September 11, 2016
Proper 19, Year C
It’s hard to tell at a glance whether a pile of change has eight coins, or twelve, or ten. It’s not immediately obvious whether one is missing, even if our coins were worth as much as they were in ancient currency. But there are times when finding a single coin is a matter of great urgency, and when a quarter suddenly becomes our most valuable piece of currency. If you need to park in a lot with parking meters. If you desperately need to do laundry in student housing or an apartment complex. If you need a grocery cart at Aldi.
Or, if you were me last weekend, when you’re trying to drive to the Tulsa Aquarium, and you have to stop every ten miles to scrounge for obscure amounts of change: thirty-five cents here, eighty-five cents there, exact change required, tolls strictly enforced, etc. We searched through every pocket, change purse, and cup-holder to come up with each quarter and dime. I even had to sacrifice my precious Aldi grocery cart quarter, which I keep in a secret compartment of the car, protected from loss or spending like it’s made of solid gold.
In today’s gospel, we meet another woman searching desperately for a coin. The full passage in Luke’s gospel also includes a parable about a shepherd searching for his lost sheep, and Luke gives us a narrative frame for the parable: Tax collectors and sinners are coming to eat with Jesus, and some Pharisees and scribes are complaining about it. For Luke, the story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost coin, and the story of the prodigal son which comes right after today’s verses, are all about repentance, forgiveness, and returning to God.
The story of the lost sheep also shows up in Matthew’s gospel, only there the emphasis isn’t so much on repentance and forgiveness, but on the duty of church members to seek out people in their congregations who’ve been overlooked or gone astray. Matthew doesn’t include a parable about a woman with a lost coin or a prodigal son. What he puts next is a process for confronting church members about their sins.
I’m not sure that the story of the woman with the lost coin fits only with either Luke’s or Matthew’s approach to lost sheep, or to lost people. Unlike sheep or people, coins can’t stray or misspend themselves—at least not on their own. Coins can’t be convinced of the error of their ways. Coins can’t repent, or seek reconciliation and forgiveness. Coins can’t return to our pockets, however much we want them back.
So how else might this coin fit into the teachings of Jesus? The woman in the parable could be like God, searching out her beloved children who have gone missing. Or, the woman in the parable could be like us, taking responsibility for finding the members of our communities that we perceive as “lost”. But there’s another way that this parable fits into the teachings of Jesus: This parable is about letting something we value slip through our fingers, and then searching for it with the tools we have—a lamp, a broom—and then finding it and apparently spending it on our friends and neighbors.
It’s relatively easy to lose track of one coin in ten, even though this particular coin was probably worth a more substantial amount than today’s quarters or silver dollars. Amounts of money in all sizes have a way of slipping away, especially if they’re a fraction of the total. So too our values, especially when we have a full complement of priorities to keep track of. Before long, when we’re not paying attention, we lose our grip on something we thought was deeply important to us: a habit of prayer, a precious relationship, a dream or a calling.
When we realize we’ve lost something of value, we need resources to find it. We need a lamp to fill our room with light, so we can see the big picture. We need a broom to sweep away all the filth and clutter that has hidden the shine of silver. We need to search with care, perhaps on our hands and on our knees, in order to find what we’ve lost. Like the merchant who finds the pearl of great price after wheeling and dealing (Mt 13:45-46), or the person who just happens upon a treasure hidden in a field (Mt 13:44), the woman who finds her lost coin suddenly values it more than the others in her possession.
Notably, she doesn’t seem to show how much she values it by polishing it up, depositing it in a safe, or displaying it alongside other specimens in her coin collection. Instead, she calls together her friends and neighbors and throws them a party. Perhaps after losing this coin, she realized its real worth, and she decided to spend it (or even a larger amount) on making this world a little more like the kingdom of heaven—filled with rejoicing. How often does Jesus encourage us to use our coins to care for our neighbors like the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:35-36), to host parties for those who can’t repay us (Lk 14:13-14), to deposit our treasures in heaven where they can’t be lost or stolen (Lk 12:33), and to make friends for ourselves “by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone” we may find ourselves welcomed into eternal homes—as we’ll hear in next week’s gospel (Lk 16:9).
What things of value have we lost? Have we noticed that they’re missing? By what light will we find them? What will we have to sweep away in order to seem them? And when we find them, how can we use them to inherit the kingdom of God? God is with us in the searching for what we’ve lost, rejoicing over us and with us when we find it. And God is always leading us to find what we lose all too easily: A sense of our worth in God’s eyes.