Sunday, June 18, 2017

Matthew 10.29-31: The Birds

Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from 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, Proper 7A)

Jesus has seen these birds (or some like them) before, and he will see them again. Not just see them but mention them in words and deeds that have been recorded for us. Here, the reference to the sparrows compares the worth and value of humans relative to the birds. 

The earlier Gospel reference is when Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the temple for the rites of purification for Mary. In accordance with the specifications of Leviticus: When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering...If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean. Unable to afford the lamb, Mary and Joseph bring the doves: ...and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons. (Luke 2:24)

In many images of the Presentation in the Temple, Joseph will be holding a cage or basket with the two birds. In the Byzantine manuscript illumination below, the doves are being carried in Joseph's hands, wrapped somewhat in his garment. Their eyes are focused toward the infant Jesus who is in his mother's arms. 
Presentation in the Temple. Menologion of Basil II. 879-11th century. 
Rome, Italy: Vatican Museums. See:
The thirdGospel reference to the sacrificial birds is implied more than explicit. At the end of his ministry, Jesus cleanses or purifies the temple, seeking to drive out all the commercial endeavors that have taken up residence in the temple: exchanging money, selling/purchasing animals for sacrifice, etc. There would have been vendors selling birds as part of the temple commerce. This is probably how Joseph and Mary acquired the doves for their own sacrifice. Some of the paintings show animals scattering before Jesus' whip of cords. Some will show the bird sellers as well. 

The painting below, by Raymond Balze, includes the bird details, but seems more of a still life than a dramatic moment of violence. Christ stands like a statue at the center of the composition, gesturing the merchants away from the place where they have set up shop. The work is rich in detail, if short on action. Perhaps it was meant to demonstrate the artist's composition skills rather than illustrate the scriptural text. One bird has "flown the coop" in the hubbub of Jesus' actions.
 Raymond Balze. Purification of the Temple. 1850. 
This theme rises to the surface at the beginning of Jesus' life, at the end of his earthly ministry and as part of his teaching. Why do you think that is? What is it about these seemingly insignificant, two-for-a-penny birds that makes them appear not once, not twice but three times?

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