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His Eye Is On The Sparrow

As Jesus prepares his disciples to proclaim the Good News to the world, he reminds them to always remember that each human being is precious in God’s sight. That truth should inform how we live today, how we do ministry and how we encounter every person we meet, including people we don’t much like.

Despite the silly joke I’m about to tell you about church growth, Jesus was a wise and competent leader, as the passage of scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew shows. But here’s the joke: Church growth must not matter much. After all, Jesus started out with 12 and ended with 11.

I told you it was silly.

The first part of the 10th chapter of Matthew, which we didn’t read, shows Jesus gathering his original 12 disciples together and preparing them to go out and preach the Good News to the people he calls “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” At least for the moment, he asks the Twelve to ignore preaching to the Gentiles and Samaritans. Presumably, he’ll get to them. As, of course, he and his followers do.

But what is the Good News he asks the Twelve to proclaim? Is it that Jesus has come to die for their sins? Or that if they declare that Jesus is their personal Lord and Savior they’ll go directly to heaven, not needing to pass “Go” or collect $200 on the way? Well, not exactly.

Rather, here’s what Jesus calls the Good News: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” He is insisting, in other words, that people can live in God’s kingdom today by being compassionate, loving, caring, just and merciful, which are the values that will reign supreme when that kingdom finally comes in full flower in the future.

Jesus warns the disciples that he’s sending them out “like sheep in the midst of wolves,” which itself doesn’t sound much like good news. But then, starting with the passage we’re focusing on, he tells them to have no fear. Their job, he tells them, is to shout this good news from rooftops. Doesn’t that seem like a strange thing to tell them? Have you ever gone up to the top of your house to alert your neighbors to a great new restaurant, say, or to a special program at church or to the news that you have a new child or grandchild? I doubt it. If you have, I’d like to see the video.

But let’s remember the times of Jesus. Most homes then in the land of Israel had flat rooftops. And even if it was hard to outshout the noise when you were on the narrow, often-crowded streets below, sometimes neighbors could communicate to each other from those rooftops and even be heard from quite a distance. It’s one more reason we always need to know about the physical and social contexts of the passages of the Bible we’re reading. Which means you need a good study, Bible. The one that describes what I just told you about rooftop communications in Jesus’ time is called the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible and was published by Zondervan in 2019.1 It’s certainly not the only good study Bible available but it’s one that helps with social context.

So, Jesus is doing what angels do — telling people not to fear. In fact, that’s the first thing angels learn in angel school. Fear not, fear not, they repeat over and over. Jesus knows his disciples are inexperienced in what he’s asking them to do, so he’s giving them a good talk before he sends them out. He says, in effect, that they’ve taken good notes when he’s lectured to them, and they should refer to them as they preach so they can tell people in public what they’ve heard from Jesus in private.

But he tells them something much more important, something I want to focus on today, something each of us needs to remember. Jesus tells them they are of infinite value, of inestimable worth, as are all human beings.

“Even the hairs on your head are counted,” he asserts. God’s eye is on the sparrow, he says, so you know he watches you. (Someone should write a song about that sometime.)

This idea of the value of everyone is woven throughout the Bible and has become what Glenn Tinder, author of The Political Meaning of Christianity, calls “the spiritual center of Western politics.”2 The idea of the exalted individual is why we have a welfare system in the United States, however frail, inadequate and even sometimes incompetent that system may be. It’s why we send out the Coast Guard to rescue even one lone, unlucky or unskillful sailor. It’s one reason the cultural fight over abortion has been so harshly fought. And it’s why we as Christians are obligated not to be indifferent to the fate or condition of any other person on Earth. That person is one of God’s children, is made in God’s image, is our sister or brother and is precious in God’s sight.

That’s part of what makes Christianity so difficult to live out. We are obligated to see the living Christ in every person we meet or read about or see on TV — even annoying people we may run into this summer on vacation. And yet we know that we simply don’t like some of those people, nor do some of them like us. But God doesn’t call us to like them. God calls us to love them and to remember that God counts every hair on their heads and that although God values sparrows, as Jesus tells his followers, “You are of more value than many sparrows.”

What would it look like if we took Jesus seriously about loving people because God believes they’re of infinite value? Wouldn’t we listen to people better than some of us do now? And isn’t listening to people a sign of respect? And isn’t respecting someone a way of loving them?

Wouldn’t we pay more attention to how people are wounded, where they’re hurting, what needs they have that we might supply? This doesn’t mean making people dependent on us for what they can provide for themselves, so it doesn’t mean giving what’s been called toxic charity.3 Rather, it means being sensitive to what’s keeping people from living flourishing lives, and it means looking for ways to respond to them either individually or systemically. Sometimes it’s whole systems that block people from flourishing, and unless we fix those systems, we cannot expect individuals to overcome obstacles by themselves. That’s why we must be aware of how our systems of, say, education, employment and criminal justice are functioning, so those systems don’t crush individuals who are God’s children, who are of unimaginable worth in God’s eyes, who are our siblings. To love individuals sometimes requires a holistic picture of systems that often needlessly limit the boundaries of their lives.

In our passage from Matthew today, Jesus also advises his disciples to pay attention to what can kill the soul and to fear those who can destroy both body and soul. In Jewish thought, which we Christians have inherited, body and soul ultimately are not separated. It’s why we Christians have the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. It’s a bit of a mysterious doctrine in that we really don’t know what that will look like in eternity. But it suggests that the whole person is important and will be redeemed. And while we live on Earth, that means honoring bodies, treating bodies well — our own and others — and doing nothing that would devalue bodies.

That, of course, includes the body of Christ, of which each Christian is a part. We devalue that sacred body when we engage in mean-spirited disputes over belief and practice. We dishonor the body of Christ when we exclude people from it in prejudicial ways. We make a mockery of the idea of the body of Christ when we are so appallingly divided.

In his high priestly prayer in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed that his followers “may all be one.”

To people outside the church universal, do we look like one? When we’re divided, among other ways, into Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant branches — and when there are, within Protestantism, multiple further divisions — are we helping to answer Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one? Or, instead, are we adding to the prejudice that we’re not exactly equal in God’s sight but that some of us, depending on where we worship, are more equal than others?

What kind of witness is that? If Jesus prepared his disciples by teaching them that God prizes every individual, shouldn’t Christians around the world take that idea seriously? Jesus took it seriously. He didn’t worry about church growth. He worried about people whom God valued more than many sparrows.

May we do the same.

1 Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, NRSV (Zondervan, 2019), note on verse 27, p. 1,645.

2 Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation, (Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 33.

3 Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, and How to Reverse It (HarperOne, 2012).

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