There is another parable similar to the last one that I am constantly reminded of in the context in which I live here in Philippi. It is about a woman who doesn't give up until she finds the coin she has lost. Although this parable is short, it teaches us many things about our sisters who live in poverty and their struggle for survival. Each time I hear it, I put myself in this woman's place. I feel her anguish as she seeks for the lost coin and then her joy when she finds it. Finally, I am deeply aware of the love of God for us as Jesus compares God to this woman.
Jesus told this parable after he'd told another one with a similar message about a shepherd who cares for 100 sheep and loses one. He searches for the one until he finds it and then rejoices. Jesus told these two parables in response to the Scribes and Pharisees who criticized him for spending time among and eating with publicans and sinners.
The publicans, or tax collectors of public funds, are Jews of little influence who answer to an administrator responsible for collecting taxes.9 They are scorned because they collect taxes for the Roman Empire. It is commonly suspected and not unusual for them to charge more than they should and keep the difference. After all, they don't earn much, so they make their money by stealing. They are discriminated against in Jewish society because of their "impure" job, and are considered sinners. And yet Jesus did not discriminate against them and so they listened to him. I am familiar with the story of a tax collector who lived in Jericho named Zacchaeus at whose house Jesus stayed. He was converted and gave back more money and possessions to the poor and defrauded than he had stolen (Lk. 19:2-10).
Publicans and sinners are people who lived with the stigma of inferiority. It is a terrible feeling. I know about this because I am a freedwoman, and although I bought my freedom many years ago, I am still not free of the stigma of having been a slave.10
Some of the Scribes and Pharisees, who considered themselves to be very holy, criticized Jesus saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Lk. 15:2). And so Jesus told them two parables, one about the lost sheep and one about the lost coin. I'm sure you have heard the parable of the lost sheep more often because it is referred to more than the parable of the lost coin. But I want to tell you about the lost coin. Few people pay attention to the woman in this parable. When they do, they focus only on the love of God for sinners. But I like to introduce myself into the world of women and notice all the details, because in their examples I find good teachings.11
The parable begins, "What woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?" The story doesn't tell us how she lost the coin, but that isn't important. The emphasis is on the fact that she searched and searched until she found it.
The woman in the parable; is extremely poor, even miserably so.l2 Ten drachmas is very little money. We have heard that one time Herod gave the soldiers of his army 150 drachmas and the officers received much more than that.13 If we compare what the woman had with the reward those soldiers received we realize that it was very little. A drachma is the equivalent of a denarius of silver. A denarius is a day's salary for a peasant who works for someone else (Mt. 20:1-16). With the cost of living in Palestine and here in Philippi,14 10 drachmas would barely be enough to survive a few weeks. That is why she searches so avidly for the lost coin: it is precious to her.
The parable goes into great detail to explain what the woman does to find her lost drachma. First she lights her lamp. That meant that her house was dark, perhaps because it was only one room without windows.15 She would need light to search for what she had lost, since it was a small object. Afterwards, the parable tells us, she swept the house. With a palm broom she could search everywhere and get into all the comers. If the floor was rocky, as in some houses of the poor, she would hear the sound it made and find it that way.16 And finally, the parable tells us that she searched diligently and didn't stop until she found it.
Some think that the drachma the woman lost was the adornment of coins that women wore. This would have been her dowry, and thus very important for her. Women didn't remove it even when they slept. If the parable refers to this, it would indeed be a very poor adornment.17 But I don't think that is what she was looking for.
