The widow’s mite, and ancient money’s value.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 January 2021

Mark 12.41-44, Luke 21.1-4.

On the temple grounds there’s a room called the treasury; Greek γαζοφυλάκιον/yadzofylákion, a “guarded vault.” Thing is, the treasury’s in a place inaccessible to women. And since there’s a woman in this story, throwing an offering in, it simply can’t be what the writers of these gospels meant by “treasury.” It has to be in some other place.

Hence most commentators are pretty sure yadzofylákion actually refers to the lockboxes which the priests set in the Women’s Court. Each of these boxes were at the end of a big metal funnel—which looked like a shofar, a ram’s-horn trumpet, and may very well have been what Jesus was thinking of when he talked about trumpeting your charitable giving. Mt 6.2 Because throwing metal into a big metal funnel made a loud noise. And throwing lots of metal—like a big pile of bronze coins, as opposed to, say, far fewer silver or gold coins—made a big ol’ noise.

Probably too noisy to teach! Yet that’s what the gospels describe Jesus trying to do by these funnels.

Mark 12.41-44 KWL
41 As he was seated facing the offering boxes,
Jesus watched how the crowds threw bronze coins into the boxes.
Many plutocrats threw many coins,
42 and one poor widow who came, threw two lepta, i.e. a quadrans. [8¢]
43 Calling his students, Jesus told them, “Amen, I promise you:
This poor widow threw more into the box than all who threw in.
44 For all the others threw out of their abundance, and she her need:
Everything she threw in, was all her life.”
Luke 21.1-4 KWL
1 Looking up, Jesus saw plutocrats throwing their gifts into the offering boxes.
2 Jesus also saw a certain poor widow throwing in two lepta. [8¢]
3 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you: This poor widow threw in more than everyone.
4 For all these people threw in their gifts out of their abundance,
and she from her poverty threw in everything she had in her life.”

The widow donated two λεπτὰ/leptá, which the KJV calls a “mite,” meaning the lowest-denomination coin there is. A penny would be the United States’ cheapest coin; that’s our mite. It might not have been familiar with everyone in the Roman Empire, so Mark states it’s worth a quadrans, the Roman quarter. Worth about 8 cents back then, though money went much further. She could probably buy lunch with it. A small lunch.

First-century economics.

People don’t entirely understand the point, or the value, of money in ancient times.

Different commentators will give you different dollar values for ancient coins. One commentary will claim a denarius is worth $100 (and therefore a quadrans would be $2.50). Another will insist it’s worth $75, another $10, and the KJV actually translates it as “a penny.” Mt 20.2, 22.19 KJV (Which, in Britain at the time of the KJV’s translation, was a silver coin, the same size as a denarius, so it’s not a bad translation. American pennies are much different.)

Where do people get these differing amounts? A number of commentators base it on purchasing power. That one dude in Jesus’s parable could hire a day laborer for a denarius. Mt 20.2 Nobody ever asks whether that was a fair amount (and since the point of this parable was the guy was generous, they presume it was more than fair). Since a day laborer works for about $100 today, they figure a denarius is at least worth $100.

Others base it on spending power: What could you actually buy with a denarius? Well, a denarius was the Roman $10, and since a quadrans could get you two sparrows Mt 10.29 (or two and a half sparrows Lk 12.6) a denarius should get you 80 or 100 sparrows. That’s a lot of birds! Pity there’s not a lot of meat on them.

Me, I pegged it on the current price of silver. That might not be the best way to evaluate money, since we don’t use silver as money anymore. Nor should we; the price is too variable. You know how silver’s value in the commodities market goes up and down, sometimes like a wild seesaw? It’s because the value of silver, contrary to what precious-metals fans insist, isn’t stable. Its value goes up and down depending on how much is available, and how much people want or need it. And because people are still digging it out of the ground, its availability keeps growing… which also drives its price down.

In Roman times, silver was money. Or they’d use the rarer gold or electrum; or the more common bronze and copper. Well, the amount of silver in a country was regularly changing, depending on imports and exports. Buy a lot of imports, and all the silver goes to other countries, and becomes rarer. Sell a lot of exports, gain a lot of silver, and silver can become so common, it’s kinda worthless. 1Ki 10.21 Unless the king tightly controlled the silver supply (and rarely would kings think to do this—unless they were trying to create economic problems for their enemies), the value of silver would fluctuate wildly. Same as today. Nobody really governed it: Nobody made sure the money stayed flowing, or stayed at the same stable value. Silver had no Federal Reserve Board.

Hence when silver was available, a quadrans could buy a bagel. When money was in short supply, a quadrans could buy a cow. So money—especially for the poor—wasn’t something you spent. It was an investment, just as silver is today. You hold onto it till it’s at the height of its spending power. Thus you can see why it was a big, big deal when someone lost a coin, turned the house over for it, and wanted the neighbors to rejoice with her when she found it. Lk 15.8-10

In our culture, because our governments control the money supply, it takes a long time for inflation to change the value of a dollar. (Or, depending on the government, the value of a euro, yuan, peso, or whatever.) We’re not used to the idea that one year, a dollar could buy a loaf of bread, but a year later a dollar could buy a car. And really, don’t you think it’s best that we aren’t used to that idea?

You can now see why Jesus would appreciate this woman’s donation more. She wasn’t just throwing in mere money: She was throwing in her investment. She was throwing in her plans for the future, based on what this money might someday purchase. This donation, though small, wasn’t just “all she had to live on,” as the NRSV puts it. Lk 21.4 NRSV It’s her future. Her life, as the original text—and my translation—has it. She was giving her future to God. Those other rich guys? Not so much.

Kingdom economics.

Nope, it wasn’t all she had to live on. This widow possibly had other possessions, although she was poor, so it wasn’t much. She could sell something. In the very worst case, she could sell herself, into slavery—though this was a huge risk, considering the sort of people who might buy her. So in donating her mite, this widow wasn’t figuring she’d then go home and die, like the widow Elijah went to stay with. 1Ki 17.12 She wouldn’t starve to death; she could always glean food from the nearby fields, or get it from the local storehouse. Poverty always sucks, but God had made provisions in his Law for the poor. Hers wasn’t a hopeless poverty.

But the point was her priority. She realized, as most poor people do, her security and future comes from God. She was willing to trust him, not her investments. Not all of us get that. And not all of us trust him so much.

The rich folks didn’t. They gave away some of their bronze—meaning they had plenty of silver and gold back home. And plenty of possessions, and plenty of comfort. They took no real risk. They weren’t betting on God for their futures. They were just being obedient in giving to God. And yeah, they were showing off, dumping a bunch of coppers into the funnel to make a lot of noise. True, some of ’em actually did give generously; it’s not like there was nothing in Judea in the day but hypocrites. But still.

And when we give to God like that, we need to recognize, like the widow, God’s our provision and our potential. Not only could God multiply the value of everything we have, when we follow him God regularly multiplies their value.