Luke 15 is one of the most unique chapters in the Gospels in that it consists of three memorable parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. Many commentators locate these three parables within a larger section of Luke that asks the question “who will participate in the reign of God?” (13:10-17:10). The section includes the foundational formation of the disciples – but often via the encounter with the Pharisees in which the assumptions of right relationship with God are put to the question. The Pharisees and others in the Jewish religious leadership assume folks such as tax collectors and sinners are outside the “faithful remnant” that awaits the return of the Messiah. At issue is the question of fellowship in the community of God’s people.
Each encounter in this larger section seems to be an opportunity to form the disciples (and anyone who would listen) in the understanding of the reign of God. So often in this section the characters within the pericopes and parables are those who should attract respect and honor according to the conventional wisdom, yet within the parables are casualties of a reversal of values and misfortunes: “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (13:30). Our gospel for today proclaims:
“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)
What woman who has lost one of her ten drachmas, Greek silver coins, will expend so much energy, turning her house upside down in search of this one coin in ten? Perhaps it was part of her dowry and thus had added sentimental value. In a barter society perhaps it represents that fund for a “rainy day.” There is a part of the question that begs an answer: “no one would,” but where the shepherd lost 1% of the flock, the woman lost 10%. (In the next parable the father will lose 50% of his sons…. perhaps a stretch in thought, but…)
There are some scholars who posit that Luke, as he often does, parallels the shepherd (male) story with another in which the same dynamic is operative through a female protagonist. Other commentators see a subtle difference in that in the first, the sheep wander away on their own, whereas in the second the coin is lost by the carelessness of the owner. In either case the shepherd/woman represents the church and its poor shepherding by not ensuring the Gospel is being proclaimed, the lost being found, and repentance occurring.
When the woman finds the coin, her joy is like the joy in heaven over one repentant sinner. It needs to be shared. It is too great for one person. She and the shepherd invite their friends and neighbors for the thanksgiving party. What about the other nine silver pieces and the ninety-nine sheep — are they not important, too? Surely, but the joy of the kingdom breaks out of the ordinary categories of reason and good business. What was given up as lost has been found. It is like a new life, a resurrection, and must be celebrated