I see this woman as typical of many who are forced to work here in Palestine and all over the world. Life is hard for men who are poor, but even more so for women. The tale that women are taken care of by their husbands is a patriarchal myth.18 For example, to survive a person needs 200 denarii a year. A working father with a wife and six children would need additional income. This means that women are forced to work and give the money to their husbands. The economic contribution of the woman is necessary for the survival of the family. And if they are widows with children it is even more necessary for them to work day and night. Even worse, women receive much lower salaries than men. A woman earns half of what a man earns in a day so she needs to work twice as long and twice as hard to earn the same amount. Many children work from the time they are six years old, which is another great injustice.19
I am more fortunate; I don't live in conditions of such extreme need. Selling purple cloth helps me to support myself and my household. Of course, I work very hard, twice as hard as men do. What I find so appealing about the movement of Jesus is that there is respect for all persons and, even more, there is special consideration given to the marginalized. In many of the stories of the movement of Jesus and women, we see his solidarity with them. To me, Lydia, a person with a somewhat stable economic condition,20 it is an invitation to be in solidarity with all women. Please forgive my wandering away from the story, but I think these clarifications are necessary for us to better understand the parable.
The poor woman in the parable sought the coin anxiously because it represented a part of her life. She was not a rich woman and so is not able to buy the other purple cloth, the kind I don't sell, colored with the purple dye that comes from a sea creature. That cloth is a luxury for the women in Caesar's house who have money to throw around. For them a drachma is almost insignificant. But the lost sheep and the lost coin are very valuable for those who have lost them, and thus why the parables emphasize the care and concern with which they search for them.21
Perhaps for many this trivial event has little meaning, but for women of little means, to be able to ensure life through one coin is a reason for joy. The happiness of the woman overflowed after all her work in search of that which was lost, and needed, and with such good results. How sad it would have been had she not found the drachma! Her joy overflowed to the point that she felt an immense need to share it with her neighbors, who probably lived in similar conditions as she. They would have understood her situation perfectly and rejoiced with her. And so we witness a shared joy, a joy of solidarity. Even though I am in a better situation because I am a merchant, I find this parable beautiful because it invites me to be in solidarity with poor women.
After telling the parable, Jesus shared a beautiful application of it. He compared the woman's joy-- and the joy of the shepherd who found his lost sheep-- to the joy God shares with all the angels when one of the "lost," called a sinner (people like the publicans and the marginalized) responds to the life-changing message of good news of Jesus and his movement. With this parable Jesus challenged the Scribes and Pharisees to see the publicans and sinners as God sees them-- in a different light,22 as persons of worth. As an unbeliever converted to Christianity and a freedwoman, I give thanks to God for God's solidarity with the poor and with those who are stigmatized by our patriarchal society!
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The graphics have been adapted from resources of the VRoma Project. See especially its page of photographs of Roman and Greek coins.
Top left: Denarius of Augustus, dating from about 2 BCE, mounted in a gold pendant; coin shows Augustus wearing laurel wreath and emphasizes his status as son of the deified Julius Caesar. Credit: Barbara McManus, 2001, London, British Museum.
Bottom: Coins of Titus celebrating capture of Judea c. 70 C.E. Credit: Paula Chabot, 1999
*"I" refers to "Lydia", who speaks first-hand about her experiences as a follower of Jesus in study book Jesus and Courageous Women. "Lydia" is a fictionalized version of the seller of purple cloth mentioned in Acts 16:14-15: "A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.' And she prevailed upon us."
9 X. Léon-Dufour, Diccionario del Nuevo Testamento (Madrid: Cristiandad, 1977), p. 24.
10 See Irene Foulkes, Problemas pastorales en Corinto (San José: DEI/SBL,1996), p.48.
11 The best analysis of this parable that I am aware of is Luise Schottroff's in which she analyzes the economic situation of this poor woman and her struggle for survival. My rereading of this parable is based on her research. Lydia's Impatient Sisters, pp. 91-100.
12 The parable of the lost sheep can also be the parable of a salaried shepherd who earns a denarius or drachma a day and searches desperately for the lost sheep because it isn't his. Ibid.,p. 91.
13 J. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, p. 1081.
14 The price of bread was very high, more than the grain. Those who were poor and without land had to purchase almost everything they needed. Schottroff, Lydia's Impatient Sisters, p. 96.
15 Joachim Jeremiás, Las parábolas de Jesus (Estella: Verbo Divino, 1970), p. 166.
18 Schottroff, Lydia's Impatient Sisters, p. 95.
19 Ibid., pp. 93-95.
21 Sharon H. Ringe, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 205.
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