04 November 2010

Which of You Would Not? The Parable of the Woman and the Lost Coin


Today's Gospel is one of those which causes ambivalence for me on several levels. In Luke 15:1-10 Jesus is faced by Pharisees who grumble because Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors. They have a point. How, they ask, are we to maintain the purity or integrity of the People of God if we allow the unclean or active sinners to join in our table fellowship? The Pharisees have their eyes on one version of "the big picture" and their approach to reality is a defensive one. Preserve the larger reality even if it means that individuals are treated as expendable or less precious. This is classic pragmatism, the greatest good for the greatest number!

Luke's own community is facing some of the same issues. Persecutions have led to defections and the nascent Church needs to determine how they will treat these people who, after all, are members of their own families and friends. How will Luke's communities be Church in such a situation? How should they feel about and act towards those who have betrayed them and Christ? In some ways we tend to face the same questions even today. Consider Eucharist. We wish to prevent defilement of the Eucharist and have it witness to unity, both completely appropriate concerns, and so, we do not allow certain people to receive the Sacrament even if they desire it, even if they wish to participate as fully as possible in our table fellowship. If Paul's language from the first reading was applied here, this whole approach to reality, this way of seeing the "big picture" would be called "the flesh". In monastic life it is called "worldly." In everyday parlance we call it "common sense" or being practical or reasonable.

Answering Jesus' Question: The Old Big Picture

It is into this situation that Jesus tells several parables about the lost. Each is effectively prefaced or bracketed by the rhetorical question "Which of you would not?" We know what the answer SHOULD be, the answer Jesus believes is natural, the answer which makes Jesus' question rhetorical. This answer commits us to extravagant and even apparently imprudent actions on behalf of the lost. But how often do we really answer the question honestly (if of course we pause to truly answer it at all)? Consider the situation: if Jesus said, There are 100 sheep in the desert, all in danger of wandering off, dying of thirst, starving or being set upon by predators without their shepherd. One wanders away. Which of you would NOT go after it for as long as it takes and at whatever cost?" How many of us would enthusiastically wave our hands in affirmation that indeed we would act just that way? I suspect if we were to lose such a sheep we would be more inclined to write it off as expendable, part of the acceptable risk of doing business in a dangerous world, a sad but sustainable loss.

And if Jesus were to say to us, "A woman lost one of ten similar and ordinary coins. She was frantic to find it it was so precious to her. She swept the whole house, lit all the lights, turned over the furniture, and when she found it she threw a huge party for family and friends. Which of you would not do similarly?" How many of us could really say we would naturally feel or act as she did? Granted, we might look as hard as we could for a while, but throwing a huge and expensive party when it is found? How likely would THAT be? How foolish would THAT look? So, when Jesus says, "which of you would not?" it is more likely most of us would have to raise our hands to say, "Not me!" than would nod in happy agreement with him. Most of the time we live in a world of different values than this, the world of common sense, expendable goods, and sustainable loss. Our hearts and minds are not really geared in the same way Jesus' are. We don't see or evaluate things in quite the same way usually. Again, as Paul puts it, ours is ordinarily the perspective of the flesh not of the spirit.

So Jesus, consummate psychologist that he is, tells us these parables to disorient us and shake us loose enough from our usual way of seeing, thinking and feeling to allow us to choose another way. He seeks to inspire a change in our minds and hearts, to convince us that this is the way GOD approaches the smallest bit of reality, and certainly, he seeks to help us feel the urgency and pathos the loss of a single person to sin is to God. He wants us to know a God who searches for us with great urgency because we are never expendable to him, never a "sustainable loss." But something is missing for contemporary readers in these parables because they really do not compel in the the way they compelled Jesus' hearers. (Here is another source of my ambivalence.) And I think the parable of the woman with the lost coin is the key to renewed hearing.

The Significance of the Lost Coin

Most commentators focus on the fact that the coin might have been a drachma or a denarius. In either case it would have equaled a day's wages or a bit more. Thus, its worth is established: large but not inestimable. But there is another way of reading this parable -- far more challenging and also more inspiring. Consider that when a woman was married she was ordinarily given a gift of a headdress into which was woven or sewn 10 coins. The headdress with the coins (usually a gift of her father) was to be worn in public at all times and was a symbol of the woman's faithfulness to her husband and marriage, to her people, and to the covenant and God Himself. Should a coin be lost, her husband had the right to conclude she had been unfaithful. Should she actually be unfaithful, her husband could remove a coin and send her out to public shame and disgrace. What was at stake here was not simply a day's wages, but the honor of Israel, the integrity of the covenant, and of course, the woman's very life itself! Consider her search for the coin then in this light! Can we feel the pathos? Are we convinced of the value of what has been lost? Does the urgency of what is at risk clutch at our stomachs and our hearts? Do we feel a compassion and desire to help her in her search, or, if the coin is found, to rejoice with her and help her throw a party the likes of which the neighborhood has not seen? If so, Jesus' parable has done the larger part of its job.

Moved to a New Answer? The New Big Picture

If so, we know a little of what God feels and wishes us to feel in regard to the meanest sinner. Not least, we know a fraction of what God feels in our own regard and for nothing we have done, created, achieved, etc. Simply because he is God and we are his own. If so, we have, at least briefly, felt and seen as the Spirit inspires us to see and feel. The worldly calculus of expendable goods and sustainable losses has been short circuited for the moment and we have adopted the world view of Christ. This single sinner, this meanest person is not just a coin, an expendable fraction of the whole, any longer. S/he is a symbol of God's completely gratuitous love and sovereignty, his unceasing faithfulness and stewardship, his very nature as God --- and s/he is a symbol of our share in all of that and how well we assume these things in our own lives.

Discipleship is about allowing God to BE God in time and space. It is about mediating God's own presence into those places of sin and death human beings choose to take into themselves where God cannot go by simple fiat. It is about making God present where he wills to be present. It is about protecting HIS INTEGRITY as it is experienced by others because he has entrusted a part in that to us. As Paul tells us in the first lection, we ARE the Circumcision; we ARE the covenant. What affects us affects God and vice versa. This means accepting a very different BIG picture than that of the Pharisees, or than which tempted Luke's community. It means accepting the non-commonsense view that we preserve the church, the very Body of Christ, by seeking out and treating as infinitely precious and God's own each individual life, not by focusing on the 99 who are relatively safe. So, let us consider how well God loves us; consider the woman with the lost coin and the urgency of her quest. Consider our own approach to table fellowship (i.e., to life) with the lost. How now do we answer Jesus' question, "Which of you would not. . .?"