Sparrows are not exactly two a penny anymore, so to be told we are worth more than many of them has a rather different impact now than in Jesus’ time; that’s assuming the birds Jesus referred to in Matthew 10 are the same as our sparrows. However, it is still a message we can understand the import of, even if the example has changed. Our heavenly Father knows when a sparrow falls to the ground, even though they were sold two to a penny, so we have no reason to be afraid: we are worth more than many sparrows. Even the hairs on our head are counted. It is a message of the value each of us holds in God’s eyes.
Yet it cannot be left there. Reading the whole of Matthew chapter 10 makes it clear that this message is very far from being just about making us aware of God’s love for us. How much the chapter was shaped by the evangelist, and whether Jesus’ original words were all spoken in this context, is not something I want to focus on, but rather the words in the context in which we have received them in the Gospel.
Matthew 10 starts by Jesus calling the twelve disciples, and then sending them out, giving them instructions as to where to go, and how to behave. He makes it very clear to them that they will face danger and betrayal. That if they follow him – and, as his disciples, they are following him – then they will be treated as Jesus himself is. They are not to be afraid, for all will be made light. That is the context in which the sparrows passage comes. Another admonition to not be afraid. Don’t be afraid of the one who can kill your body. There is One who has more power than those, and this is the One who has the very hairs of our head numbered. The disciples are to go and declare that the Kingdom has arrived; they are not to be afraid of those who might challenge them, for they are worth more than many sparrows. This is the point of that assurance. That the disciples are not to be afraid, for they are following One who knows them intimately, and to whom they are of great value.
But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus continues to talk of the potential division that following him may bring, quoting from Micah 7, verse 6; and follows that to talk of the absolute commitment that following him requires. If we love our family more than we love Jesus, we are not worthy of him; if we do not take up our cross and follow Jesus, we are not worthy of him. He doesn’t say that we should not love our families, just that our love of Jesus should be more; that following Jesus becomes our primary commitment beyond all else, beyond even our own selves. It is that commitment through which all else is seen and done.
To isolate the passage about the sparrows from the context, is to change the meaning. I am no biblical scholar, but reading the entire chapter, it does seem to be one whole. The next chapter changes the scene somewhat, but this chapter is presented as one speech, whatever the original setting of the sayings. Therefore, presumably the evangelist meant them to be seen in this context. Stating that we are worth more than many sparrows is not meant to be just a reassurance that we are loved, which we can then use to bolster our emotions, but not affect our lives more than that. It is a reassurance that we do not have to be afraid (a phrase used 3 times in 5 verses); we do not have to be afraid of whatever danger following Jesus might bring us – because God loves us, because we are of worth to God, and because God knows us so intimately that every hair on our head is counted.
We do not have to be afraid of what commitment to Jesus might bring; but we are called to be committed, and to be realistic about what might follow that commitment. It is to be the primary commitment in our lives, it is a commitment that leads to a dying of some sort, and it is a commitment that involves us spreading the good news of the Kingdom, however that might look in our own contexts (which will, of course, look very different to how Jesus sent out the Twelve). We are worth more than many sparrows; but the response that being aware of that worthiness brings, is to ensure that God should be just as valuable to us as we are to God.