What Is The Weight of Wealth?, by Amy Barnes

Painting by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum.

Painting by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum.

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

 Luke 21:1-4 (NKJV)

There is a sense of tactility to coins. People collect them to assign values higher than the face amount while putting them in collector sleeves and weighing the metal content. As a child, I remember that distinct clank of my saved coins hitting metal and wood offering plates or the satisfying drop of a coin into a metal bank. Coins held coolness in summer when I rushed to meet the ice cream truck. Having a handful of coins in my pocket felt weighty to that same childhood self. We say money is burning a hole in our pocket. I don’t remember ever ignoring a penny on a sidewalk, partly because it was lucky, but more because I knew I had a place for that discarded or lost coin. I knew the scriptures about coins: the widow’s mite, the tribute coin, Judas’ bag of silver betrayal coins.

At my own wedding, I felt the cold tradition of a sixpence in my white satin shoes. That single coin was meant to bless my wedding as a similar coin has for centuries of brides. As a married adult, I don’t often drop coins into the offering plate; now it is a check or online pledge without that same sensory feel of carefully saved coins. I have spent my adult life making those offerings with little physical connection to the money, just writing and folding paper checks. There is even a trend that speaks of people going on financial diets where they don’t spend money as if we could physically eat money.

All of that changed when my church designated one Sunday a month as a “widow’s mite” offering day. Beyond normal offerings, the widow’s mite benevolence offering was specifically a coin offering by intinction. Everyone in the church was invited to come and bring their mite offering of coins to the front of the church and lay them down. The money from the offering specifically helps related ministries. The first time, I dug in my purse to find coins to bring forward. From kids to adults, the church goes forward as a body to bring their widow’s mite offerings.

I always have imagined the widow quietly putting in her coins, laying them down, not noticed by anyone else. One coin. And then the second one. Did she look at her expenses at the end of the month and find those two coins left? Did she hold them in her hands and feel that cool metal? While her coins were of another century and country, I felt a childhood connection to her offerings. My adult self found that same connection with the widow’s mite offering.

I started looking at pennies and nickels on the sidewalk more closely again. I broke twenty-dollar bills and asked for change in coins with a new purpose. Somehow, I still had a disconnect with the actual feel of coins. I hated the feel of a weighty pocket full of coins. I instinctively tossed change into the bottom of my purse. I reveled in using online money. I appreciated the lightness of dollar bills and fives and twenties. I found the lack of physical connection with money had slowly separated me from that childhood sense of giving all, of hearing those precious coins hit the offering plate. In a new quest for a closer feel of stewardship, I started looking more closely at other ways to experience the feel of the widow’s mite.

My search brought me to John Wesley and his words on how money could move beyond the direct sensory contact. The word transmuted jumped out at me. The very coins that I viewed as heavy or burdensome could be the widow’s mite or I could use money to help others, transforming it from mere currency to something much more.

 As base a thing as money often is, yet it can be transmuted into everlasting treasure. It can be converted into food for the hungry and clothing for the poor. It can keep a missionary actively winning lost men to the light of the gospel and thus transmute itself into heavenly values. Any temporal possession can be turned into everlasting wealth. Whatever is given to Christ is immediately touched with immortality.
— John Wesley

The Wesley quote echoes many biblical scriptures about helping widows and orphans. I decided to try and explore this other side of money. Wesley had no experience with PayPal, checks, or credit cards. He spoke from his own experiences with real coins, real money—not the imaginary money that I have grown accustomed to spending. While I am not as used to carrying cash and coins around with me, the quote from Wesley gave me new inspiration.

Illustration by Gustave Doré

Illustration by Gustave Doré

Full disclosure: I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. When we moved here, we bought a house at our realtor’s suggestion for good schools. While the schools are great and houses are comfortable, I wondered if that added to my complacency. Had I gotten so far from the feel of money? I read a news article that said pennies cost more to make than they were worth. The humble penny has even lost its monetary valuation. With the widow’s mite story and the Wesley quote tucked in my heart, I set out to find ways to transmute my money, a kind of modern Midas.

