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.
As Jesus’ popularity grew, the likelihood of conflict between Jesus’ followers and the scribes and Pharisees grew as well (See Luke 6:6-11). Jesus was well aware that His disciples would suffer at the hands of these two groups. In chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel, He tells His disciples that the Jewish religious leaders will bring them “before the synagogues, and the rulers and the authorities” (12:11). In order to prepare them for this eventuality, Jesus offers His disciples encouragement by teaching them about their great value to God. While His words were addressed principally to His disciples to prepare them for the coming persecution, they reflect a profound respect for the value of human beings that offers us insight into the sanctity of human life from God’s perspective.
I. God values all of life, v. 6
Jesus begins to teach His disciples about their great value to God by offering them an illustration of something else that has value to God. Out of all the things He could have chosen, Jesus chose the very common sparrow. Jesus had a reason for this choice: sparrows were so common that they were practically worthless. Their slight value is evident in two ways. First, a person could buy five of them for two cents. The word “cent” is the Greek word asariwn (assarion). An assarion was worth only 1/16 of a denarius. One denarius was the day’s wage for a rural worker. Second, sparrows were so worthless that the fifth sparrow was thrown in merely to sweeten the deal. We know about this fifth sparrow because Matthew records the fact that two sparrows could be purchased for a cent (Matt. 10:29). If two sparrows could be purchased for a cent, then a person should get only four sparrows for two cents. So the fifth sparrow must have been the incentive offered by merchants to get people to buy four sparrows.
Jesus used this buy-four-get-one-free practice to illustrate how much God values life. He said that not one sparrow is forgotten before God. Jesus used the word `en (hen) to single out the individual sparrow. By narrowing His application to the individual sparrow, Jesus was including the free sparrow. In other words, even a nearly worthless free sparrow is not overlooked by God. He takes an interest even in this unappreciated bird. R. Lenski (The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel, p. 677) observes: “So vast are his providence and care that they include every cheap, little sparrow and all that ever happens to it.”
(Illustrate the value God places on things others consider worthless with something no one else would consider valuable except to the person to whom it belongs—perhaps a memento from your childhood or a treasured gift from your children.)
II. God values the smallest detail of human life, v. 7
While it is a great encouragement to know that God values the seemingly insignificant fifth sparrow, it is even more encouraging that He values His disciples so much that He takes an interest in every possible detail about them. Jesus revealed the extent of God’s interest in the disciples in verse seven. He told them “the very hairs of your head are numbered.” The root of the word “numbered” is the Greek word ariqmew (arithmeo). We derive the word “arithmetic” from it.
The greatest significance in Jesus’ comment is not found in the counting of many hairs but in what this task means for each individual hair. Jesus said God did the math and counted every hair on their heads. With more ‘than 140,000 hairs on the average human head, this attention to detail reveals the extent of God’s interest in His disciples. He knew exactly how many hairs there were on their heads; each one had been counted and “numbered.”
It would be hard to find someone so interested in a person that he would actually take the time to count the hairs on the person’s head. But that is Jesus’ point. God placed such a high value on His disciples that He was interested in the smallest details of their lives.
God’s interest in the smallest details of human beings isn’t limited to the disciples. God is that intimately aware of and interested in all humans (Job 31:15). Paul reminds us that all human beings “live, and move, and exist” in God (Acts 17:25). God surrounds humans with His presence. There is no place we can go, no word we can say, no act too small for God’s notice. (Illustrate this by describing how two people who are falling in love are interested in every detail about the other. They talk about everything, and they want to know everything there is to know. No detail seems too trivial.)
III. God values human life more highly than other life, v. 7
God’s interest in even the smallest detail about the disciples illustrated Jesus’ conclusion. Jesus told His disciples that they were of more value than many sparrows. The word “value” is a combination of two Greek words, dia (dia) meaning “through,” and fero (phero) meaning “to carry.” According to Liddell and Scott, (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 389b), dia means “preeminence” when appended to fero. Thus the compound word diafero has a literal meaning of “to carry preeminence.” The disciples held preeminence over the sparrows.
Jesus is saying that God has a hierarchy of value when it comes to life, and the disciples are at the top of that hierarchy. However, it isn’t only the disciples who enjoy this preeminence. Three important observations can be made that imply that Jesus had more than only the disciples in mind when He considered human worth. First, it is likely that Judas Iscariot was among the disciples when Jesus offered these encouraging words. He was not a true disciple then or later, but Jesus did not distinguish between him and the other disciples. Second, Jesus spoke of the preeminence of human worth in other contexts where He wasn’t speaking only about disciples. For example in Matthew 12:12, Jesus compared the value of people to animals. He said, “How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!” The word “valuable” in Matthew 12:12 is the same Greek word found in Luke 12:7. Third, Scripture makes it clear that Jesus died for all people (John 3:16), not only the disciples. His love for humanity led Him to sacrifice Himself on their behalf, even though many of them would never accept His offer of forgiveness.
The high value God places on humans should lead us to place a higher value on human beings than other living things as well. Humans are not simply the end product of blind evolution, different in degree but not kind. Humans are different in kind as well as degree. Genesis 1:26-27 reveals this distinction. Only man was created in God’s image. While no one can state with certainty what it means to be created in the image of God, the biblical record asserts that only human beings possess this characteristic of the divine.
The truths derived from Jesus’ message to His disciples remind us that all life has value to God and that humans have the greatest value. God sees no difference in value between the obedient and the disobedient, the child and the adult, the sick and the healthy, the poor and the rich. In fact, the very example of Jesus’ own ministry to the sick and poor illustrates His great care and concern for the weakest among us. The Christian, and all people, should respond to humanity in the same way Jesus did and consider all human life, in every stage and condition, of equal value and worthy of absolute protection and care.
What Can One Person Do?
Start a pregnancy care center or volunteer to work in one.
Teach young people the importance of abstinence from sex until marriage. Adopt a child.
Find ways to meet the basic needs of people in your community out of respect for the high value God has placed on all human beings.
Encourage your church to observe Sanctity of Human Life Sunday every year.
Write letters to your elected officials encouraging them to pass laws to protect all people regardless of age or condition.
Write letters to the editor expressing your reasons for being pro-life.
Hold seminars in your community to provide people the opportunity to hear pro-life answers and positions.
Bible verses about the Sanctity of Human Life:
Genesis 1:26-27; Genesis 9:6; Exodus 20:13; Exodus 23:7; Job 10:8-12; Job 31:15; Job 33:4; Psalm 106:37-38; Psalm 127:3; Psalm 139:13-16; Ecclesiastes 11:5; Isaiah 49:1; Jeremiah 1:5; Matthew 19:4; Mark 10:6; Luke 1:41-44; Acts 17:24-28; Galatians 1:15
reprinted from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission – 2009