The Widow's Tale: 2 for a Penny or 5 for Tuppence

Yesterday morning, as part of our Remembrance Service, Shirley Krakowski, our Student Assistant delivered this monologue (it's more of a short-story than a monologue!) based on the lectionary reading from Mark 12: 41-44, together with Luke 12:6-8 and Matthew 10: 29-31.

I keep chickens… To earn me a penny or two. And sometimes, as I scatter the grain out for them to eat, I watch the little brown birds, sparrows I suppose they are, darting in to pinch a seed or two. I know how they feel. Just trying to snatch enough to get by… Meanwhile my cockerel struts his stuff across the yard… Thinking he is something… when really he is just as reliant on the seeds from my hand as those little sparrows.
A wandering rabbi visiting our village on his way up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the feast, recently recommended that we should watch birds instead of worrying... I’ve got plenty to worry about, but he reminded us that God looks after our little feathered friends and so we shouldn’t worry because we are worth more than many of those little birds, that are sold, 2 for a penny or 5 for tuppence… I joked with him – told him that at that rate I’m only worth 5 of those sparrows, because I only have 2 copper pennies to my name… or had…
He asked me to tell him more. To tell him my story. Well, it’s been a while since anyone listened to me, so I told him… I told him my whole life story…
How when I was a child I would go with my parents on the annual pilgrimage to the Temple… How we would offer our sacrifices… usually only the cheapest, grain offerings, or at most 2 young pigeons… because we were so poor…
He told me that was all his parents could afford to bring as a thank offering when he was born… So we had that in common… He then laughed as told me how he had got left behind at the temple as a young man… He had been so engrossed that he didn’t realise his parents had left for home with the other pilgrims… until they came back a couple of days later furious with him.
I could understand that… I told him how loved the temple as a child… it was still a building site back then… The work begun by Herod hadn’t been finished… but the white gleaming marble with the sun glinting off it spoke to me of the glory of God… the incense and smoke of the sacrifices was the scent of another world… and the priests singing the Psalms sounded to me like choirs of angels…For me the Temple was the gate of heaven… Of course I only ever got as far as the women’s court… But we could peer through the screen to the inner sanctum. And as the smoke rose from the altar I hitched my prayers to it… prayers for a good husband and a family… Year after year we came… year after year I prayed…
And then, when I came of age the match was made and my prayers were answered…I got my good husband… Jacob, and a family of my own… two young boys… Asher and Nathan… And we in our turn made the annual pilgrimages to the temple for the feast… And my prayers turned from myself to my children… That they in turn would find good wives and have children of their own…
But it was not to be… In one fell swoop my boys and husband were all carried away by a fever… And all my hopes and dreams dissolved like the smoke from the sacrifice… Did God not hear? Had my sacrifices not been enough? Or had I done something dreadful to be punished in such an awful fashion? Condemned to be a widow for the rest of my life!? I was still young. I could have had more children. But who would take on a woman who had been cursed by God? Was I to be left on my own until I myself died?
I told the Rabbi that my brothers and sisters did all they could to help me but they have families of their own to look after. I had no land left to me by my husband, only a house… he was a tradesman not a farmer, so I kept chickens in my back yard… but they barely produced enough to feed me, never mind put any money in my pocket. There were times that I was tempted to ring that cockerel’s neck and eat him for a final feast before crawling into a corner to die.
But still I persisted in my annual pilgrimages to the temple… Though I noticed something I never had before… The number of other widows… Some widowed by disease like me. Some by the famines that racked the countryside from time to time. And far too many widowed by war. Some whose husbands had died as zealots fighting the empire, others whose husbands had signed up as soldiers of the Emperor to escape the poverty of our land…
But whether their husbands had died fighting for or against the Empire their widows were in the same boat. Pouring out their hearts in prayer at the screen in the women’s court or queueing for alms at the treasury gate.
The law provides for widows and orphans… and the temple alms go to help them. That’s one of the reasons why widows flock to the temple. But alms have no arms to embrace you when you are lonely and afraid… They provide for our hunger, just about, but they cannot replace the embrace of a husband or a child or a grandchild…
The prayers I brought to the Temple had changed now I was a widow. I asked God “Why have you punished me so hard? Why did you allow me to experience marriage and motherhood only to snatch it away? Yes I have sinned. Everyone has sinned. But did I do something awful to endure sure cruel punishment?”
I prayed and I cried. I cried, and I prayed, but I never got an answer to my prayers.
And the rabbi didn’t offer me any answers… He just offered me an embrace. A welcome embrace… before resuming his journey to Jerusalem and the Temple, saying, before he left…  “Remember mother,” he said, ”you are worth more than many, many sparrows.”
I remembered his words as I fed my chickens and the little brown sparrows darted in and out among them, foraging for seeds… And I remembered them this morning when I arrived in Jerusalem for the feast… The Temple courts were crowded… Families with mothers clucking around their children like brood hens… Pharisees and priests strutting across the court like my cockerel back home… And others like me… Single women… widows… some old, some not so old… dressed in drab colours… little brown birds… Weaving their way through the crowds, almost invisible… until they found their way to the screen in the court of the women … Or joined the queue for alms at the treasury gate…
I thought about joining them in either place… until I saw some of the cockerels… Pharisees I think, making for the treasury gate… They weren’t joining the queue for alms… In fact they made a point of turning their faces away in distaste from the line of human misery there… No they went straight to the head of the queue and made a big show of pulling out a large bags of money… and tossing them carelessly into the offering basket…
I was furious… And yet the words of that rabbi stuck in my head “you are worth more than many, many sparrows.” The same heavenly hand who provided for that crowd of cockerels, ultimately provided for me… I turned over the two copper coins in my pocket… And instead of joining the queue to receive… I followed the path of the Pharisees… strutting the way that they did… There was a murmur from the widows and beggars in the queue… And when I got to the Treasury door I produced my two copper coins with a great flourish and tossed them into the basket… The Pharisees were furious and stomped off, while the alms-queue dissolved in waves off laughter… Probably the first laugh some of them had had in years…
I took a bow and went to go and pray… for forgiveness for my impiety if nothing else… Then I saw him… that rabbi.. sitting with some others across from the Treasury gate… pointing at me… He nodded at me and I at him, and then went on my way…
I made my way to the screen at the front of the women’s court, and I prayed…
“Heavenly father… you who made the sparrows and the cockerels, the wealthy and the widow… I do not know what tomorrow will bring… But I commit myself into your hands… I give you my all… My hopes and dreams… My doubts and disappointments… My hurts and my fears… My worries and my worship… In you do I trust…”

Selah

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