Thirty pieces of silver

In journalism, there is an expression called “follow the money”, which some journalists use to identify corruption, simply by looking at the money trail or transfers of money, and who stands to gain.

Mar 28, 2021

In journalism, there is an expression called “follow the money”, which some journalists use to identify corruption, simply by looking at the money trail or transfers of money, and who stands to gain.

Think of how the Sarawak Report looked at the complicated money trails to expose the massive loss in 1MDB.

In a broader sense, we can identify the real story by looking at the underlying motivations of the main characters or entities in the plot and what they stand to gain financially.

If we apply that expression – follow the money – to the events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus, some fascinating insights might surface.

For a start, the question of money figured prominently in the ministry of Jesus, especially in the last week of his life.

Think of the many instances the issue of money surfaced in the parables of Jesus. His followers had to choose between God and money. The kingdom of God was likened to a precious coin – the real deal. The disciples were told to return the Roman coins back to Caesar. The rich young man was told to sell all he owned and give the proceeds to the poor.

This turned on its head the notions of the economy, wealth and money in the minds of the people.

Now, Judas was already unhappy with the expensive ointment spent on the anointing of Jesus – money, he said, could have been spent on the poor, though we are told that he was not above dipping into the kitty for his own use. Abuse of power (corruption) had infiltrated the ranks of Jesus’ followers.

Meanwhile, the Temple was functioning like a large bank, extracting enormous amounts of wealth from the peasants of the countryside.

Jesus observed the widow dropping a  small coin into the Temple treasury while the chief priests were living in comfort from the huge amounts collected, even from widows and the poor.

When Jesus angrily toppled the money changers’ tables, he disrupted the economic function of the Temple at its source.

The next thing you know, the Temple leaders bribed Judas with 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus.

Now, how much were those 30 silver coins worth? These silver coins could have been Tyrian shekels, or other silver coins from the region, or Roman denarii.

Let’s assume these were the shekels of Tyre, for that was the acceptable Temple currency. These coins, which weighed about 14 grams, had 94 per cent silver content, whereas the Roman coins had only 80 per cent silver.

Using the current price of silver of about RM3.40/gram, the 30 coins would be worth less than RM1,500 – a ridiculous low price to turn in a wanted man.

Even if they were not Temple shekels, the silver content of the most valuable silver coins in circulation would have been just over 16 grams. So 30 coins would have been less than RM1,700.

That was the insulting price the Temple leaders placed on the betrayal of Jesus, though of course we have to look at purchasing power or daily wages at the time to get a clearer picture.

Of course, Judas may have had other  motivations for shifting his allegiance from Jesus. We don’t know what he was thinking.

But think of the way elected representatives betray the voters’ mandate or sell out their vision. Sometimes the bait could be extra constituency development funds or promises of positions of power and wealth. Or they may be told that they would not be persecuted if they toe the line. Or perhaps a bit of both – carrot and stick.

In modern times, the term “30 pieces of silver” refers to the selling out of principles and ideals in exchange for worldly gains.

In Judas’ case, it was the selling out of Jesus’ vision of a new kingdom in exchange for money – corrupt money.

Corruption, in this case, involved the selling out of God’s vision of a just and inclusive society for personal gain. And at what price – 30 pieces of silver, which we are told in Exodus 21:32 is the price of a slave. In Genesis, Joseph is sold for a measly 20 pieces of silver.

In Zechariah 11:12–13, Zechariah receives 30 pieces of silver for his labour from the sheep-dealers. God was so upset with this that he told Zechariah:

“Throw it to the smelter, this princely sum at which they have valued me!” “Taking the thirty shekels of silver, I threw them into the Temple of Yahweh, for the smelter.”

The sheep dealers here symbolised the leaders of the Temple of Jesus’ time who  were involved in overseeing the sale of lambs for sacrifice – and reaping handsome profits.

These leaders totally failed to see the value of Jesus’ vision of the kingdom - and valued it at 30 pieces of silver!

How often have we been betrayed by those in positions of authority and power for their own personal gain? The very people entrusted to look after our interests. Often, they dip their hands into public coffers and rob society blind.

How easily allegiances can be bought and sold. Alas, it was too late when Judas realised what he had done and flung the silver coins back at the Temple priests.

The irony was that Jesus was hauled up before worldly leaders who had gained a lot from the system.

Think of the high priests and the religious leaders who were using the temple to extract wealth from the peasants and living lavish, comfortable lives while the peasants toiled.

Think of Pilate, who was ultimately responsible to the Roman emperor for the financial resources of the district, and his dreams of moving up in the ranks of the empire. In return, he had to ensure that the emperor received handsome returns from this troublesome region of Judea.

Think of Herod Antipas, that “fox”, that lover of luxury, who was imposing heavy taxes in Galilee.  

All these men had something in common: power, wealth and lavish lifestyles, often at the expense of the ordinary person.

And here was Jesus, who was heralding a different kind of kingdom where the poor and the downtrodden would occupy the main places at the banquet.

The men presiding over Jesus could not understand this Messiah, who was not motivated by worldly power and wealth.

What motivates us in our lives today?

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