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The coins of God

· A re-reading of various Gospel passages where money is mentioned ·

We are publishing extracts from a text given by the Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library at a conference held in Buja (Udine), Italy, on Saturday 3 September, on the occasion of “The coins of God: an exposition on coins cited in the New Testament” ( 28 May to 30 November 2011), organized by the municipality in collaboration with the Archdiocese of Udine and the Vatican Apostolic Library. This is most likely the first ever and certainly the most complete exposition in the world on currency in the Gospels.

The offering of the widow in the Gospel drew my attention. Not only because the woman deserves the beautiful praise Christ gave her: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living” (Mk 12:43-44); but also because of the use of the word leptón in that passage, the small coin that was unknown to the Roman monetary system but commonly used by the population in Palestine for everyday needs. The rich were throwing in many coins but, recounts the Evangelist, “a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny” (Mk 12:42). Those translated to “copper coins” were originally leptá (in Hebrew: prutót ), while that which is called a “penny” was kodrántes .

Let's linger a little while over the leptón and the smallest coins. The word leptón occurs twice in the Gospel accounts of the widow: Mark speaks of it (12:41-44), the passage I treated above, and Luke (21:1-4), who summarizes it slightly. The word occurs a third time in the Gospel according to Luke, when Jesus in invites us to make peace with our enemies as we go before the magistrate, “lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison”. The end of the passage is very severe: “I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper” (12:58-59), the leptón . The same teaching is also in Matthew's Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount. Reading the translation, we don't notice any variation, because the phrase used is similar: “Truly, I say to you, you will never get out till  you have paid the last penny” (Mk 5:26).  However, if we check, the word used is not leptón but kodrántes , which is double that amount, but, in fact, the smallest Roman coin. The meaning and power of the statement, of course, remains the same.

One last text, reported in parallel with Matthew and Luke, concludes the round-up with the last type of money mentioned in the Gospels, that is the assýrion . The part of the Gospel that refers to these coins is the passage speaking of the birds of the sky and the hairs on your head. In the Gospel according to Matthew we read: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of the your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt 10:29-31). And yes to our question a moment ago: what ever are two sparrows worth? Are they not worth a penny? The penny, here, is a translation of the assýrion , which is worth four kodrántes or eight leptá . Curiously, in the passage from Luke, Jesus speaks of five sparrows instead of two. Their value becomes two assýrion (12:6): a small discount, we would say!  A discount of two kodrántes or four leptá , double the amount given by the poor widow,  so lovingly observed at the time by Jesus.

If we ponder over the widow a little more together with the set of this first group of Gospel passages, we have to deduce that to Jesus even these little offerings are important, typical of ordinary people, especially the poorest. And they aren't miserly: the widow, we read, gives everything that she has. The Gospel text uses the term bios ,  a very well known word, in its composites,  in modern languages too (biology, biodegradable, biography and the like) and  signifies first and foremost “life”. However, it also means “substance, means of livelihood”, and in this sense we found it translated that the widow gave “everything she had, her whole living”. The double meaning of the word suggests a much deeper symbolism: the widow gave her entire life!

The opposite occurs, however, when we approach money with a hateful attitude. Then, there is no discount, not even a  leptón, and it is certainly no gift: you have to pay until the very last penny. But to understand these attitudes we have to move to coins of higher value, which we have not yet considered.  Obviously the most valuable pieces are silver and gold, but, in fact, the Gospel explicitly does not mention gold coins.

However, we can catch an allusion to them in Jesus' instruction to the Twelve Apostles being sent out, where he lists the three metals from which coins are minted: gold, silver and bronze: “Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts” (Mt 10:9). The most obvious significance of that would be to think  of the currencies corresponding to the different metals. In the case of gold, it was probably Roman.

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