Nine hundred ninety-five dollars.
That was the price tag at the local pet store for a Rainbow Lorikeet; I couldn’t help noticing as I walked past the bird cages on my way to the dog food aisle. But based solely on first impressions, I imagined this bird was probably worth every penny.
The Rainbow Lorikeet, a unique nectar-eating member of the parrot family, has every color of the rainbow covered: a scarlet bill, a streaky blue-and-black head, a yellow-green nape, a red-and-orange chest, a blue belly, and yellow tail-and-wing underparts. The rest of the bird—back, wings, and tail upperparts—is a vivid green, but you’ll still find a reprise of all those other colors (green, orange, yellow, red) in their feathered legs, as if some of the paint dripped down to their feet. It’s a suitable mascot for a crayon factory.
I got my dog food and left.
Three weeks later, I was on a guided morning bird walk amidst the towering volcanic spires of Warrumbungle National Park in Australia, 300 miles northwest of Sydney. A knowledgeable park ranger treated us to a productive morning of honeyeaters, thornbills, and more. At one point during the hike, a small flock of Rainbow Lorikeets flushed from the trees for a brief moment before veering out of sight. They literalized the phrase “passed with flying colors”—the brilliant hues making their identification unmistakable. Here they were in their native land, among the acacias, free of the boundaries of a pet store.
“Ahhh, them’s just lorries,” our guide said, waving her hand dismissively, and kept walking.
I laughed. “Three weeks ago I saw one of those in a pet store in Georgia for a thousand dollars.”
Our guide kept walking, but her raised eyebrow showed her incredulity. “No joke?”
And in true Australian understatement, she mumbled, “You yanks is stupid.”
So here’s my question. How could a bird so valued on one side of the globe be so dismissed at the other?
I can imagine it’s hard for an Aussie to understand why Americans would fuss over a lorikeet. First, I’m told they’re a bit “cheeky.” A flock of them can get noisy, especially at dusk, and their mischievousness can border on annoying. My friend in Sydney described one particular afternoon, going out to check the laundry on his clothesline in the back yard. To his dismay he discovered a pair of lorikeets at war with his laundry; one stood on the ground pulling on towels and shirts while the other worked down the clothesline, popping loose the clothespins with his beak, just for the fun of it. Want to invite one of these into your home? Unlikely.
But more than that, perhaps what makes the lorikeet unspectacular to your average Aussie park ranger is that they’re so unbelievably common—the most common bird in the country, in fact, according to Birdlife Australia. I’ve tried to imagine someone selling high-dollar Northern Cardinals on the black market. As stunning as the cardinal is, it’s so consistently ever-present that far too often I overlook it. “Ahhh, them’s just cardinals.” I have to remind myself that a cardinal is worth looking at, regal and brilliant and a fitting display of God’s creative genius. In Australia, the Rainbow Lorikeet is so ubiquitous that perhaps a similar reminder is in order.
Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt; sometimes it just breeds more lorikeets. Or another blessing we’ve begun to take for granted. Or another human being we treat transactionally. Blessings become background noise, wonder becomes wallpaper. We overlook and undervalue; we become anesthetized to goodness—inoculated from the things that used to incite our wonder.
How might we take a step back from time to time to see those familiar gifts with fresh amazement? It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But if the beholder can become desensitized to that beauty, perhaps we need the perspective of a different beholder’s eyes.
The Value of a Bird
So what is a bird worth? It depends on the bird, of course. On one end of the spectrum, I can buy a chicken at Tractor Supply Company for about four dollars. On the other, consider the U.S. government program to bring back the critically endangered California Condor from a population of just 22 individuals to a current count of 300. The efforts have cost $35 million to date: that’s $125,900 per bird, almost enough to get that bird a bachelor’s degree from UCLA (assuming he gets in-state tuition).
So answers vary, but asking what a bird is worth is clearly a worthwhile question, because Jesus himself asked it. In Matthew 10:29 he posits, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?" In the parallel passage of Luke 12:6, Jesus may have found a coupon: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Buy four, get one free. Bonus bird.
Jesus used this question of avian value to solidify the truth of God’s care. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” A sovereign God cares—truly cares—about the falling of a sparrow. Imagine that. On said sparrow’s final day, God cares about it, counts its feathers, knows the moment of its last breath, and prepares the exact spot of ground that receives its fall. In this simple reassurance of Jesus, the intricate compassions of God’s sovereignty are staggering.
But Jesus leverages this truth into a reassuring reminder of the Father’s care for his own children. “So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (v. 31)
The Value of a Human Life
So, exactly how many sparrows are you worth more than? What’s the value of a human life? Enough not to worry, Jesus says—enough to take comfort in the very counting of the hairs on your head. That same sparrow-sovereignty breathes hope and purpose into life made in the image of God.
