Mite Shares, Mark 12:38 44   November 8, 2009

 
With Christmas looming, many of us are already thinking about what we’ll buy for friends and family. And when you don’t know what to get Uncle Frank or the cousin you see every 10 years, you can always give the "all-purpose," "one-size-fits-all" gift card. Drop one of those in a Christmas card, and you’re all set.
 
The town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is using the gift-card concept without the plastic. The town has developed its own kind of currency, which they refer to as "BerkShares" (a wordplay on the Berkshires region). The concept is based on a previously established currency alternative.
 
Since 1991, many businesses in Ithaca, New York, have accepted the use of locally printed scrip called “Ithaca Hours.” It was the first local alternative currency to be used in the United States in modern times. Each Hour note is meant to be valued at one hour of work, and each Half Hour at one half-hour of work.
 
Paul Glover, a community organizer who invented Ithaca Hours, based them on an “Hour” note issued by 19th-century British industrialist Robert Owen, for his workers to use in his company store.

The currency began as a way of keeping track of barter exchanges, but it soon caught on with local merchants, who began accepting it for merchandise as well.

According to the Wikipedia.com article on Ithaca Hours, “Several million dollars’ … of Hours have been traded since 1991 among thousands of residents and over 500 area businesses. ... One of the primary functions of the Ithaca Hours system is to promote local economic development. Businesses who receive Hours must spend them on local goods and services, thus building a network of inter-supporting local businesses.”

In Massachusets, Great Barrington uses BerkShares. Asa Hardcastle, president of BerkShares Inc., says “Local currency helps to keep the money flowing between friends, neighbors, and local businesses, which helps everybody to have a better life.”

Even the design and printing of the BerkShare currency is a local operation. BerkShares feature pictures of local artists, heroes and historical figures. They come with individual serial numbers that make them tough to counterfeit.

“I think it’s nice to have a constant little reminder that we’re a community and we’re in it together,” says local resident Heather Fisch. “
 
From Detroit to North Carolina to upstate New York, at least 12 other communities are trying to encourage people to buy and spend locally by printing up their own greenbacks, or whatever color their home-grown money is.

A similar situation existed in Israel's 1st century economy. A closer look at Mark 12 gives us a glimpse into the different coinage that circulated around the temple. In verses 13-17, we read the famous “render unto Caesar” passage, in which Jesus has the Herodians and Pharisees produce coins from their pockets with the likeness of the Roman Emperor Tiberius stamped on them.

That Roman coin, the silver denarius, was worth about a day’s wage, so it was no small change. Imperial coinage was circulated throughout the empire to standardize trade between Rome and its conquered territories. It was their way to promote the current emperor’s reputation and divinity.
           
Around the likeness of Tiberius on the Roman coin was the inscription “Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus,” while the flip side displayed the likeness of a female figure representing “peace” (but often associated with Tiberius’ mother, Livia).
 
To righteous Jews, such inscriptions were idolatrous. To avoid those idolatrous images, most first-century Jews continued to use the local Jewish currency, some of which had been in circulation since the Hasmonean dynasty 100 years earlier.
 
The most basic coin of this period was the bronze or copper lepton (plural lepta), which avoided violating God's second commandment to not make any graven images. Their coins were inscribed by symbols, instead of human or animal images.
 
At the time of Jesus, a very common lepton in circulation was the one minted by Alexander Jannaeus (ruled from c.103 to 76 B.C.). It often featured an eight-rayed star or sunburst on one side and an anchor on the other. It was likely this Jewish coin that the money changers exchanged for Roman currency in the temple (Mark 11:15).

The lepton’s monetary value was pretty small at the time — so small, in fact, that it may be one of the least-valued coins ever struck. It looks like the image was just stamped haphazardly in a tiny dribble of molten copper or bronze. The coins aren’t even rounded or finished and weigh next to nothing.
 
It was very likely two of these tiny lepta, or “mites,” that the widow dropped into the temple treasury. Those two rough-stamped coins were about as valuable as Monopoly money, compared to the wealth of Roman coins that the religious leaders and other rich people seemed to be exchanging around the temple.

 
Mother Teresa understood the principle of this parable: "If you give what you do not need, it isn’t giving." This parable is about the value of loyalty, commitment and sacrifice more than the value of money.

 
 In Massachusetts, BerkShares are about a community taking care of its own, keeping the wealth within the community for the benefit of the whole. In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus condemns the community leaders of first-century Israel for doing exactly the opposite. The “long robes” of the scribes and their VIP seating arrangements at local parties are indications that they’re more concerned with themselves than their community.

Moreover, they “devour widows’ houses,” which was a way of saying they preyed on perhaps the weakest and most vulnerable segment of society. Widows who lacked male relatives had no status and no prospects for income, except for, as was often the case, prostitution. Some commentators have suggested that certain scribes may have acted as guardians for some of these widows, but they did so by exploiting for themselves the property that the women’s husbands may have left them.
 
The context of Mark, chapter twelve, suggests Jesus is continuing his condemnation of the religious leaders and the system of economic exploitation that would cause her to donate her last two pennies. This parable has often been preached imagining Jesus smiling at the woman’s generous sacrifice, but it seems more likely that he was sadly shaking his head at the injustice of it all..

The text gives no indication that the widow is being forced to give up those lepta. In fact, we don’t know anything about her motivation other than she just dropped them in. Jesus recognized that her offering, even though it was less than a pittance monetarily, was far more valuable than the sum total of all the other coins offered up that day.
 
The text forces us to ask: "What would cause a person to voluntarily give away her last two pennies?" Most probably, it’s because the widow still believed. Maybe she still believed that regardless of all that had happened to her, everything she was and everything she had still belonged to God.
 
Despite the corruption and exploitation going on in God’s name there in the temple, somehow God was still going to set things right. So the widow continued to invest in her community, a community of faith, by giving her last two coins for the good of the whole. We could call them her MiteShares.
 
The widow’s strength is demonstrated in the conviction of her faith. She isn’t just dabbling in spare change. She is "sold out" to God, unlike the scribes and others. She trusted that God would honor her giving and her faith.

This is a great Sunday to be challenged to think about how much we’ve invested in our community of faith. Next week is Dedication Sunday where we dedicate our giving pledges for next year. By now you should have received our yearly stewardship letter with details.
 
 Too often, people look at how governments and religious institutions have mismanaged their finances and say to themselves, “I’m going to hold back giving my money.” That has been a trend in the Presbyterian Church USA, as well as other mainline denominations. But are we giving to an organization, or are we giving to God, as the widow did, for the furtherance of God's kingdom?
 
The widow invites us instead to focus on the currency of commitment, trusting that God will take what we give and, despite humanity’s brokenness, use it for God’s glory.

It’s that commitment that turns all our mites together into a mighty witness for God in our church and our communities! Let us pray.


 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
 
 
 
 
 
Sources:
Alexander Jannaeus. For a picture of the Alexander Jannaeus lepton, go to uhl.ac/blog/wp-content/uploads/fig-1.jpg.

Line, Molly. “Communities print own currencies to keep money local.” Fox News Web SiteApril 10, 2009. foxnews.com/printer_friendly_story/0,3566,513877,00.html. Viewed June 1, 2009.

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