As a kid, if I ever dared to bring church gossip to our family dinner table, my mom was quick to challenge my sources: “How do you know that? Did a little bird tell you?”
Her question has its roots in Ecclesiastes 10:20. “Don’t make fun of the powerful, even in your own bedroom. For a little bird might deliver your message and tell them what you said.”
Honestly, until I researched this column, neither one of us knew that my mom’s ornithological expression was a Bible quote.
Bible student or not, you may be surprised by how many verses we’ve unintentionally inserted into everyday usage. That’s why I thought it might be fun to use today’s column to embark on a trivial pursuit for these uncited biblical expressions.
For instance, if you’ve ever described someone, as “A wolf in sheep's clothing,” you are quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 7:15 (NIV). “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”
These days, if you used the expression for a politician or televangelist, you’d be instantly understood. The saying describes someone who only seems friendly or harmless. In practice, they are vile and shouldn't be trusted.
The expression has gotten me in trouble with readers as I’ve used it to describe previous leaders. “Wolf or not,” they insist, “you should respect the ‘Powers that be’.”
Their admonition is lifted from Romans 13:1 when the Apostle Paul cautioned us to “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”
“Am I my brother's keeper?” is another saying we may unknowingly quote.
God addresses Cain, the offspring of Adam and Eve, asking, “ ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don't know,’ Cain replied. ‘Am I my brother's keeper.’ ”
The intention of Genesis 4:9 NIV is hard to miss as the Hebrew syntax implies a “yes,” we are responsible for our fellow man and woman. The response is a screeching denial of today’s demand for individual freedoms over humanity’s common good.
Finally, as we celebrate Black History Month, it’s important to recognize how Abraham Lincoln emphasized the relevance of Matthew 12:25.
At the 1858 Illinois Republican Convention, he accepted his party’s nomination to the senate by quoting, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Without noting the citation, Lincoln was quoting Jesus’ words found in three gospels. “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.”
While we sometimes quote this verse in our call for unity between political ideals, it’s important to note that neither Jesus nor Lincoln used it as a call to unity or compromise.
Return to the words of Lincoln as he unfolded the biblical meaning: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
Lincoln was speaking in the months following the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision which denied citizenship for black people. He used the verse to forcefully state that there cannot be two houses because one does not, and cannot, compromise with evil.
Finally, even if you’re not a Bible reader, I hope you find guidance in the “maxim of reciprocity” shared by most religious traditions. Commonly known as the Golden Rule, it’s most often quoted in Jesus’ words from Matt. 7:12: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
By the way, my mom is 87 and she still asks me if a little bird told me something. “Yup,” I say.
“What’s the birdie’s name,” she’ll ask.
“‘Twitter.’ Ever hear of it?” - Follow me on twitter @chaplain.
I’ve posted a link to 85 common sayings in the Bible on my Facebook page