My husband Malachi died twenty years ago. So long ago now that I can barely recall his face. When he was alive, we were ok. We were never rich, but we got by – he was a stonemason by trade and the rebuilding of the temple, begun under old King Herod, meant that he was never out of work – many skilled hands were required to work on those incredible, gleaming, dressed white stones – and I may be biased, but there were few more skilled than Malachi. It was a great honour for him to be working on the house of the Lord – he was following in the footsteps of his hero Bezalel whose God-given talents had brought the Tabernacle into being in the days of Moses. In fact, Bezalel was the name of our son, who had no choice but to join his father’s trade once he became of age – I swear that Malachi was counting down the days until that would happen; meanwhile he taught Bezalel all he knew, which was wonderful, although I wasn’t totally convinced that an eight year old should be wielding a saw… how they didn’t have any accidents I’ll never know.
There were no accidents, until that day. They hadn’t been working together on the temple – or their bit of it – for long – just a few months. Bezalel was not yet seventeen. I’ll never forget their excitement as they got ready for work – they loved doing everything together – they were joking and laughing, Bezalel full of the confidence of youth, teasing his dad about the slowness of his work, Malachi replying that with such an important job as the work on the Lord’s house, skill mattered more than speed. Bezalel always had to have the last word, so he countered in turn that he had both more skill and speed. They were still arguing about it when they left that morning, still bantering as they kissed me goodbye. And that was the last I saw of them. A man appeared in the middle of day, reported that there had been an accident. A timber hadn’t been secured properly and the part of the wall they had been working on collapsed, crushing those working below. They were killed instantly.
At first the neighbours and my extended family helped out. But they moved on – they had their own lives and families to worry about. I was on my own, had to find my own way to survive. I was able to live in our family home, and sought to use what money Malachi had left me as wisely and well as possible, but I didn’t know how long that would last or when the money would run out. I needed to rely on the Lord, my provider – he had a track record for looking after widows, which was just as well, as the temple authorities had no interest in looking after me whatsoever, even though it was on their premises, under their supervision, that my husband and my son were killed.
Despite all this, I go into the temple courts as often as I can. I feel closer to the Lord there, I feel his presence, even though as a woman, I’m not allowed very close to the holy of holies … but I also feel the presence of my husband and son. I go to the part of the temple that they’d worked on, lay my hands on the stone and feel the marks of the chisels, imagine their strength and skill at work. When I’m in the temple courts I don’t feel alone – they’re always crowded with pilgrims from all over the world, and traders selling their wares, especially at festival time. This Passover time was no different, with what must have been thousands of people thronging the area around the temple. I wove my way from my home in the lower city, through the narrow sheets, politely shaking my head at the people who were trying to sell me all sorts of things, to the public pools, so I could make sure I was ritually clean, through the Triple Gate up the underground passageway leading to the temple court itself and then out onto the dazzling brightness and the noise of the Court of the Gentiles, all of your senses are accosted at once, with the light – the white and gold of the temple building radiating the light of the sun, and the sound – the mingling of voices from the cries of market stall sellers to the normal buzz of conversation, and in the background the noises of the animals which were waiting to be sacrificed. Being confronted with all this all at once was a bewildering experience. I took a moment, took a deep breath and made my way through the crowd in the courts of the Gentiles to the court of women, where I would make my offering, which was my main reason for being there that day. As I walked towards the main entrance of the temple itself, I noticed a crowd clustered together in one place, which wasn’t unusual in itself, but what was unusual was the fact that they were quiet. At first I dismissed it – you often get Rabbis who seek to draw a crowd, the teachers of the law love to get attention in their flowing robes and impressive prayers; I recognised the voice of one of them as he was speaking – he was a Sadducee – they’re the ones in charge of the temple business, because that’s what it is. They have their disagreements with the Pharisees over whether there’s life after death. They only believe in the Torah, and as there’s no hint of this there, they argue that this life, this world, is all there is. It’s alright for them to believe this – their life is comfortable, isn’t it? They’re rich. They have the best of the world. I stopped and listened, intrigued to hear what he was going to say – he seemed to be in debate with a man I didn’t recognise. “Teacher,” he said, “‘Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
It didn’t take a genius to work out that this was a trick question, a riddle, an attempt to make the teacher look stupid. The fact they used the plight of a woman, a widow, who was passed from one man to another, as the subject of their theological riddle was also a sign of how little they cared about the everyday problems of people like me, who do our best to survive. I wonder whether he knows that people like us really exist. But if he did, it wouldn’t matter, because we have no power. What about this mysterious teacher, how would he answer? I watched him as he listened to them – at first he seemed to take them absolutely seriously, but then he seemed to roll his eyes and he began looking around at the crowd – and, somehow, his gaze met mine and, I couldn’t believe it, but I’m pretty sure that he winked and smiled at me. It was a look of sympathy and understanding that seemed to say that despite what the Sadducees implied, I did matter, that I wasn’t just the object of some riddle, that God saw and cared about my plight. In that moment I felt like I had worth and dignity. It’s a long time since I’d last felt that.
