Recently some friends and I paid a visit to a small zoo near where we live. We walked for miles, saw lots of animals, fed a giraffe (their tongue feels like a cow’s, one person said), and were surrounded by lots of trees and birds, thousands of birds, both as exhibits and just plain ordinary everyday birds doing what birds do. There were really BIG birds, like the ostriches, and very colorful birds like macaws, peacocks and parakeets. There were lots of little birds too, flying free and resting in the thick foliage. They weren’t colorful or particularly interesting, but they were there and very much a part of the panorama of life.
The reading this morning reminded me of not only the countless little birds I saw at the zoo but also the ones that live in my neighborhood. Sparrows, pigeons, and doves are plentiful here, and their calls are like morning talk shows when I go out walking around dawn. I read the familiar “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” and began to wonder — why would anyone go to such trouble to catch such ordinary little birds, much less sell them to someone else?
By using the word “sparrow,” Jesus could have been referring to any small grain-eating bird including swallows. They would be have had their feet tied and hung up in the courtyard awaiting the poorest of people for whom a penny’s sacrifice was all they could afford. The Romans taxed their homes, lands and crops, the Temple taxed their membership as the chosen people of God, and then the sacrifice for sin, cleansing, atonement, substitution, or thanksgiving had to be made from temple-approved birds and animals, thus sort of a God-tax, since the sacrifice was given to God even though the money to pay for the sacrifice went into the Temple treasury.
The point Jesus was making was that everyone and everything was important, not just the wealthiest or the most eye-catching or the most powerful. Even the most casual perusal of the TV or media news is a series of disaster stories, whether man-made or nature-made. The news is full of death, damage, threat, reactions to threats and death tolls. At the end of each newscast, however, there’s almost always a “feel good” story about a person or group doing something to help others in some way or who were rewarded for their service to others at a risk to themselves. It doesn’t seem like enough — maybe 1/20th of what we see and hear being something that encourages us to go out and help, to fight fear with action, to speak up for those who are voiceless.
If the lives of two sparrows are worth a penny, how much more would our lives be worth? What is the value of a human being? Depending on when in time you asked that question the answer would vary. Slaves had value, even though it wasn’t their lives so much as their ability to work and produce income. Still, their lives had value to them. What about the innocent children killed in drive-by shootings in a turf war? What are their lives worth? What about the veterans who fought in wars and saw too much death and carnage to protect our freedoms? The Native Americans, African-Americans, the differently-abled, the elderly, the orphans, the immigrants, the homeless, the GLBT? What are their lives worth? How much do we value the invisible, the ones with nothing or little?
A human life is worth far more than a whole flock of sparrows to God, and it should be to us as well. Whenever a human is devalued, it is like telling God that God’s own measure of worth isn’t accurate. The students are telling the master what is important and what is valuable.
What is the value of life? What is the value of a forest, clean water, abundant wildlife, human dignity? What about honesty, trustworthiness, compassion? Do we value those, especially in our fellow human beings? Or do we only care about our own interests, whether or not they are in accordance with God’s teachings?
If God values the life of a sparrow, or anything else, how much more can we as humans be valued in God’s sight? Do we have the right to say that this person or that one has little value to us because they aren’t like us in some way — physically, culturally, educationally, financially, religiously– and therefore have no value to God? Would God prefer us to others who are not like us? Or would God take exactly the opposite position?
Jesus told us we have value. When are we, you and I, going to learn to see that value in all of creation and try to make it the kingdom of God on earth as Jesus taught us to do and God wanted us to do from the beginning? We may laugh at tree-huggers, but what would happen if we actually did it ourselves, hugged the trunk, felt the bark, touched the leaves other than to rake them up so the yard would look tidy? What if we offered a homeless person a sandwich and coffee and not just a buck or two with the hope they weren’t going to spend it on dope or booze?
There are millions of ways to celebrate life all around us, to validate the value of life in this world. We all have value — so spread it around. Find someone and validate their value as a friend, co-worker, mentor, family member, even a stranger as a person and a beloved child of God.
We don’t have to be martyrs, just committed.
Image: “Passer insularis Smit” by Joseph Smit – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons