We now turn to the second segment of Jesus' Luke 15 parable. Kenneth Bailey suggests that the “Lost Coin” parable is actually a retelling of the “Lost Sheep” parable with some important nuances.
8 Or what woman having ten silver coins [drachmas], if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
The first and most striking thing about this parable is its main character: a woman! Remember that these parables are directed at the Pharisees and scribes. A speaker in Middle Eastern culture cannot compare a male audience to a woman without giving offense. Jesus does it nonetheless.
Bailey notes that Luke, more so than the other gospels, records a number of doublets or parallels that involve men and women. For example:
- An angel speaks to Zechariah and Mary in Luke 1. (They each also offer a song.)
- Simeon and Anna receive Jesus in the temple in 2:25-38.
- Zarephath and Naaman are given as two examples of healing miracles in 4:24-27.
- City built on a hill (men’s work) and lighting a lamp (women’s work) in 5:14-15.
- Examples of mending a garment (women’s work) and making wine (men’s work) in 5:36-39.
- Divisions in the house will be male and female divisions in 12:52.
- On the day of the Son of Man, there will be two men in bed and two women grinding in 17:34-35.
- One man and one woman offer aid to Jesus on the way to the cross in 23:26-27.
Bailey says Jesus was rare, if not unique, in this regard. Jesus was almost certainly intending to elevate the status of women but there was theological significance as well. The compassionate father running to kiss his prodigal son in next story is something a woman would be expected to do and Jesus ascribes this to God. Male and female traits are reflections of God, yet ascribing sexuality to God, as the pagan fertility cults did, was carefully avoided.
The story indicates that the woman had ten coins called drachmas. A drachma was about one day’s wages. The fact that she had these coins meant she was trusted by her husband. Jesus says she lost one of the coins and if you will remember from the parable of the Lost Sheep, Middle Easterners do not take direct blame for such an act. They might say, ‘the coin is lost” but they would not say, “I lost the coin.” Jesus emphasizes that this women has indeed lost the coin and she gets full credit for having done so.
Bailey suggests that this Jesus tells this parable with the idea of Galilean villages in mind. The homes were made with basalt slabs. The rooms were about seven feet high with six inch slits near the top for windows. The floors were pieced together stones, with numerous cracks where the stones met. In the parable, the woman must light a lamp in the dark room and painstakingly search for the coin.
Her trustworthiness is on the line. She was entrusted with the money and is responsible for it. She knows the coin is in the house. If she looks hard, she knows the coin can indeed be found.
9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.'
The woman finds the coin and invites the neighbors to a celebration. Interestingly, no one would know that she had lost the coin if she did not throw the celebration. She also unabashedly admits that she lost the coin. Having found the coin, she has proven her faithfulness and it is her success she wants to celebrate. (I should note here that this would be all women, just as the lost sheep celebration would be all men.) Furthermore, upon her invitation, who would have been critical of her for having searched out the coin until she found it?
Bailey also points out another important nuance. The coin was of no less value when it was lost than when it was found. This is in contrast to the lost sheep and the prodigal son who may have returned diminished. Does this say something about our value to God?
10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Jesus makes clear in the parables that he is talking about repentance. So what did the coin do to earn restoration? Nothing! The coin was restored because one who valued it searched with great difficulty to find it. So when verse 10 says there will be much joy “over one sinner who repents,” who is the celebration ultimately about? The finder.
Here is Kenneth Bailey’s description of the parallelism with the Lost Coin story in Luke 15:8-10:
INTRODUCTION "Or what woman having ten silver coins,
1. LOST if she loses one of them,
2. FOUND does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
3. REJOICE 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me,
4. FOUND for I have found the coin
5. LOST that I had lost.'
CONCLUSION 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
(NRSV) (Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, 93)
Here are ten theological themes Kenneth Bailey finds in the parable. He notes that the last five move significantly beyond the story of the lost sheep. (Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, 105-107)
- Costly Grace. A good woman pays a high price to find the lost coin.
- Atonement. The above mentioned grace finds the coin. Without this effort, the coin will be lost forever. It will not find itself nor can it cooperate in the process. The search is successful. The theme of the atonement is unmistakably present.
- Sin. Humankind is here linked to a lifeless coin, lost and nearly hidden on the floor of a dark room.
- Joy. Again, the friends and companions (haberoth) rejoice with the woman. The possibility that they might sit in judgment over her saving efforts is absurd. Heaven itself rejoices! How could the haberim [religious “club” the Pharisees belonged to] fail to do so?
- Repentance. The lost coin is inanimate and yet is symbol of repentance. The sheep’s bleating provides some help to the shepherd who seeks his lost one. However, here the total unqualified weight of the rescue operation is on the actions of the woman. Repentance is about being found.
- The undiminished worth of the coin is a unique emphasis in this parable, as noted.
- Christology. The first story presents “Jesus the good shepherd.” Here the text refers to “Jesus the good woman.” The church historically has chosen to recognize and proclaim the first while ignoring the second. The traditional attitude can be seen as disloyal to the teachings of Jesus. The question must be asked: Has not the church sustained a significant loss of potential spirituality as a result?
- Holiness/love as a spring of saving action. If anything, the holiness theme is dominant. The woman acts primarily “for her own sake.”
- The worth of women. The reader of Luke’s gospel has just read where Jesus likens himself to a mother hen (13:34). Here he is a good woman. Prior to Jesus, Ben Sirach wrote, “the birth of a daughter is a loss” (Sir. 22:3b). Relatively soon after the time of Jesus, the rabbis were praying each day thanking God that they had not been created women (Hauptman, 196). In the first parable Jesus boldly says, “You should be like this ‘unclean’ shepherd.” In this parable he affirms, “I am like this woman! I search for the lost. What about you?” In the process, Jesus elevates the worth of all women by his choice of imagery.
- The hope of success in finding the lost. The theme is clearly intensified as noted. The outcome of the shepherd’s search is uncertain, in spite of his determination. The woman’s diligence is assured.