(Romans 6.1-11, Psalm 69.8-11, 18-20, Matthew 10.24-39)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How much is a human life worth?
No – wait. That’s too generic.
How much is your life worth?
Take a moment to think about it; how would you go about putting a value on it?
Would you tally up your assets? Your mortgage, your car, your possessions? If you’ve got children, does that make a difference? If you’re a professional – a doctor, an accountant, a lawyer – does that increase your value?
What are you worth?
Today’s Gospel is a series of loosely connected sayings of Jesus, on the subjects of mission and suffering. Some are pretty challenging, and each could be the focus of a separate sermon, but one particular section jumped out at me this week, especially in the light of the current public debates about colonialism and the UK’s links to slavery.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10.29-31)
In 2006 the Church of England apologised for its role in benefitting from slavery. Slavery in the colonies of the British Empire was abolished in 1833, but when Parliament voted on compensation, it was to former slave owners to whom the money went, rather than those who had been so cruelly and unjustly enslaved.
The Church of England received over £8,000, that’s about £500,000 in today’s money, for the loss of slave labour on its Codrington plantation in Barbados, and the contemporary Bishop of Exeter received even more, nearly £13,000. (Click here for the reference)
It’s shocking today, but the reasoning behind Christians owning slaves, at that time, had been thought sound for centuries. Of course, not everyone agreed, but many had no problem with slavery, based on scripture (because the Bible doesn’t ban slavery, therefore, the thinking goes, it must be okay) and traditional teachings (both St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas wrote how slavery was inevitable due to the Fall, and even part of the natural order of things). It took a long time to get people to stop reasoning away what is, in hindsight, clearly an absolute wrong.
At some point in our history individuals and society made decisions, and in the end people were abused and lives were lost having been weighed in the scales against such small amounts of money. How could anyone treat life so cheaply?
Now here in the UK and other nations where slavery is outlawed, in law the human life is considered literally priceless – humans cannot be bought at any cost, unlike the sparrows in the Gospel.
Jesus began by talking about these tiny birds, which were commonly sold in the market, the cheapest meat for the poorest people. The coin Jesus values two sparrows at is often called a penny or a cent, but in the original Greek Jesus called it an as, a Roman copper coin worth 1/16th of a denarius. Two of these coins would buy you a daily ration of bread, so you have an idea of just how small an amount of money we are talking about here.
And yet, Jesus says, when one of these tiny insignificant birds dies, when it falls to the floor in its last flight, God notices.
So a question: how often do we think about God’s care for this planet?
Humans can be a bit like toddlers, rather me-centric, thinking only about how God loves us and not really thinking about sharing that love elsewhere. But Jesus is clear. We have something to learn from God about our care for the planet.
Then in a massive leap of scale Jesus turns his teaching to people. He points out that God knows us on a hugely intimate level. He counts every hair on our heads; it’s the smallest level of detail, as tiny and as insignificant as the sparrow. God’s care for us goes beyond even what we notice about ourselves.
Jesus finishes by stressing our importance, our value to God: “you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Jesus is telling his disciples this because he knows there will be times of suffering. He wants to give them an assurance of God’s faithfulness in times of crisis. “So do not be afraid,” he says. There will be conflict and sacrifice, Jesus doesn’t deny that. But God is watching over you and supporting you.
What if we were to view ourselves as God sees us, with His infinite care and compassion?
How often do you think ‘God really, really loves me’?
Too often we build up a picture of a God who withholds His love, who is conditional with His care for us. Too often we don’t love ourselves, and so we become convinced that God can’t or won’t love us either.
And it’s just not true.
God loves you, every hair on your head, every fibre of your being, heart and soul.
And once we begin to accept just how much we are loved by God, we can adjust how we view others. Because God loves them just as much. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “God must love the common man: he made so many of them.”
As Christians we bring that view of other people to our society, to be prophetic about the value that is placed on human beings. We are to challenge when language is used which questions a person’s “value” to society as being somehow less, whether because of disability, age or skin colour, for example, or the demonization of the poor, the homeless, the refugee. Because once we understand the infinite care and compassion that God has for each person, as followers of Christ we are called to model that same love to others.
As Christians we should be inspired by abolitionists like William Wilberforce, Harriet Tubman and Johns Hopkins, who in the face of enormous opposition fought for the ideal that humans are priceless because they are made in the image of, and loved by, God.
So what are you worth?
To God – you are worth everything beyond measure.
(Artwork: ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius, 1654)