The old world sparrow, also known as a true sparrow, is a small brown and grey seed-eating bird and is one of the best known of birds in all the world, being spread across Europe, Asia and Africa, with certain members of the species, such as house sparrows, having also spread into Australia and the Americas.
Because of their size and abundance, in Biblical times, the sparrows were sold to the poor as meat, though one must imagine that such small birds hardly made a decent meal. Nevertheless, they were available cheaply.
Jesus references this fact about sparrows in two different passages in the Bible. As Jesus prepares to send the apostles out on their first work apart from His side, Matthew records Jesus telling the apostles, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31; ESV)” Likewise Luke, records Jesus telling His disciples, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6-7; ESV).”
The two very similar quotations, delivered in similar lessons, yet at different times during the ministry of Jesus, would lead us to conclude that this was an illustration Jesus used more than once to make the same point.
They also give us a glimpse into just how cheap sparrows were. The coin Jesus mentions, the assarion, translated in our modern English texts as a penny, was a small copper coin worth one tenth of a drachma. The drachma was a Grecian silver coin, of about the same size and value as a Roman denarius, which was generally considered one day’s wage. That admittedly makes the assarion slightly more valuable than the American penny, but it was still considered small change. And for this small coin, a poor person could buy two sparrows with which to feed himself, but if he bought four sparrows, for two assarion, he could essentially get a fifth bird thrown in free.
Sparrows were everywhere, they were numerous, and they were sold and killed for pocket change. But consider the point that Jesus is making concerning these birds relative to His disciples. God, who is all-knowing, is aware of every single sparrow, including those bought, sold and killed. Not only does is He aware of each one, but He will never forget any of them. Moreover, God, who is omni-present, meaning He is everywhere, is there with each sparrow as it falls and is slain. Even the free sparrow, tossed into the sale for free, is known to God.
If this is true of sparrows, which in the grand scheme of things have such little value, why would it not be true of those who were created by God in His own image, and for whom God, in love, sacrificed His own Son so that they might be saved. Sparrows will never know the manifold blessings of Christ; but we can. As Jesus said, in the eyes of God we are worth far more to God than many sparrows.
Jesus point is that we should never think of God as distant and uncaring. No matter what we are experiencing in life, God is aware of it. When we have moments of suffering, sorrow, persecution, hardships, separation, or even death, God is not somewhere else. He is right there with us.
This is not to say that Jesus was promising an end to suffering for His disciples. To the contrary, when Jesus was speaking about the eyes of God being aware of the sparrows, He was doing so in the context of persecution, encouraging His followers not to fear such persecution, not because it was going to be removed, but because God would be there with them in the midst of the persecution, mindful of what they were suffering and full of compassion for what they were going through.
That which was true then, is still true today: we are worth more to God than many sparrows, and no matter what we are experiencing, God is there with us, watching over us and loving us. He is not distant, nor is He uncaring. He who did not spare His own Son, has demonstrated His affection and grace for His creation. God knows each sparrow, but it is we for whom He truly cares.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.