This is a remarkably different ethos than the current prevailing narrative of human origins. A purely evolutionary approach will struggle to support the weight of inherent worth and purpose. Richard Dawkins, in fact, encourages his readers to forego any attempt to scrape a purpose out of life. “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” And then Dawkins says, now cheer up and go live your life. Stop trying to find meaning in it; there isn’t any. It’s cold, but at least it’s consistent. Where you start determines where you end up: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, pitiless indifference to pitiless indifference. But if you start with mankind as the pinnacle of a good-good-very-good creation, made in the image of God, the implications will move in far more dignifying directions.
So what is the image of God? It’s harder to define than you would think. Theologians through the ages have posited that it’s principally our morality or spirituality, or perhaps our rationality, or maybe our sense of beauty, creativity, or justice. Many would say, rather than just one of these characteristics, that it’s some combination of them. Whatever it is, it must be something that every human possesses, regardless of intellect or disability, culture or age. It’s something that gives every one of us—not just the best and brightest—great intrinsic value.
In the clearest sense of the word, the image of God—the imago Dei—is being made to reflect him. If my church ever commissions an oil painting of me for the foyer (and thankfully no, we’re not that kind of church), passersby could gaze upon it and exclaim, “Wow, it looks just like him.” The image, performing as intended, reveals something of the object represented. It reflects the one imaged. And so mankind’s purpose is to reflect God’s character and kingdom into this world.
And that means humanity has ridiculous value. You are worth more than many lorikeets. Yes, we are prone daily to forget this and to treat ourselves and others cheaply, but God is the beholder that brings us to our senses. And beauty as God beholds it is not subjective. If God says something is beautiful or valuable, it is thus so by definition.
We recognize that the mirror that reflects this image is broken. Perhaps we may have to squint to discern it. But the image is still there, and if you live with the conviction that the lives around you are made in the image of God, it will change you. Historically none of us have been great at this. You may disagree with me on that assessment, but I believe we struggle to enunciate a consistent ethic of human life. And those failures have created atrocities.
As one example, it led our country’s forefathers to not only condone slavery, but to define an African slave as only three-fifths of a person—boosting a state’s representation in Congress while still conveniently overlooking a person’s humanity. Despite the strides of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, we still cheapen the imago Dei with years of racial strata and bias.
As another example, the discarded image has resulted in the horrors of abortion. Setting aside the politics of this issue for a moment, consider the plain concept of value. If my teenage son comes up behind me in the kitchen and asks, “Hey, Dad, can I kill this?” I can’t answer him without first turning around and seeing what “this” is. It it’s a spider, he has my blessing. If it’s a puppy, that’s a hard no. The question before us regarding abortion should simply be whether or not life in the womb is truly a human life. If not, no objection is warranted. But if so, no rationalization is defensible.
If you feel your political sensitivities welling up as I mention either of these two controversial topics, it’s likely because we’ve made partisan issues out of ontological issues. What if we started with a commitment to human worth, regardless of party line, and then followed the implications? Both issues deal with the price tag we are willing to put on a human life. And the conviction that life is made in the image of God runs deeper still. It also applies to the illegal immigrant, the dementia patient, the political refugee, the inmate on death row, the child with Down Syndrome. I ask again: how can a lorikeet so valued on one side of the globe be so dismissed at the other? Easy. We do it all the time, covering the greater distance of heaven to earth, with something of far more precious value.
In Awe of the Unimpressive
This winter a pair of House Sparrows discovered my feeders. Inexplicably, this was a first. For some strange reason, one of the most common birds on the planet had not yet visited my yard. I’ve seen house sparrows on five continents. They’re those funny little brown birds that wait outside the bagel shop hoping to poach some crumbs. Their unremarkable chirp is background noise amongst a city’s architecture. They’re the bird you see when you aren’t even birdwatching.
In my feeders, mingling amongst the birds I actually meant to attract, they take on a new dignity. They appear in the place where I notice them, because too often they appear in the places where I don’t. In this new setting, familiarity breeds ascent; their value is elevated and I see them differently. And I realize something new about this pair of sparrows; yes, in the world's eyes they may be worth just a Roman penny, but chances are good that they were the very species Jesus gestured to when he said to his disciples, “Take heart. Their value is a reminder of yours.”
You’re valuable because he made you, and you’re valuable because he said so. And his commitment to the imago Dei goes all the way to a manger where God himself would take on that image, and run it up a cross, and run it out an empty tomb. This is the price God set, and the price God paid. “You are worth more than many sparrows” is quite an understatement.