Hymns do many things. They teach theology, provide comfort and support, and remind us of what we already believe. Hymns are the sung prayers of the church. The hymns of a given era speak about the local church traditions and customs from which the music rose. We learn who we were and who we are. Hymns are mirrors with speakers attached.
In late 19th century America, an abundance of “blood” hymns were composed; songs focusing on the bloody sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This isn’t surprising, considering the national bloodletting caused by the American Civil War. While these hymns were verbally graphic in the way a medieval triptych was visually moving; many lacked historical accuracy. Writers weren’t obsessed with Jesus’ blood and death as they were with the deaths in our families. One story was told through another.
Some hymns have theology as solid as a Habitat for Humanity home built by a team which included Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, and Barth. Others are on shakier foundations. Their melodies may be rhapsodic, their harmonies strong, and the words beautiful but I’m still not certain their sentiments align with Jesus’ Good News. After a friend recently mentioned she was singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, the sparrow came knocking at my chamber door.
It’s a hymn I love to play on the piano but it’s increasingly not felt “right”. Something is a little “off”. While I can’t quite put my finger on the problem exactly, one question came to mind: Does the naturalism of “His Eye on the Sparrow” match Jesus’ underlying economic message in Luke 12?
I don’t want to accuse the hymn writers of taking scripture out of context. However, they did take two verses with vague references to sparrows and write a song which ignored overall context of Jesus reference to sparrows.
In case you don’t know the hymn, here’s how it goes, as printed in the United Methodist Church’s “The Faith We Sing”:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me; his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me. I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, for his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.
That’s the refrain. The verses are words of encouragement.
Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home? When Jesus is our portion? My constant friend is he.
All of that, verse and refrain are built on one passage in Luke 12. “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than any sparrows.” That’s it. Gabriel and Martin (the hymn writers) created the entire hymn from a single verse. Does that not raise more questions than the encouragement offered by the hymn? What are we not to be afraid of? (Fear and discouragement are two vastly different emotions.) If Jesus feels the need to tell us we are more valuable than sparrows, there must have been an understanding that sparrows were valuable. Sparrows held some kind of intrinsic value as a commodity, above and beyond their place in nature. There’s more to this than, “if God loves nature of course God loves you so buck up little pilgrim”. We will have to read more than one verse and ask questions about the meaning of the hymn itself.
Do you remember the song used at the end of a contestant’s journey on American Idol? It’s “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter. The song is a catchy tune about people having a bad day and their need for a holiday, a break, and moment to turn their lives around. I have it in the back of my mind when I read the opening to Luke 12. Jesus is speaking to people who are or are preparing to have bad days. These bad days aren’t like ours. They’ve not broken up with significant others, been laid off, or had to deal with a few days of rain. Instead, their bad day is one where they’ll be killed for being a disciple of Jesus. They are afraid. I guess you could call that discouragement. If you did, I’ll call you callous and short sighted. People facing death have the right to be discouraged from time to time. Jesus is trying to help them deal with their fear. Fear, as an emotion, trumps discouragement. Deal with the one, the other becomes irrelevant.
How does Jesus propose to deal with fear? Is it through his Big Brother like omniscience; keeping his eye on us, sparrows, and everything else? Frankly, this notion has always creeped me out. But that’s not what Jesus is saying. In Luke 12:6, Jesus is simply trying to allay our fears by making a comparison. Yes, he tells the crowd, “five sparrows are sold for two pennies and they are not forgotten in God’s sight”. Jesus also says they hairs on our head are counted. I wonder how the bald people felt about this lie. Does Jesus also know where my hair went? I digress.
Sparrows were sold to poor people for their offerings in the temple. They were commodities in the religious enterprise of the day. Among the cheapest offerings to be procured, everyone knew about sparrows. They were an easy example for Jesus to make. Jesus, the subtle, ironic Galilean funny man who never passed up an opportunity to poke fun at the big business called “The Temple”, was making fun of the bureaucracy and an important religious point. We lose Jesus’ humor in translation and we certainly can’t find it in the sanctified hymns of the late 19th century. Here’s what Jesus was saying, “If God cares about the cheap, dollar store pigeon racket they’re running over there at the temple, I promise you all the shekels in my pouch he cares about you a 1000 times more.” Jesus’ meaning: God doesn’t really care at all about what’s happening with the dollar store pigeons or the temple in which you’re killing them. God cares about you.
What have we done with a single verse, a radical Jesus swipe at the capitalist temple establishment? We’ve turned into a syrupy ditty of Tony Robbins inspired self-help, be happy spirituality.
May we have a do over?