This fable has been many years in the making. I've told versions of it to children over the past twenty years. This is the first time I've put it into writing. Although it has its roots in history, this story is entirely fictional.
Monday, December 23, 2013
Three Coins for God
Lessons & Carols
24 December 2013
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
A long time ago in a country we now call Turkey, there lived a family of Christians in a town called Myra on the coast. Now in those days, more than one thousand seven hundred years ago, being a Christian was illegal. In some places Christians were thrown into jail and even executed, but Myra was a little bit different. Most of the people living in the town were Christians, so the government officials, some of whom were secretly Christians themselves, quietly ignored any orders coming from the Emperor in Rome.
One of those secretly Christian officials was a man named Timothy. He was a lawyer who administered the town’s laws. He had a nice house, a wonderful wife named Lydia and three children. The oldest was Michael who was twelve, then Frances who was ten and the youngest, Thomas, was eight. Timothy’s younger brother, Nicholas, also lived with them. Nicholas worked in the harbour for one of Timothy’s friends who ran a shipping company. To the three children Nicholas was more of a very much older brother than an uncle and they adored him.
Now in those days Christians exchanged gifts on Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas, as a reminder of the gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child. One day Timothy called the children into his study. “This is a very special year,” said Timothy, “your mother and I have been married fifteen years and your uncle Nicholas turns twenty. So, in honour of this, I am giving you a bit more money to buy your gifts for Epiphany.” He pulled out his coin purse and counted out three gold coins.
The children were amazed. Three small silver coins, the size of our dime, would buy nice presents, but three gold coins, well, that was a fortune. With one gold coin a poor family could live for a year or more. Michael, Frances and Thomas couldn’t believe their eyes. They were rich!
So, the next morning they set out to buy their gifts. Michael, being the oldest, kept the money hidden inside his shirt. “You never know,” he told his sister and brother, “when someone might try to take it. We have to keep this a secret.” Frances and Thomas quickly agreed.
They decided to walk down to the harbour and visit their uncle Nicholas. He always had interesting stories to tell that the sailors shared with him from their travels. But when they arrived at his office, they immediately saw that Nicholas was very unhappy. “What’s the matter,” Thomas asked. “One of the smaller ships came into today,” he responded, “but the captain ran away with the money he was supposed to bring to my boss. That’s bad enough, but, without the money from the captain, the sailors won’t get bad. It’s the captain that pays them, not us.” “How much does the captain owe them?”, asked Frances. “One gold coin would pay them all what they are owed,” sighed Nicholas, “but I don’t have that much money.”
Thomas looked at Frances and Frances looked at Michael and Michael looked at Thomas. All three of them nodded. Michael reached into his shirt and pulled out one gold coin. “Here you are, Uncle Nicholas,” said Michael, “now you can pay the sailors.” “Where did you get this money?” asked a surprised Nicholas. “It’s a secret,” said all three children at once.
The children turned and left Nicholas’ office. Nicholas arranged for one of the clerks to pay the sailors and then went off to follow the children. He knew that they were good children and that they had come by the money honestly. But he couldn’t help but worry about them wandering the town alone. However, he decided to follow them at a distance. He knew that they considered themselves quite grown up and they would resent him checking up on them.
Michael, Frances and Thomas decided to go into the centre of town to search for gifts. They weren’t worried. Two gold coins was still a fortune. To get to the market they had to pass through one of the poorer parts of the town. As they were passing one of the poorer homes, they saw one of the young women who worked in their home from time to time. She sat on the doorstep crying.
Frances, who knew the young woman better than her brothers asked, “What’s the matter, Mary?” “Oh, young mistress,” sobbed Mary, “I was going to be married in three days, but my fiancé’s family won’t let him marry me without a dowry. We don’t have any money and so now I’ll never find a husband.” Now in those days getting married was one of the ways that poor women could find a better life and it was customary that a woman brought a sum of money into the marriage. Without a dowry, most poor women could not marry and would, over time, most likely become poorer and poorer. It wasn’t a fair custom, but it was the way it was in those days.
