Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
—Matthew 10:29-31, NIV (Jesus speaking)
When I get a haircut, I hear comments like, “you have baby-fine hair,” or “you should use a conditioner,” but I have never heard anyone say, “Did you know that hair number 437 has a split end?”
I care very much about my left thumb and my right big toe as individual body parts, and if I lost either one of them, I would deeply mourn their passing. However, I do not know or even care if hair number 437 is still on my head. I only think of my hair in the aggregate, not as individuals. I can tell you right off without even counting that I have ten toes, but if you asked me how many hairs there are on my head, I’d just look at you funny, because I don’t know and I would think the question was a little odd. I may be very sad that my hair is thinning in general, but when I look at my comb in dejection, I never passionately mourn the passing of hair number 437.
But Jesus says that the very hairs on my head are numbered. He says that God is vitally interested in hair number 437, even though I myself consider it too trivial to worry about. There are two lessons that we can learn from what Jesus says.
The first lesson we can draw from this passage is that if God cares so much about our individual hairs, then He must care about the things that are more important than hairs. So we should never think our problems are too trivial or that we are too insignificant for God to care about us. We should always approach Him confidently in prayer, no matter how trivial our concern may seem to others.
The second lesson is more fundamental, and we often overlook it.
I have heard that human beings cannot directly apprehend a quantity larger than seven without counting or grouping. I think that is about right. It certainly explains why I don’t care about hair number 437. If I am taking three children on a trip somewhere, I can tell with a glance in the rearview mirror that they are all present. But if I am taking 12 children on trip, I can’t just look at the group, I have to count them. In fact, someone made a movie about this. The movie began when a woman miscounted a group of 12 children. She didn’t realize that she had left one behind until she was in an airliner halfway across the Atlantic Ocean! This was, of course, just the set-up for the story, in which a small child, left alone to his own devices, fiendishly and inventively defended his house against would-be burglars. However, the point I am making is this: If human beings could directly apprehend quantities as small as 12 without counting, the movie wouldn’t have worked at all.
So to deal with large quantities, we either count things or we group them. We talk about men and women, for example, and thus reduce the 3 billion individuals on this planet to two handy groups. We divide the human race into groups and categories, like motorists and pedestrians, believers and nonbelievers, citizens and aliens, residents and tourists, just to give a few examples. In each case we reduce the number of entities to a number that we can handle.
We do this in church as well. We set up a group for the married people and a group for singles. Then the elderly widow says, “What about me?” Or we set up a luncheon for the congregation to appreciate the staff, and the volunteer says, “What about me?” Or we discuss the roles of lay leaders and clergy, and the seminarian asks, “Which am I?”
This means our judgments are necessarily unjust, because there are always people who fit between the cracks. Just about everyone can recall an incident in which a court imposed penalties on the innocent or set the guilty free on technicalities, because the law defined a group and the defendant didn’t quite fit the criteria. Jesus says, “Do not judge,” not because it is naughty, but because we are innately unfit to be judges. We cannot judge individual cases on their unique merits not just because we cannot know all the facts, but also because we cannot cope with the sheer number of cases.
If we were writing the letter to the Galatians, we would say:
The church includes both Jews and Greeks, both slaves and free people, both males and females.
—Galatians 3:28, Reversed Fractured Version
That would sound wonderfully inclusive, but what about the Swede, who is neither Jew nor Greek, or the prisoner, who is neither slave nor free? This sort of thing happens quite often, so we try to fix the problem in the usual way—by repeating a technique that didn’t work in the first place—and we increase the list to add more groups. We would revise our letter to say:
The church includes Jews, Swedes, Greeks, slaves, prisoners, free people, males, and females.
—Galatians 3:28, Revised Fractured Version, second edition.
This works only until a Korean joins the church, then we have to amend it again. (This didn’t work before, but for some reason we always think that if we repeat failure often enough, it will eventually succeed.) Even the ‘male and female’ doesn’t work in all circumstances, because there are people in this world who are born with physical characteristics that make that problematical. Do you see why we keep having to revise and amend all our high-sounding policies and why we are lost in endless disputes?
Once someone asked me if I believed that women should be ordained. I said it was a stupid question. No one proposes to ordain all women en masse! The real question is, “Should Sally be ordained?” or “Should Susie be ordained?” The answer might be yes for one and no for the other.
So now you know why Paul actually wrote it this way:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:28, NIV
Do you see the significance here? He does not say that Jews and Greeks are equal in Christ, he says that if we are in Christ, “Jew” and “Greek” no longer matter. If we are in Christ, Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female—and any other category that we impose upon ourselves—simply do not apply. Paul’s point is clear, even if our society no longer splits along the lines of Jew and Greek, or slave and free, so no one has had to update this passage. Paul says these categories do not matter, they have no validity, they do not even exist in Christ! We might need to divide people into categories in order to cope with the sheer number of them, but God does not share our human limitations.
For if the very hairs on your head are numbered—if God sees each individual hair as a unique individual—then God does not judge as we judge. God does not judge people according to the groups and categories we assign to ourselves. God’s judgments are right and fair. No one goes to heaven by mistake, and no one goes to hell on a technicality.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts
—Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV
Now we see our own limitations, and how God’s thoughts are different.
I want you to imagine that you get a telephone call at your desk at work. The president of your company wants to see you. So you nervously adjust your tie or check your make-up as you ride the elevator up to the penthouse. You can barely breathe as you walk into the executive suite, and surely, you think, everyone can hear your heart pounding! The secretary smiles, rises, and opens the door for you. Your heart is in your throat as you walk in on the president, who is sitting behind piles of important-looking papers, absorbed in a phone call with someone named Senator. You stand there awkwardly, chaotic thoughts racing through your mind, when the unexpected happens. The president smiles broadly, abruptly breaks off the conversation with the senator, and offers you a seat. Then you have an intimate chat, during which the president asks your ideas and opinions and takes detailed notes. It is as if you were the only employee in the company, and the most important one to boot.
That was a fantasy, but here is the reality—this is what it is like to pray! For if Jesus cares about hair number 437 on your head, it follows that He cares about you directly and personally, taking all things into account. He knew all your dirty secrets, yet He loved you enough to die for you. Therefore, approach Him in confidence in prayer.