He waited until the man finished, paused, as if he were giving his question serious consideration and proceeded to destroy the argument completely.
He quoted the Torah – the Sadducees’ own base text – and implied that by The Lord saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’, all these were somehow still alive at the time of Moses. In other words, he accused these men – the fundamentalist scripture party – of not having read their scriptures. To be honest these theological debates do go over my head rather, but I sensed he was simply saying, “God has the power to sort all this out. What makes you think the resurrected life is going to be like things down here?” You see, when he talked about the resurrection, about new life, you could tell there was no doubt that he believed in the world to come. When he talked, it gave me real hope. Though we will die, we will rise, and that new life will be wonderful. Though my dear Malachi and Bezalel are dead – and how I miss them, they will rise. I will see them again. We are children of the resurrection, because our God is the God of the covenant – of the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses too – he is the God of the living, so not even death can break this covenant. I don’t claim to understand it, but I do believe it, that there is hope.
Well, the crowd loved this – the Sadducees beaten at their own game – I even heard some of the other teachers of the law cry out, “Well said, teacher!” and the Sadducees fell silent. I enjoyed that! But this teacher wasn’t done yet. He began to speak about the Messiah, our promised rescuer, who will come one day to deliver our nation and restore the kingdom. He asked how such a figure could be a “son” or descendant of David if he would become David’s Lord. Maybe he was questioning whether we have the right understanding of what the Messiah is and what he would do? Maybe he isn’t going to battle the Romans or restore David’s Kingdom? Later, I heard that this teacher had spoken lots about a different Kingdom – the Kingdom of God. I wonder if he means the Messiah would bring in this Kingdom instead- a Kingdom where people are all shown as precious to God, stand equal in his eyes, where power and status are shown for the false gods that they are.
I dragged myself away at that point and headed towards the court of the women, where I could make my offering. As I left I heard the teacher make some scathing remark about about the teachers of the law and their flowing robes. Power and status obviously mean far less to him than they do to them. They love to be recognised, lauded, rewarded, and have been known to exploit people, relying on the hospitality of those who have barely enough to live on. I know; I’ve been there.
I’d brought two copper coins with me for my offering, which I gave at the same time as some significantly richer people – you could tell they were wealthy by the clothes they wore – and they seemed to be very keen on people seeing just how generous they were. I felt embarrassed to be putting in just those two coins, but it was really all I had to give – actually, it’s all I have to live on. Why should I hold back? I believe that my God has been incredibly generous to me. He’s not held back from me, so I shouldn’t hold back from him. He deserves all my love and all my devotion. I turned and made my way out of the court of women, and on my way out saw the teacher again. He was with a smaller group of people now. He looked at me and smiled, and spoke to what I assume were his disciples. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’
We exchanged glances again as I walked past, towards the Court of the Gentiles. I know I was blushing to have been singled out for such incredible praise. How did he know my life’s situation? How could he see how difficult it’s been all these years? Somehow, he knew. He saw into my heart. I love my Lord. My God is all I live for. Though others don’t see that – all they see is my garb, my poverty, but my God sees and knows, and somehow, this man does too. What’s inside my beating, burning heart is what matters to God. This man seemed to see all that, and saw fit to give me honour and dignity, to say that God is pleased with me and my devotion when I offer myself fully and freely to him. I have nothing to offer God but myself, and I think he accepts this with all his heart.