Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Luke 12.6-7.
The word translated “sparrows” here is strouthia which literally means “little birds”; and “little birds” (but not sparrows) were an important food source for the poor in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. They had little meat on them which is why they went cheap. (Joke!) Indeed, Luke tells us that you could get five of them for two assaria, and an assarion was a Roman copper coin that represented about a sixteenth of a denarius. (A denarius was the going rate for a labourer’s full day’s work.) In Matthew, however, Jesus gives a different pricing arrangement. There he says, “Are not two sparrows sold for one assarion?” (Matthew 10.29). Two for one assarion (Matthew) or five for two assaria (Luke) … Extraordinary — it was the equivalent of a supermarket BOGOF … a buy-four-get-one-free arrangement! And Jesus is stressing that even the little bird thrown in for nothing — the one which is of no earthly value — is within the fatherly concern of God.
But why is Jesus telling his disciples this? Context is important and especially so here; for this morning’s verses fall within a passage where Jesus speaks of the opposition and persecution that awaits his followers. They will be “brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities” (Luke 12.11) and they may well end up being put to death (Luke 12.4). But the fact that God will not automatically intervene and deliver them from arrest, rigged trials, floggings, false imprisonment and even death itself does not mean that he has abandoned or forgotten them. No — if he cares about the give-away bird that is thrown in the cooking pot, they can be sure he cares about them and is watching over them.
This context of persecution also gives the point to the saying about hair. “Not having a hair of one’s head fall to the ground” was a Jewish idiom for escaping unscathed from a dangerous situation. There are several examples in the Old Testament but in 1 Samuel 14.45 for instance, it was said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die — he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the LORD lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help” (my italics). So when Jesus says here that the very hairs of his disciples’ heads are all numbered, he is saying that, even if they lose them all, even if they do not escape from danger, even if they end up having to die for their faith, God has not withdrawn his love or concern or attention for a single second. And in Matthew, this link is made more obvious: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10.29-31). A sparrow falls to the ground, a hair falls to the ground — who cares? God cares, says Jesus.
But is this relevant to me? After all, I’m not being persecuted for my faith. No, but neither were the disciples when Jesus spoke these words of reassurance to them. And Jesus needed them to know in advance of bad things happening to them that when bad things did happen to them (as bad things would) they were not to think that God had abandoned them, taken his eye off them, or forgotten them. No, they were to be unshaken in their assurance of God’s abiding love and concern for them. And so am I. I need to to get that truth deep within me now.