8 “Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? 9 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.’ 10 In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
A different image is used in a second parable to the same effect. 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 a “no one would,” but where the shepherd lost 1% of the flock, the woman has 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 represent the church and it 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. Note her there is no reference to repentance, but only finding the lost.
Clearly these first two parables are fundamentally about God and their aim to reveal the nature of the divine response to the recovery of the lost. A question that then lingers from the context of their telling, is how will the listener respond? Will the listener join the celebration? These first two parables are silent to this implied question, but not so the third parable – the father celebrates, but not so the older son.
Joy in heaven and on earth? A present participle generally denotes action that occurs at the same time as the main verb. The main verb in the first conclusion (v. 7) is estai a future = “There will be”. The main verb in the second conclusion (v. 10) is ginetai a present = “There is”. So, when a sinner repents, at that moment there is joy in heaven. Will there be joy on earth, then seems to be Jesus’ question.
It would seem that the ways to keep joy out of heaven are: (a) be so righteous that repentance is unnecessary, or (b) be a sinner and fail to repent. However, I don’t think that Jesus’ main point is about joy in heaven, but joy on earth. The joy in heaven is a given. It is the corresponding joy on earth that can be nearly impossible to attain. The self-righteous, critical, judgmental attitude of the scribes and Pharisees sought to kill the joy of Jesus’ parties. I guess that when they couldn’t kill the joy of the party, they killed the party-host — which stopped the joy for only a short three days. Then we again see Jesus eating with sinners. The “party” goes on.
Culpepper  includes this Jewish story to illustrate a truth of our text:
“A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God’s goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.”
He concludes: “Only those who can celebrate God’s grace to others can experience that mercy themselves.”
It is this final insight that is perhaps key to the inclusion of these parables in our Year of Mercy Bible Study. Consider this: what is mercy begrudgingly given and half-heartedly received?
Hebrew does not have just one word to define mercy, at least not the Mercy of God. There are three Hebrew roots that are frequently translated “mercy.” The first of these, h̥esed, carries a broad range of meaning. It refers to the kind of love that is mutual and dependable. It both initiates and characterizes the covenant bond between God and the people. This h̥esed always implies action, both on God’s part (Gen 2:12, 14; 2 Sam 22:51) and the part of humans (Josh 2:12, 14; 2 Sam 2:5). It is mutual and it is enduring (Ps 136; Hos 2:20–22; Isa 54:8). The second Hebrew word, rāhamîm is related to the word for “womb” (reh̥em). It designates “womb-love,” the love of mother (and father) for a child –love that is intrinsic, intuitive, ineffable . The word is used to describe God who has mother-love (Isa 49:15; Jer 31:20) or father-love (Ps 103:13; lsa 63:15–16) for Israel. The “womb-love” of God leads to forgiveness for the wayward children. The third important Hebrew word that is translated “mercy” is h̥n/h̥nan with its derivatives. This word means “grace” or “favor.” It is a free gift; no mutuality is implied or expected.
Mercy is this ineffable response from God because of his love for all His children – those who wandered away and those who are lost. Mercy is action on God’s part with no mutuality expected – only hoped for. Mercy approaches completeness when the love that results: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Lk 7:47) – becomes mutual. And perhaps the lesson of these two parables is that Mercy is complete when the whole of the people of God can truly rejoice with the angels in heaven.
Luke 15:4 lost: apóllymi The literal meaning is “to destroy,” “kill,” in battle or prison; – or “to suffer loss or lose”; “to perish”; “to be lost” (cf. Lk. 15). The three parables are told from God’s standpoint and while the meaning used is more passive in our English translation “lost” as in wandered off, in the Greek it can be understood as “lost” in the war between good and evil. Notably, in Matthew’s version (18:12-13) the sheep “went astray.”
Luke 15:6 joy…Rejoice: The words used in these parables are all from the same root word that gives us Eucharist – chaírō (to rejoice), chará (joy), synchaírō (to rejoice with).
Luke 15:8 coins: drachma, a silver coin worth about a day’s wage. light a lamp: assuming her house is typical of the times, there are no windows, hence the need to light a lamp even during the daytime.
- Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 294-305
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 568-86
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985).
Oepke, apóllymi , , Vol. I, pp. 394-97
W. Zimmerli, chaírō (to rejoice), chará (joy), synchaírō (to rejoice with), Vol. IX, 376-87
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/