Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Matthew 10:29 - Does God determine when sparrows die?

Matthew 10:29 (NKJV)
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will.

This verse suggests that sparrows do not fall to the ground (die?) without God's authorization. In other words, God limits the lives of sparrows on a sparrow-by-sparrow basis.

This understanding requires a Bible translation that characterizes falling sparrows as God's will (NKJV, RSV) and ignorance of the verse's context. The passage is offering multiple reasons to not worry. Why not worry? Because God's judgment will come to your persecutors; because your persecutors cannot kill your soul; because of the thing about sparrows and because God has your hairs numbered.

This verse in Matthew has a parallel in Luke:
Luke 12:6 (NRSV)
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. 
The point in Luke is more clear that God is paying undivided attention. Luke also mentions an example of ravens. God cares for them.
Luke 12:24 (NRSV)
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!
The point of the sparrows example in Matthew is that God is keenly aware when believers are being persecuted and they are never going through it alone. The old spiritual has it right: "His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me."

I am motivated to put a little sharper of a point on this reading of Matthew 10:29. A very common interpretation of the verse is that sparrows die only by God's permission. Insisting on that really alternative translation and meaning forces the passage to lose coherence. The meaning becomes something like, "None of you will suffer a violent martyr's death without the Father's permission and providence." The better and more obvious meaning, especially in light of the parallel passage in Luke 12:6, is that the Father cares for sparrows even when they fall. Your souls are safe with the Father if you "do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul" (Matthew 10:28).

Here is Grant Osborn.
God registers and cares for the smallest sparrow; how much more will he care for us. ("Matthew." Zondervan Exegetical Commentary)
And here is Anthony J. Saldarini.
Their fear, which might impede them from disclosing Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 10:26-27), is groundless because human opponents can kill only the body, not the soul, and because God, who cares for sparrows and knows the number of hairs on people’s heads, will care for them (Matthew 10:28-31). The comforting reminder of God’s care for birds and humans does not change the harsh realities of following Jesus, nor does it bring about social peace. Joining Jesus and his “household” causes disruption and conflict within one’s family (Matthew 10:34-36; cf. Luke 12:51-53 and Q, which depend on Micah 7:6), as already predicted in this chapter (Matthew 10:21-22). Contrary to the most fundamental social values of the Near East, those who follow Jesus must love him more than their parents or children and take up his cross, that is, be willing to suffer violent and dishonorable death and all that goes with it (Matthew 10:37-38). Though the imagery is familiar through frequent repetition, the author of Matthew envisions a catastrophic loss of everything which is humanly valuable and necessary for social and individual survival. He rebukes those who would preserve (“find”) their lives and promises that those who lose their life will find it in return (at the end). ("Matthew," Eerdman's One-Volume Commentary)

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