Money in the Gospels
The gospels frequently refer to common features of daily life in the first century. Among those oft-mentioned everyday realities: money.
Of course, the gospels’ references to money present us with some difficulties. Exactly how much was a talent? a denarius? a mite? Those terms mean little to people who are used to talking in dollars and cents. Furthermore, it’s not easy to assess the relative value of 2,000-year-old currency. You have to try to account for inflation, social differences, and numerous other factors. Perhaps the best we can do is to get an idea of what a sum of money was worth in terms of wages or purchasing power in first-century Palestine. Doing so can help us better appreciate a number of passages that mention monetary values. We can see what those values would have meant to the original audience. That, in turn, may help us better appreciate the lessons that are being taught.
The denarius. The denarius was a Roman unit of coinage, usually imprinted with image of the emperor (see Matthew 20:19-21). The coin itself, except for its historical value, would be worth only a few cents today, but it was a standard measure of money in the first century. Roughly equivalent to the Roman denarius was a Greek coin called the drachma. Typically, one denarius (or one drachma) was considered a fair wage for a day of manual labor (as reflected in Matthew 20:2). So a worker might expect to earn a little over 300 denarii in a year. To appreciate the value of a denarius, then, imagine that it was worth the amount you earn in a day.
Matthew 17:24 mentions the tax that was collected from Jewish males to support the temple. Literally, he calls it “the two drachmas.” This helps us understand the relative cost of this tax to the average Jewish man: about two days’ wages.
When Mary of Bethany used a bottle of perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet, Judas complained, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:1-8). Can you picture owning a bottle of perfume worth nearly a year’s salary? Can you picture doing with it what Mary did? This helps us appreciate the sacrifice she made to honor Jesus that day.
In the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), a woman loses one of ten “silver coins” — literally, a drachma. You might not think much about losing a quarter under the sofa, but imagine losing a coin worth $100 or more! This helps us understand why the woman turned her house upside down to find it. And it helps us see the value that God attaches to even one lost soul.
The talent. In the Jewish usage of the Old Testament, a talent was a measure of weight. Its precise weight has been estimated at 50 to 75 pounds, whether applied to gold, silver, or something else. In the Greek and Roman usage of New Testament times, a talent was a Roman monetary unit equal to 6,000 denarii. If one denarius was about a day’s wage for a common laborer, then one talent would represent nearly 20 years’ wages.
So, in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-28), even the “one-talent” servant was entrusted with a huge sum of money. Picture someone putting you in charge of several hundred thousand dollars and you get some idea of that servant’s situation. Would you bury it like he did? (Note: Luke 19:11-27 records a similar parable using the mina, a monetary unit worth about 100 drachmas. One mina would be three or four months’ wages for a worker — still a lot of money.) As these parables should remind us, even those of us who seem to have the fewest abilities and opportunities can render valuable service in God’s kingdom. Indeed, that is our responsibility.
We should also consider Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35). The servant in the story owed his master 10,000 talents — we might say “millions of dollars” — a debt he could not possibly repay. After his master graciously forgave this debt, the slave proceeded to shake down a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii — we would say “a few thousand dollars.” This man had just been absolved of a debt thousands of times greater than what his fellow servant owed to him. That makes it hard to miss the ungrateful and unforgiving spirit illustrated by this slave. Knowing that God has forgiven us of so much, we should be willing to forgive others.
Other measures. The incident of “the widow’s mites” in Mark 12:41-44 gives us another picture. The two “mites” that she put in the temple treasury were tiny copper coins called lepta. Two lepta equaled a quadrans, which was a tiny fraction of a denarius. To put it in modern terms, can you picture having only three or four dollars to your name — and putting it all in the collection plate? That’s what this woman did.
Whether our money is measured in denarii or dollars, it’s just one more thing God has loaned us to use for His glory. We must view it as a trust to be managed wisely and generously, not an end in itself — especially in America, where even the humblest of us are blessed with so much of it. “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).