My local school has few students that qualify for free lunch; cross the county line and schools need to provide free lunch to nearly 100% of students. My children’s elementary school partnered with a nearby school to do a week-long clothing drive culminating with a distribution day at a very low-income school. The first time I went to the clothing drive with my son, we sorted the piles of donated clothes. I wasn’t feeling coins, I was feeling hand-me-downs: new khakis and collared shirts, warm coats and shoes that once belonged to someone else. I thought of the stories my mother told about clothes from the church rummage box. I thought of Dolly Parton’s song about her “coat of many colors”.

He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing.
– Deuteronomy 10:17-18

This Old Testament quote runs in tandem with the Luke widow’s mite story and is echoed in the Wesley quote as another way to give. And yet, within those donations, we came across cast-offs that were obviously just an attempt at cleaning out closets. Shoes with worn-out soles. Stained clothing. Torn shirts. As we sorted, a pile of things that had been donated but were not usable grew. Surely that wasn’t the point of the process. I felt anger growing as I thought of the middle class families donating things that were not their best. All of my best intentions at connecting with the magic of changing money into something else started to dissipate. And then children began arriving. Children with holy shoes. Children with a light-weight sweater and no coat. Children that were scrubbed clean but dressed in well-worn uniforms.

My son and I walked dozens of eager kids through to the tables of donated clothes and shoes. Most carefully shopped for themselves as instructed, but then tried to take us over to a table of items several sizes too big or two small. Some even tried to give up their own items for choices that obviously didn’t fit them. I asked the teachers what was going on and they responded the kids were shopping for siblings or even parents. They also reassured us the community would come shop whatever was left at the end of the day. I stood there with tears in my eyes as I saw these children eclipsing any giving I had done with the simplest, yet most complete acts of giving. Most had only the clothes on their backs but were intent on giving their opportunity to someone else.

Our family had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica over a summer to volunteer at a church-run group home for kids. In Costa Rica, the government shut down their military to provide education for kids and yet school still only runs half of a day. The mission takes in kids the other half of the day so parents can work. Every child wears a uniform, each one freshly cleaned and pressed. They took pride in those uniforms and education even in the midst of abject poverty, many of them walking miles from neighborhoods perched on an actual trash dump.

Once I returned home, I had a new resolve to appreciate more and less at the same time. I found myself picking pennies off of the ground. I began looking to find new ways to turn money into that elusive transmutation Wesley spoke of and the scriptures encourage. Soon, the next church-wide widow’s mite offering loomed. I felt unworthy and inspired all at once with my rediscovered identification with money. I thought ahead and collected coins with a new fervor. My kids each had their own handful of coins to take forward for the Widow’s Mite offering. We talked about what that meant. And while Wesley may have only had metal and paper money, I looked at donating in a modern way as well through online channels.

The saying goes, “see a penny, pick it up.” What is actually the measure of wealth? The weight of a pocketful of coins? Enough quarters to buy from the ice cream truck? Money in the bank that keeps kids fed and clothed? My perspective as an adult varies from my childhood experience. I have decided that is the wrong approach. I “need” to feel the weight of those pennies in my pocket. I need to touch dollar bills moving through my hands. I need to be the widow at the alter bringing my own version of the mite. If it comes as bags of clothes or a virtual bag of money, the intention needs to be the same as if the coins were weighing down my pocket. I need to have that proverbial faith of a child that feels coins in their fullest form.

I returned once again to the widow giving her last two coins, silently only drawing the attention of Jesus and I find myself with a new assignment. A charge to donate, to give and to leave my own version of the mite without pretense or recognition. What is the weight of wealth? Is it the weight of the money itself or is it the weight of responsibility of having that money? I think it is that life-changing combination of both. We need to weigh money for its monetary value but also for the value that can be created. The very weight of having enough money and no fear of not having enough can even become overwhelming to me. In a time when money is transmitted online or on plastic credit cards, we perhaps need to find that childhood connection with the physical aspect of money, the touch of a metal coin in our hand. When I feel my own widow’s mite offering coin offerings in my hands, I time travel for a moment to see her standing in front of me. She lays her two coins on the altar and smiles. I find myself in that same moment as the widow and the rich woman all at once; leaving my own two coins with the coins of others. With the coins of the widow. ♦