Word of the Week
May 13, 2023
Lepton: Money Matters – The Least
And He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites.
Luke 21:2 NKJV
Would you pick up a penny on the sidewalk? Or do you just bother to stoop over when it’s a quarter?
A 2021 MyBankTracker survey showed that only 46% of Americans would stop to pick up a penny lying on the ground. And the younger you are, the less likely you are to grab the free penny. Only 9% of people 18-24 said that they would make the effort.
It goes to show that you can’t buy much with a penny these days. The IRS encourages you to ignore anything smaller than a dollar when you fill out your income tax forms, and the local convenience store has a jar on the counter where you can drop unwanted coins.
Pennies often go unnoticed.
The monetary system in the first century Roman empire was much different from ours, but it too involved coins with such minimal purchasing power that they counted for very little.
For the next three weeks, we are going to get acquainted with three different forms of money familiar to Jesus and the people around Him.
We’ll start with the smallest coin of all, the lepton (plural lepta). Made of copper or bronze, a lepton was the least valuable coin you could own. Its name comes from a Greek word that means “fine, thin, small or light.” The lepton was literally a very thin disc of metal embossed with a pattern. Only a fraction of the size of a penny, it was more like a watch battery.
Anyone who needed to handle large business transactions would have to use the silver or gold coins produced by the Roman government. The bronze lepton was only useful for small purchases in the marketplace. A person of modest means buying food for tonight’s meal would use a handful of lepta to pay.
The Gospels record two incidents where Jesus Christ mentioned a lepton.
- Jesus was scolding the crowds for their hypocrisy and for their folly in thinking that they could ignore God’s judgment. He underlined His point by using a human illustration:
Suppose someone is suing you, trying to collect a large debt that you owe. If you’re wise, you will try to settle out of court. If the case goes to trial and you lose, they will throw you into debtor’s prison and you won’t get out until you pay off the entire debt . . . “up to the very last lepton”! (Luke 12:39).
In other words, you cannot expect the tiniest bit of mercy. Even an unpaid penny will count against you.
Christ’s words remind us of the passage in James 1:10 that declares that even a single infraction of God’s Law is enough to make you a law-breaker, subject to condemnation. God’s holiness is perfect, and even the smallest sin disqualifies us for residence in heaven. We can’t live up to that standard, and that is why salvation rests on what Christ has done for us, not what we can do for Him.
- The best-known incident is Christ’s comment on the “widow’s mites.”
After a busy day of debate with the Jewish leaders, Jesus and His disciples rested for a while as they watched crowds of worshippers bring their offerings to the Temple. At a festival like Passover, thousands of Jews came from around the world to donate their gifts to God. Along one wall were several receptacles shaped like trumpets. You could drop your money into the mouth of the trumpet, and many wealthy people were making a show of tossing handfuls of coins that people could hear clanging on the metal horn.
At one point, an impoverished widow stepped up to the boxes and placed two lepta in the opening as her contribution to the Lord (Mark 12:42; Lake 21:2). Mark points out that her offering was worth about the same as a small copper coin called a kodrantēs. Some Romans readers of his Gospel might have been unfamiliar with the Jewish currency, so Mark provided a familiar equivalent in Roman coinage.
Why was the lepton worth mentioning in this passage?
Jesus revealed that even tiny things can be huge in God’s eyes. Onlookers would never notice the clink of two lepta in the container, but the Lord knew that the widow had contributed everything she had. He measured not by what she gave, but by what she had left. He noticed. And He pointed it out so that people for the next two thousand years would be blessed by her sacrificial faith.
Perhaps you feel that you have little to offer, that you cannot possibly do anything with lasting impact. Remember that you are not in a position to know what God might do with your small gifts.
If Jesus could feed 5000 with a few loaves and fish – and if He could use those two lepta to inspire millions, who knows what He can do with you?
It is difficult to determine the exact value of a lepton, but many scholars suggest that it would take 128 lepta to equal a denarius, a typical day’s wage. For comparison, consider that the current minimum wage in the United States is $7.25. That makes $58 for an 8-hour day. A lepton would thus be equivalent to about 45 cents. That’s more than a penny, but it won’t buy much at Walmart!
Q: My Bible study group is going to be talking about baptism and I want to know the origins of that practice. I don’t see baptism in the Old Testament. Was it a Jewish custom in the first century?
A: You’re correct in saying that baptism is not a regular feature of Old Testament faith. There were various ritual washings: priests would wash before they served in the tabernacle or temple, and people who were ceremonially unclean would wash themselves as part of a purification process.
In the period between the Old and New Testament, new practices arose. A Gentile who converted to Judaism as a proselyte would go through a ceremonial immersion. Groups like the Qumran community (who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls) practiced a kind of baptism as part of a process of repentance.
When John began baptizing to prepare people for the Messiah, he was taking them through a process of repentance so they would be ready for the Coming One. In addition, baptism was a way of identifying yourself with a person or movement. When you asked John for baptism, you were saying, “I believe what you are preaching and I want to identify myself with your message.”
This week we looked at the smallest coin in the New Testament. Next week we will learn about the biggest measure of money: the talent
©Ezra Project 2023
Thank you for this interesting information. It is truly a joy to learn more about life was in Jesus’ day!