Lesson of the widow's mite
The Lesson of the widow's mite is presented in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4), in which Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Gospel of Mark specifies that two mites (Greek lepta) are together worth a quadrans, the smallest Roman coin. A lepton was the smallest and least valuable coin in circulation in Palestine, worth about six minutes of an average daily wage.
In the story, a widow donates two small coins, while wealthy people donate much more. Jesus explains to his disciples that the small sacrifices of the poor mean more to God than the extravagant, but proportionately lesser, donations of the rich.
The King James Bible translation
In Jesus' times in Israel, the small copper coin was called a lepton; there actually were no coins called mites. However, there was a mite in the time of the creation of the King James Bible, as indeed there had been at the time of earliest modern English translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale in 1525. The denomination was well known in the Southern Netherlands. Both the duke of Brabant and the count of Flanders issued them and they were sometimes imitated in the North. Originally, the Brabant mijt (maille in French) was 1/76 stuiver, the Flemish mijt 1/48 stuiver. When the two areas were united under the dukes of Burgundy and later under the Habsburgs, the rate of the mijt was set at 1/32 stuiver. More important, they were the very smallest copper coins. By 1611, they were no longer minted, but they were still in circulation.
In the society of 1611, it was almost a social obligation to give a silver coin at church collections, for there were many framed money galleries and armored safes in churches that needed to be filled. Only the very poor could get away with giving a copper coin and only the desperately poor would give a copper coin as small as a mijt, as their social status could hardly sink any lower. A widow would in principle have to live without any income. The translator probably may have had a beggar and a contemporary widow in mind. All this would have been self-evident to the readers. All of the contributions of silver were made "to be seen of men" as noted below, not as contributions to the church.
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Witnessing the donations made by the rich men, Jesus highlights how a poor widow donates only two mites, the least valuable coins available at the time. But, Jesus observes, this sum was everything she had to her name, while the other people give only a small portion of their own wealth.
In earlier times, a number of Christians, especially the Gnostics, Ebionites, Waldensians, and Franciscans, argued that the passage is an encouragement to live in poverty, and not seek riches.
In the passage immediately preceding this in both gospel accounts, Jesus is portrayed as condemning the religious leaders who feign piety, accept honor from people, and steal from widows (perhaps feigning piety in order to gain the trust of widows, and thereby gain access to their assets). Although most Christians understand this as criticism of the actions of certain individuals, racist groups have historically argued that the passages in question justify anti-semitism, particularly as the Gospel of Mark argues that severe punishment awaits those who follow such actions.
- Coins of the Bible
- Diminishing marginal utility, the economic principle demonstrated by the lesson
- Mite box
- My two cents
- New Testament
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