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At Home in Lent ~ Holy Tuesday: Purse

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Money talks

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’ Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’ After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

Matthew 27:3–8

Here we have the most famous purse in history. We can assume that the 30 pieces of silver that Judas was paid for betraying Jesus were either given to him in some kind of purse or that he put them into one. He also held the ‘common purse’, which, according to John, provided him with the means to be dishonest with the disciples’ kitty (see John 12:4–6). Other purses we find in the New Testament are those that the disciples are instructed to leave behind when sent on their mission (see Luke 22:35–36).

The coins that Judas was given to put in a purse were shekels from Tyre, which were the only valid currency in the temple in Jerusalem. They were minted between around 126BC and AD57. We come across one of them when Jesus is questioned about the temple tax, and he tells Peter to get one out of a fish’s mouth: ‘Take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me’ (Matthew 17:27). The tax was evidently half a shekel per man. Judas was paid with the same coinage, collected from faithful Jews, and paid out to secure the capture and death of Christ. The coin itself had on one side the head of Melqart, a god of the Phoenician city of Tyre, and on the other an eagle, with the Greek inscription ‘from the holy and inviolable Tyre’. It would have weighed just over 13 grams and was around 24 mm in diameter. It is still possible to see and even purchase examples of these today. Money endures, and the fact that we can buy ancient coins says something about its longevity, even if its value varies.

We have always carried money and, until clothes with pockets were conceived of in the late 16th century, purses were a necessary unisex item. While there are many modern household artefacts that would have astounded the disciples, the purse or wallet has remained largely unchanged. A purse to Judas was pretty much what it is to us today, and vice versa (without the designer labels!).

The first ‘money’ seems to have originated around 2000BC, when in ancient Mesopotamia and then in ancient Egypt it was associated with grain stored in temple granaries. Money was more like a receipt, rather than something to spend, and metal coins were used as tokens to represent the value of goods or commodities invested or banked. The valuable goods themselves did not need to be moved about often, but were represented by coins. However, the value of a circulating coinage could only be as reliable as the storage locations, which themselves might be subject to siege, war or destruction. A coin indicating that one had so many bushels of grain stored was of little value if the grain had been destroyed or stolen! As a result, coins themselves began to gain value in their own right, and it is only more recently that money has returned to the idea that the sum mentioned on a banknote is not actually the money but a promissory reference to it. A cheque carries this idea further.

In our modern, technologically assisted age, there are real philosophical questions to be asked about whether money actually exists and whether the ‘same’ money can be accounted for more than once, such as when banks lend out money they do not really have and so forth. Some financial shenanigans and crises of recent years hinge on the fact that one might not need to have the money in order to spend or lend it.

The spirituality of money is a contentious matter and, if we examine the contents of our purses, we may be inspired to reflect on live issues such as borrowing, lending, debt, poverty, benefit payments, taxation, pensions, investments, interest rates, inflation and charity. All of these issues are to be found lining our purses alongside our coins, notes and plastic cards, even though our individual ability to change the world of money is negligible. So many people are controlled by money, and have little or no control over their finances. With some banks actually charging around 800,000% per annum interest on unarranged overdrafts, and some loan companies up to 5,000% per annum, debt is a huge issue today. I am the chair of a credit union and know that there are many people today for whom a sudden bill of £400 would send them into debt, to add to the vast numbers of people who already are in debt. Money is not so much a possession, or a public good or evil, but it is a language and we know that ‘money talks’.

So what does the money in your purse say to you when you peer inside? Does it make you grateful, sad, glad, greedy or compromised? Does its presence in your purse remind you of those whose purses are empty? Are you poor yourself, struggling to make ends meet? Or does your purse, empty or full, remind you of Judas, maligned over his use of money and ultimately destroyed by it? This week, as we approach the betrayal, arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, we might remember that it was his friend Judas’ purse that betrayed him. Seduced by the promise of wealth and by the power that handing Jesus to the authorities gave him, Judas ‘sold out’ his Lord and soon realised that he could no longer live with himself for having done so.

Money problems lead to many suicides today. Our money is not only the currency of life; it is also the currency of death and despair. We can never know Judas’ motives, but we can sense the soul-destruction those temple coins caused him. So we should have some compassion, even for Judas, and remember that he did repent but could not undo the damage he had done.

Yet his betrayal of Jesus set in motion the wheels of the climactic days of salvation. Judas himself, like the money he held, is ambiguous and complex, being able to both do harm and enable good. When you look into the dark recesses of your purse, pray for light, and remember Judas and the fate of so many after him who have been betrayed and destroyed by money.

Saviour Christ, who understood the conflictedness of Judas and knows the complexities of modern life, spare and save us from the destructive power of money, that our purses may be always open to the needs and sufferings of others. Amen

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield.

Please note this text is copyright © BRF, Oxford, 2018