“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins” Mark 12:42
At the place in Flanders where the Great War stopped for a few days at Christmas 1914, there is now a memorial site. For a few metres on either side of No Man’s Land the trenches have been restored, the green grass has been turned into brown earth, and there is a simple memorial to the football match that took place. People leave footballs there now, and scarves and hats in the colours of their favourite teams, teams from all over Europe. In the paving around the memorial there is a stone slab inscribed with words from Michele Platini, the UEFA President, the inscription says “To all those who experienced the ‘Small Peace’ in the ‘Great War.'”
As well as footballs and team colours, there are, of course, poppy wreaths. On a label attached to one of the wreaths, last spring, there were words written from the heart of whoever had placed the wreath. “We did not want to fight you any more than you wanted to fight us.” The words had been written in 2015, but they reflected the spirit of the men who had stood on that ground a hundred years before.
The footballers remind us that these were just ordinary people, ordinary men with loves and homes and families, ordinary men with hopes and dreams; ordinary men who might have wished to be in any place on Earth other than the killing fields of Flanders.
Ordinary people should be remembered, remembered as individuals, all of them. Ordinary people should be remembered by their names, because when we remember people and not numbers we retain a sense of human dignity and we retain a sense of the horror of war.
The Gospel reading this morning is a far remove from the Western Front, but at heart it is a story of the value that Jesus places upon an individual, it is about the worth of an individual woman who offers everything she had.
“Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets.” Jesus condemns those who dress impressively and expect to be acknowledged by all whom they meet, not because there is anything wrong in the way they dress or in being acknowledged, but because these things are the outward appearances of men who do not value the little people, the ordinary people. “They devour widows’ houses”, says Jesus, referring to the custom of the religious leaders of exploiting the poor.
Translating Jesus’ condemnation into terms appropriate for the remembrance of all who have fallen in wars, Jesus would condemn those who allow countries simply to drift into war. A soldier friend, an officer in the British army, reminds me that it is not soldiers who start wars, it is politicians. How many of those who took the decisions in distant capitals had any real feeling for the plight of the ordinary man in the Great War? How many politicians now have understanding or care for the men they send to war today?
There was nothing wrong in holding high government office, nothing wrong with seeking to serve one’s country through political leadership, many politicians lost loved ones in the conflicts, some served both in parliament and on the front line. The wrong arose where those holding high office failed to appreciate the cost of war for ordinary people, failed to care for those whose loved ones had given everything they had.
Jesus watches the men of importance and power and he watches the poor widow. The poor widow gave all she had, but her offering counted for very little in the human scheme of things. Whether she had contributed or not would have been a matter of indifference to the keepers of the temple treasury. Her contribution, her life, didn’t figure in the calculations of the powerful.
How close the attitude of the leaders in Jerusalem comes to the attitudes of those who saw wars as about maps and numbers, those who simply did not value each of the lives that were lost. The individuals did not figure in the big scheme of things, their small contributions would have gone unnoticed. There can have been little sense of human dignity or worth amongst leaders who would throw away hundreds of thousands of lives in pointless onslaughts.
Remembrance, if it is truly Christian, is to be unlike the leaders in Jerusalem. Remembrance, if it is to be truly Christian, is to remember people as Christ saw them. Remembrance is to remember them with a sense of their dignity, because, like each of us, they were created in the image of God. Remembrance is to remember them with a sense of their worth, because Christ died for them, as he did for each one of us, .
Remembrance if it is to be truly Christian is about individuals because in God’s eyes we belong to no nation, to no army, to no regiment, to no-one’s side, in God’s eyes we stand before him as individuals, created in his image and loved by him.
We remember today those, who like the widow in the temple, gave all they had. Even when the last memory is gone, when the last memorial has crumbled, when there is no-one left to tell the story, God remembers. God remembers the footballers, and he remembers those who brought the players on both sides to die in the mud of Flanders, and to die in all the other battlefields through the centuries
“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins”, God remembers all who gave everything they had.