Word of the Week
May 27, 2023
Dēnarion: Money Matters – The Most Common
“Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They say, “Caesar’s.”
Luke 20:34 NASB20
My first job was washing dishes in a cafeteria for $1.25 an hour. That’s ten dollars for a full day’s work! Of course, you could buy a gallon of gas for 20 cents.
Now the U.S. government has set the minimum wage at $7.25 per hour – and I see signs at all the fast food restaurants promising $13 an hour or more. Quite a change!
It’s an even greater leap to go back to the New Testament where the most common coin in use was worth about one day’s wage.
The coin is a dēnarion – in English, we translate it as denarius, the main silver coin circulating in the Roman Empire. How much was it worth? We get an indication from Christ’s parable about a man who hired laborers to work in his vineyard. According to Matthew 20:2, he contracted with his workers for a denarius for a day’s work.
If you try to determine the value of a denarius in modern terms, you’ll find a wide range of values. There are several ways of calculating such equivalencies, based on varying assumptions. Personally, I think it is easier to think of a denarius as the going rate for a day’s work for a laboring man. It was probably just enough to feed and clothe a family.
Knowing the value of a denarius is one thing. Deciding whether it’s too little or too much is altogether different.
In Christ’s parable, the vineyard owner paid the standard denarius to every worker, but some of them erupted in a protest. Why? Fresh groups of workers had been added to the workforce all through the day. Some worked half a day, some worked just an hour. Yet all got the same pay!
The one-hour guys were elated at their good fortune. But the all-day guys thought they deserved something extra for their long hours in the sun (Matthew 20:9-10). The owner had to remind them that he had kept his bargain of one denarius (Matthew 20:13). He had the right to be generous if he wished. And, as Jesus pointed out, God has the right to be gracious whenever He chooses.
Let’s look at the other episodes that feature the dēnarion:
- Not enough denarii
The massive crowd had spent the day listening to Jesus teach. Now Jesus turned to His disciples with a startling request: “Let’s give these people something to eat!” The practical-minded disciples replied, “We can send them to the villages to buy food.” Jesus turned to Philip and asked, “Where can we buy bread for these people?” Philip did a quick calculation and decided “Two hundred denarii [plural of denarius] is not enough for them to have even a little” (John 6:7; Mark 6:37).
Two hundred days wages? They weren’t carrying that kind of cash. Jesus understood that, of course. He was making sure His disciples understood the enormity of the problem – just before He took the loaves and fishes and fed all 5000 people in the crowd.
- Too many denarii
Jesus was dining with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, accompanied by His disciples. Mary surprised them all by bringing in a large jar of extremely expensive perfume. She used it to anoint Christ’s feet and wipe them with her hair. An instant protest rose from the disciples: “What a waste of money! This perfume could have been sold for 3000 denarii and given to the poor!” (John 12:5; Mark 14:5). She had just poured out a year’s income!
Jesus, however, squelched their complaints. He was headed for the cross, and Mary was showing her love lavishly. In effect, she was preparing His body for burial.
- Just the right denarius
Christ’s enemies were out to trap Him with a trick question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” If He said “Yes,” public opinion would be outraged. If He said “No,” they would tell the Romans that a rebel was on the loose.
Sidestepping the trap, Jesus said, “Bring me a denarius.” When someone handed Him the coin, He asked, “Whose image and inscription are on this coin?” (Luke 20:24; Matthew 22:19; Mark 12:15). Roman emperors typically put their faces on coins and Tiberius had been emperor since A.D. 14, so his face was probably on the coin. The inscription was probably TI. CAESAR DIVI AVG. F. AVGVSTVS (Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus).
It was Caesar’s picture, Caesar’s coin – so give Caesar what belongs to him. And give God what belong to Him: everything!
The denarius was a standard feature of daily life, but it was only a tool. As the Lord might have said in another context, “Man shall not live by denarii alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
The denarius appears four other times in the New Testament:
Matthew 18:28 – In Christ’s parable about forgiveness, one servant owed a modest 100 denarii.
Luke 7:41 – Jesus explained His concern for sinners with a question: If one man owes 500 denarii and another owes 50, which one will be most grateful if the debt is forgiven?
Luke 10:35 – The Good Samaritan brought the wounded man to an inn and gave the innkeeper two denarii to pay for continued care.
Revelation 6:6 – During a plague of famine, food will be so scarce that you’ll pay a denarius for a quart of wheat or three quarts of barley.
Q: What was the coin that Peter found in the mouth of the fish in Matthew 17:27?
A: It was a statēr, a silver coin worth 2 to 4 Greek drachmas. A drachma was worth a little more than a denarius, and it was considered the equivalent of a Jewish shekel, the standard way to pay the annual tax that every good Jew was supposed to donate to the temple.
There are many surprises in the New Testament and the sixth chapter of Mark is full of them. Next week we will compare three different Greek words that express amazement.
©Ezra Project 2023