudice from those within the Church. That you’ve been treated as if you were less valuable, less important in God’s scheme of things, because you were too old, or too young, or the wrong race of from the wrong place, or not educated enough, or because of your gender, gender identity, or sexuality, or because of a disability or neurodiversity, or just because.

If that’s you, if that’s been you, Jesus’ words come with that edge of generous humour – “people might treat you as worth less than a sparrow, but you are worth more than that! God knows you, down to the number of hairs on your head; and God loves you – not the person you think you ought to be, or others tell you that you ought to be, but the person you are, the person God created.”

But let’s also wonder if we could benefit from hearing these words as Judeans. Do we have the honesty to admit that there are people who we treat as if they were sparrows?

Perhaps people we look down on because of the way that they understand God, or practice their faith, perhaps because we see them as narrowminded, or overly conservative, or crazy liberal. Or because of their politics, or the suburb they live in or school they go to. Or because they don’t speak English very well.

Or perhaps because they live far away, out of sight, out of mind; their suffering in war or natural disaster, or in immigration detention, or in poverty, seems less important, unimportant even.

Let’s hear the words that say that God knows every hair on their heads as well, that God created them, values them, loves them.

You are worth more than many sparrows.

And so is every individual person every created.