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SPARROWS IN THE GOSPELS

Posted: 01.04.21 in Articles category

When I ask people which are the most featured birds in the Bible, many identify the sparrow and often name it first. In fact it's only 8th in terms of references, but of course it is one of the 5 birds that Jesus mentioned in the Gospels.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Matthew 10 verses 29-31

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs on your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows.

Luke 12 verses 6 and 7

The two Gospel references might relate to different occasions when Jesus was talking, but the core message was one and the same - 'Don't be afraid'. Theologian Tom Wright claims that this is the most repeated command in the Bible, and it was central to the teaching of Jesus. Both Gospel writers set the verses above in the contexts of warnings Jesus gave to his followers that they would experience hostility. Nevertheless, he encouraged them not to be afraid as the misdeeds of their opponents would be exposed. Jesus reassured his followers that God their heavenly father loved them even more than the small birds being sold in the marketplace. It's probable that sparrows were abundant in Palestine at the time and so much part of the landscape that people didn't even notice them. Yet God remembers each and every sparrow, as Jesus said, so you have nothing to fear in God's love.

Why were sparrows being sold at the time of Jesus? Neither reference offers an explanation, but it seems sparrows were as 'cheap as chips' to buy. They were not listed among the 'unclean' birds in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and presumably could be killed and eaten without violating Mosaic laws. Some commentators have suggested that sparrows were sold for sacrifice as even cheaper alternatives to buying pigeon-doves. I find that unlikely. No mention is made in the books of the Law about sacrificing sparrows and I suggest their small size would make them less malleable for dividing and blood draining in accordance with the sacrificial requirements detailed for example in Leviticus chapter 5. I suggest instead that sparrows were sold as a very cheap source of food - a practice that continues to this day in poor countries like Vietnam. I would speculate that catching small birds like sparrows was an option for very poor people with little other means of earning money. Make a net, build a simple wooden cage and go trapping sparrows to sell in the marketplace.

There is a deeper point here about God's attitude towards creation being very different to ours. We might not value the sparrows that are sold in the market for pennies, but Jesus clearly said that God values them and notes the death of each one. Sparrows are creatures of God, loved by Him in their own right and not because of our relationship with them. Yet by contrast it seems that we as people typically view birds like sparrows, animals, plants and indeed the planet as utilitarian objects that we value only in terms of their use to us. Consider the ways we continue to kill animals cruelly, subject them to experiment for commercial purposes, destroy their habitats and drive them to extinction. We are subjecting much of nature to "biological annihilation" currently affecting thousands of species of animals and plants. Some scientists argue that there is a sixth mass extinction of wildlife taking place today, similar in scale to the extinctions of the past that killed off the dinosaurs. However, the difference is that this annihilation is largely human made - a result of our activities in causing habitat loss and global warming. How does that square with our responsibilities to be God's stewards of creation?

A well known twentieth-century hymn takes these words of Jesus as its theme. In 1905 a songwriter, Civilla Martin, wrote "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" after visiting a bedridden friend in New York state. Her friend, Mrs Doolittle, had explained how she stayed so positive despite her chronically poor physical health: "Mrs Martin, how can I be discouraged when my heavenly Father watches over each little sparrow and I know he loves and cares for me?" A similar sentiment was expressed by the Christian writer, Joni Eareckson Tada, at a time when she was confined to her bed and watching the birds on the feeder outside her window:

"I glanced at the bird feeder and smiled. I could understand Jesus noticing an eagle... But a scrappy sparrow? They're a dime a dozen. Jesus said so himself. Yet from thousands of bird species the Lord chose the most insignificant, least-noticed scruffiest bird of all. A pint-sized thing that even dedicated birdwatchers ignore. That thought alone calmed my fears. I felt significant and noticed.... If the great God of heaven concerns himself with a ragtag little sparrow clinging to the bird feeder outside my window, he cares about you."

Not all Christians have shown such concern for sparrows. In August 1979 the death of a sparrow in England became international news. A House Sparrow got trapped inside a Lincolnshire village church and broke into song during a classical guitar recital being recorded for a BBC Radio 3 broadcast. The vicar asked the congregation to leave, summoned a marksman with an air gun, and had the bird shot. The killing of this sparrow became a news item in Britain and America with headline writers poking fun at the cleric's forename. One such was the Daily Telegraph newspaper which ran the headline that "Rev. Robin orders death of sparrow." Editorials and public opinion strongly condemned the act and reminded readers of the reference from Psalm 84. Only two days after that incident I was travelling on a bus through London when I saw a church poster that grabbed my attention. It simply featured two words that were printed large: "SPARROWS WELCOME!" I smiled. Someone at that church clearly understood what Jesus meant I thought, unlike the village vicar.

Even sparrows are loved by God. That's why I use the term 'Even Sparrows' as the name for my organisation and a sparrow picture as its logo. Yet that picture tells a story. It's of a Tree Sparrow, a bird that was once common in the British countryside. However, the population crashed by more than 90% between the late 1970s and the 1990s with the species disappearing in many parts of Britain. The reasons for this dramatic decline are not entirely clear, but it seems likely that intensive farming and the wider use of herbicides have been contributory factors. Thankfully, Tree Sparrow numbers are now increasing, although the overall population is much lower than a half century ago. Their plight serves as a salutary warning - that birds and other animals we consider common can plummet in numbers due to human activities, however unintended. Yet if God even loves sparrows, we surely have a duty of care to protect our wildlife and prevent such crashes from happening in future.

 
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