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In religious and moral terms less is often more

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013

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This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.

Widow gives her mite, picture, image, illustration

The widow's mite by Clive Uptton

If you look at the list of people who have contributed money to almost any good cause, you will find that not all of them have given their names. Beside some of the amounts you may read “anon” (short for “anonymous,” from a Greek word meaning “without a name”). Other people may have used what we call pseudonyms (from another Greek word meaning “false names”) such as “A Well-Wisher.” Among these latter you may very probably see “A Widow’s Mite.”

The sum of money contributed by such a donor will always be small – perhaps not more than half-a-crown, whereas others may have given tens or hundreds of pounds. Even so, the small amount may represent a bigger sacrifice on the part of the giver than the much larger sums donated by others.

This was appreciated by Jesus, who long ago drew attention to the happening which gave rise to this familiar phrase.

He and his friends were sitting together one day in the outer court of the great Jewish temple at Jerusalem. Crowds of visitors were constantly on the move through these courts, rather as they are in English cathedrals at holiday time. Some were worshippers, while others were only sightseers, but all of them were encouraged to contribute something to the upkeep of the temple and its services.

For this purpose, large collecting boxes were placed along the wall of one of the courts. They had funnel-shaped openings down which coins could be dropped.

These coins were not ordinary money, however. This was not allowed because it had the image of the Roman Emperor stamped on it, and this, in the eyes of the priests, would defile the temple. Visitors had to change their ordinary money at the entrance of the temple for special coins issued by the temple authorities.

In the special temple coinage, there was one coin of very low value indeed. It was made of copper, and the Authorised Version of the English Bible says that two of these coins were worth only a farthing (Mark 12, verse 42).

In a more recent translation, the Revised Standard Version published in 1952, the coins are stated to be worth a penny each. Either way, it is clear that they were worth very little indeed, even in their own day.

Jesus watched intently as various people placed gifts in the collecting boxes. Some put in a handful of coins, and were careful to be noticed as they did so. But Jesus saw one poor widow woman quietly drop in two of the little copper coins, or “mites.” (A “mite” was originally the name of a Flemish copper coin of low value.)

Turning to his friends, Jesus said, “I assure you that she has put in more than all these rich people, because what they gave they will never miss, but what she gave was the only money she had to live on.”

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