YOU ARE WORTH MORE THAN MANY SPARROWS
As a practising Catholic, I am concerned about the general interpretation of the quote ‘you are worth more than many sparrows’ (Luke 12:6-7/Matthew10:29-31). The short and best answer to this quote, if it is used in defence of human exploitation of animals, is “so what?” It doesn’t mean that we can harm them.
I think this quote is misunderstood by priests and bishops. First of all they usually do not properly explain the concept ‘worth’. Secondly, they do not explain that those of greater worth are not given licence to harm those of less worth . Indeed, if we’re worth more than sparrows, we’re obliged to have a care for them.
Regarding the first point, people unfortunately see this quote as justification for dominating other creatures, thereby misunderstanding the meaning of ‘worth’ in the spiritual context. Worth means privilege. Those who can know, love and serve God are privileged. Hand in hand with privilege comes responsibility. The phrase ‘noblesse oblige’ shows that people are aware of this. We have a duty to protect those whom we consider to be less privileged. Jesus accepted in his parables that a master is worth more than his servants (Luke 17:8/13:16/22:27), but who can doubt that Jesus would also feel that a master has a duty to protect his servants. I may be more privileged than some, but I am no more loved by God.
As the Apostles were worth more than many sparrows, so also was the Virgin Mary worth more than many Apostles. This the Church acknowledges. Mary is seen as the Queen of Heaven, above even the perfect angels. In reality Mary is far more privileged than others, and that is the true meaning of the word in this spiritual context.
Regarding the second point, that sparrows are worth less than humans is irrelevant as far as how we should treat them is concerned. They still deserve to be treated with respect. God still loves them. Aren’t the perfect angels worth more than humans? Isn’t Mary worth more than I am? Being worth more is not a licence to kill, use or abuse. In fact, if we’re worth more than other creatures, we’re obliged to show concern for their interests. If we did that, we would be demonstrably worth more than they. But how many people do that? Unfortunately most people behave no differently from any other animal
Whenever Jesus was asked about who was more important than whom, he would respond by explaining that humility was what was required, or that the last would be first, or that to be first you had to serve others (Luke:-9:46-48/13:30/14:11/18:14/18:17/20:46-46/22:26/Matthew:-18:1-4/19:13-15/20:26-27/23:11-12/Mark:-9:35/10:31/10:44).He demonstrated how he wanted us to behave by washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17).
Those who are worth more should serve those who are worth less. That is one of Jesus’ main messages. He told us that at the judgement, he would say to those who had helped the needy ‘Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me’. (Matthew 25:40) How we treat the least matters as much as how we treat the greatest. Jesus asks us to love our enemies. Would he require us to love our enemies but not love God’s innocent creatures?
The Bible is accepted by many religions as the word of God. It is divinely inspired. But equally this inspiration is humanly translated by the writers. Also other humans have to interpret what is written. Therefore it is important that we read the Bible in the context in which it was written. Otherwise we run a big risk of misunderstanding the meaning of the writing.
The early writers of the Bible were wise and wonderful people, who tried to express the inspiration they received from God in words and descriptions that people would understand. So we have the story of Adam and Eve. We don’t need to take the story literally; what we need is to understand the meaning of the story. And in Genesis, because of these wise writers, we are able to understand God’s love for creation, God’s purpose for creation and how the Fall ruined that purpose.
Taking Bible words literally can pervert the meaning. And what is accepted as just and fair in one age can be seen as violent and unacceptable in another age. An eye for an eye was proper justice in past times when an action could result in excessive punishment. We would not use violence to right a wrong these days. In Old Testament times when a city was invaded sometimes all the conquered would be killed as anathma or unholy – animals, babies, children, every living thing. This is obviously an outrageously unjust action, and can’t be used to defend holy wars.
There is a lot in the Bible that is outrageous by today’s standards – The plagues that killed innocent Egyptians before the exodus of the Jews from captivity. The demand for sacrifices by an apparently bloodthirsty God. And in the New Testament, Jesus ignoring the Canaanite woman who begged for his help (Matthew 15:23-24). We must remember that the Bible is part divine inspiration and part human interpretation. If we do not allow for the times when things were written, we could conclude that God was racist and Jesus was unkind. Using “It is written” as an excuse cannot justify our doing things that our conscience tells us are wrong, unjust or evil.
Being a herd animal, we humans are obsessed with hierarchy and everything having a place. We need to look up to some and to look down on others. This is an animal instinct. A bigger problem is our arrogance. We have a massive feeling of entitlement, and we use religion to justify that feeling, despite all that Jesus said to counteract it.
My Church likes to emphasise the supremacy of humans over every other creature. The quote ‘you are worth more than many sparrows’ is useful for this purpose. The Church does not accept some other quotes so literally. She uses context, meaning and common sense when it comes to other sayings of Jesus. For instance Jesus said that divorce was allowable for adultery (Matthew 19:9). The Church doesn’t accept this. Jesus said ‘call no man father’ (Mathew 23:8-12), but priests are usually called ‘father’. Jesus said ‘if your hand/foot causes you to sin, cut it off’ (Mark 9:43-48). The Church doesn’t require this. St. Paul said “slaves, obey your earthly master” (Ephesians 6:5), but the Church is against slavery.
The Church, which includes all baptised Christians, should grow in wisdom and understanding and knowledge as time goes by, and not be restricted to the culture of a time long ago. As St. John says at the end of his Gospel, there are very many things about Jesus that are not recorded (John 21:25). They would have been as important as what was recorded. By now, we should have learnt to include all creatures as our neighbour. Jesus would expect bishops to bring his words into our culture, not leave them confined to a culture of thousands of years ago. He would expect them to explain his words in a way that’s relevant to our times. We were sent the Holy Spirit for that purpose, as Jesus said in John 16:12-13 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth”. By now, the Church should have understood and be teaching that any creature in need is our neighbour, and that we should see Jesus in every creature.
In Jesus’ time, slavery was accepted, so was the rule of the conqueror, the subjugation of women and the superiority of humans over other animals. In his parables, Jesus used the accepted practices and ideas of the local culture to illustrate his messages. So although he did not condemn slavery, Roman rule, the inferiority of women or animal use, he is not showing approval of these cultural ways and customs of the time, he is using what people accepted to get his point across. It was taken for granted that humans were worth more than sparrows, especially at the market place where, as Jesus commented, ‘are not 5 sparrows sold for 2 pennies?’. Human slaves would be sold for far more. Jesus went on to say that ‘not one of them (sparrows) is forgotten by God’. In other words, God cares for the least of his creatures, so we should be assured that he cares for us. Jesus was telling his apostles not to worry but to trust in God. That was the point and the spirit of the message. As we read in his Encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ comment on this passage of the Bible was “We read in the Gospel that Jesus says of the birds of the air that ‘not one of them is forgotten before God’. How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?”. That is the proper interpretation of this passage as far as how we should treat birds is concerned.
I should add that there’s always the possibility that a witness who records an event in the Bible may put their own ‘take’ on an event, which could lead to misinterpretations. And one person’s interpretation could be different from another’s. That’s why we protect people from harmful religious practices. When people make others suffer because of religious beliefs/interpretations, they may be called terrorists. We need to be very confident of our beliefs if we think they give us a right to harm another creature. I am very confident that my God loves all beings and wants to see no creature hurt. Genesis tells us that that’s how it was in the beginning (Genesis 1:29-30), and Isaiah tells us that that’s how it will be in the end when God’s kingdom is established (Isaiah 11:6-9). Meanwhile, shouldn’t we be working to bring God’s kingdom into our lives right now?