Thomas looked at Frances and Frances looked at Michael and Michael looked at Thomas. All three of them nodded. Michael reached into his shirt and pulled out one gold coin. Frances took the coin and gave it to Mary. Mary couldn’t believe her eyes. Ten small silver coins would have been more than enough; one gold coin would set her future husband and her on a very good path. “Where did you get this money?”, Mary asked. “It’s a secret,” said all three children at once. Before she could stammer her thanks, the children quickly disappeared. Nicholas, peering from around a corner, saw the whole thing.
As they entered the market, Thomas said to his sister and brother, “Well, one gold coin should be enough, don’t you think?” “Yes,” said Michael, “but when Papa sees what we buy, he’ll know that it’s only worth one gold coin. What will we tell him about the other two coins?” Frances, who was the wiser of the three, had the answer. “We’ll remind him, if he asks, that sending three young children into the market of Myra is a sure-fire recipe for them to get cheated,” she suggested. “True enough,” said Thomas, “he was just saying yesterday how one of the grain merchants tried to cheat him by charging him too much for a bushel of wheat.”
Their confidence restored, the children walked into the market only to bump into their parish priest, Father Andrew. Father Andrew was always so cheerful, but today he had a very worried look on his face. “What’s the matter, Father Andrew,” asked Michael. “I’ve just learned that the Bishop will not be able to support the school that the parish runs for poor children,” Father Andrew said with his head hung low. “How will we share the good news without the school?”
Thomas looked at Frances and Frances looked at Michael and Michael looked at Thomas. All three of them nodded. Michael reached into his shirt and pulled out one gold coin. With one gold coin Father Andrew could run the school for a whole year and teach even more children about the good news of God in Christ. “Where did you get this money,” he asked. “It’s a secret,” said all three children at once. Without one more word they turned and ran off towards their home. Nicholas, of course, had seen the whole thing and followed the children home
As they entered the front door, they ran into their father --- literally. “Careful,” he said, “what’s your hurry? Where are the presents?” “It’s a secret,” said all three children at once. Nicholas came in just behind them and they all washed up for dinner. Dinner was very quiet. The children went to their room in silence without any idea of how to explain things to their father in the morning. They had nothing to give to their parents on their anniversary and nothing to give to their favourite uncle. They were doomed.
Early in the morning the whole family gathered to share their presents. Timothy and Lydia loved their children very much, so there were many gifts for them. Then came the moment of truth: Michael, Frances and Thomas were to give their gift to Uncle Nicholas. “Where’s the gift for Uncle Nicholas?”, their father asked. “We don’t have one,” the children whispered. “WHAT?”, yelled their father, who almost never raised his voice. “I gave you a fortune and you have nothing to show for it.”
Before he could say another word, Nicholas interrupted him. “Timothy,” he said, “what has God told us is good?” Surprised by the question, Timothy answered, “To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God”. “Just so,” Nicholas said, “and that is the gift the children have given to the three of us.” And he told Timothy and Lydia how the children had paid the sailors’ wages, had given Mary a dowry and had ensured the survival of Father Andrew’s school. Even though Timothy was still a little bothered, he and Lydia had to admit that there could be no greater gift than three children who gave gifts of justice, mercy and humility.
Now there is more to this story. Nicholas was so inspired by his nephews and niece that he decided to become a priest. He followed their example and became widely known for his commitment to justice, mercy and humility. He cared for the sailors, for young women who needed dowries and for children who needed to be freed from ignorance and neglect. The people of Myra so admired him that he became their bishop and over the centuries people throughout the world came to know his story. Some people, who didn’t know his story well, mispronounced his name and called him ‘Santa Claus’. But that’s another story for another time.
All you and I need to remember is what Michael, Frances and Thomas taught their uncle. God has given us many gifts and asks us to return his generosity with three gifts of our own: justice, mercy and humility. There are no greater gifts than these.