“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.” (Matthew 10:29)
During this lockdown period, many people have been noticing more the sounds of nature around us. Birdsong has not been drowned out by the constant noise of traffic. Some animals have also taken to exploring our cities and towns as the roads have been quieter. It’s been a time for appreciating small things, like the sparrows.
In many places today, especially in Great Britain, it’s simply not possible to go around picking up sparrows. You need a licence, training, accreditation from a reputable conservation body and specific equipment. Even then they can only be caught for research purposes. Mist nets and specialist handling techniques are used to minimise harm to the birds, who are swiftly weighed, ringed, documented and then released. While in some countries they are still shot or trapped and eaten, gladly these days most sparrows are caught purely to monitor their welfare, and in doing so provide clues as to the state of biodiversity.
Our Gospel reading contains a substantial portion of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples before he sends them out on a mission. Composed from a varied collection of Christ’s sayings, drawn together by Matthew but more widely dispersed in the other Synoptic Gospels, at first glance it seems an unnervingly dissonant text. The gentle reassurance of the Father watching out for the sparrows – the least in creation – is jammed hard against the violence of Jesus’ assertion that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword.
The passage begins to open up a little more helpfully if we first understand that Matthew is addressing the post-Easter context of his own Christian community, living under pressures from internal and external forces, both religious and secular. Verse 38 gives this context away, as it mentions the cross in relation to the disciples before it has been mentioned as part of Christ’s destiny. Secondly, notice particularly the initial verses, which are key. Not only do they link the fate of the disciples with that of their teacher, but also, by analogy, they show the inextricable bond between creator and creation. God is the teacher and the disciples are representatives of the whole created order.
This brings us back to the sparrows, food of the poorest, sold for a pittance in the marketplace. Yet they matter; the whole of creation matters. What God achieves in Christ is the restoration of a relationship not simply with humanity but with the entire created order. Researchers systematically count bird populations just as God counts the hairs on our heads. The results are alarming – songbird populations have been declining since the 1920s, and the pressures imposed by humankind on earthly resources in the drive to extract every ounce of productivity from the land are leading to the real possibility of a silent spring.
In verses 35 to 36 Matthew quotes Micah 7:6, which already, in Judaism, had been interpreted as a prelude to messianic times. It tears open the belief that the nuclear family is the most sacred concept we must guard at all costs. In truly following Christ we are not simply to care for our family, our nation, or even our own species. We are called to do what is right for the whole of creation and, in doing so, paradoxically give those we cherish the best possible chance for a sustainable future.
The Gospel message is counter-cultural, at direct odds with the ever-escalating consumerism that is an integral aspect of our economic systems. In some parts of the world Christians are perceived to be different, a threat, and are persecuted. In others they are treated more like an aged family pet, indulged occasionally, ignored mostly, vaguely missed if they are not around. We need courage to demonstrate our faith and to live it wisely, generously, ostentatiously even. The Church, as God’s agency on earth, is called to proclaim God’s message boldly, to stand out and stand up for a way of living that ensures every sparrow, every aspect of creation, counts.
Baptism is a sign of our dying to the old ways of living, dying to self in order to gain life in Christ. Some of that dying can be plainly practical. How can we, as churches and individuals, model using fewer resources and using them more wisely? What can we give up? How can we opt out of systems that impoverish others and the earth?
Building this message into every aspect of our lives will put us in conflict with the prevailing culture. It will not bring us peace but disruption, perhaps ridicule or worse. But the message of the sparrows reminds us that the Father watches over each one of us, offering us the strength and consolation to go out and live the life that God envisages for us; one that transcends all family ties and puts us at one with the whole of creation.