Looking at the words without pre-conceptions
In this parable, there is an unnamed woman who loses one silver coin out of a collection of ten and then conducts a painstaking search with the aid of her lamp in order to find it. When she does, she delightedly tells her friends and neighbours about it. Jesus then draws a comparison between her joy and that of the angels in heaven when a sinner repents.
If I lost a genuinely silver coin in my house, I would definitely look for it. Perhaps not as thoroughly straight away. Maybe this coin will pay the woman's rent or is the means to buy food or medicine for the family. As she starts with ten silver coins, this might represent her savings or emergency fund. She lights a lamp; of course, there would be no electricity in the time of Jesus. Maybe it's after sunset or before sunrise, or she lives in a basic dwelling with little natural light. Then she sweeps the house, presumably with some kind of mop or broom. She hasn't got a servant or slaves to help her find her coin, not even family members. She appears to be alone in her home. Is she single, married, or widowed? We don't know. Nor do we know her age or name. And yet, she is easy to picture in her home, searching for her silver coin.
A modern woman might well search for a pound coin or a gold sovereign; or something with intrinsic value like an earring. However, making a big deal out of the retrieval of the artefact is somewhat alien to us. If something valuable had been lost and found, our friends would be pleased for us and that would probably be all. Yet, Jesus tells us that angels rejoice in a similar manner to the woman and her friends whenever sinners repent.
Putting the parable in context
In the previous and following parables, God is pictured as a shepherd finding his lost sheep and the faithful father who runs out to greet us when we return home to him. So extending the analogy logically, God is also a woman looking for something precious, which is each of us. So, does God – as it were – light a lamp and carefully sweep the floor to find us? And why not? There appears to be no problem accepting God as shepherd or welcoming father! Of course, God is ultimately beyond our ideas of male or female.
On the other hand, maybe we are the seekers looking for something precious, like the merchant who sold everything he had to buy the pearl of great price. The shepherd seeking the lost, the father welcoming home the wanderer, the woman looking for her precious coin. In that case, what are we seeking? God himself, or those who do not yet know his love? Both possibilities seem to fit. So, perhaps God plays hide and seek with us! There's a French song about God and us called 'Mystere Beni' in which the lyrics say as much; 'Blessed Mystery, you hide yourself well. At hide and seek you play with us' [Mystere Beni, tu ta bien cacher; a cache cacher, to nous fais jouer].
This parable is a member of a trilogy that Jesus tells after the religious leaders accuse him of welcoming and eating with "sinners." In light of the Pharisees' challenge, Jesus sets out to prove His actions as right in the sight of God. In order to do this, He needs to compare His actions with God's, and contrast God's system of values with that of the Pharisees.
This passage records a parable of Jesus featuring an unnamed woman searching for a lost coin. This parable appears only in Luke and is in the middle of several which are all about lost things or people. Lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. Evidently Luke had a different source for this story; maybe Jesus' mother or a female disciple who remembered it particularly?
Seeking things that are lost [especially people] seems to be very important to Jesus. He's also showing that, according to him, God's love is persistent, extravagant and determined to find all the lost. It's the pattern of redemption. Jesus wanted the religious leaders to understand how he felt about those who were lost. When we are lost sinners, we are not just “out there” somewhere away from God. He longed for us so much that he took the ultimate action. He gave us Jesus to cleanse the sinner from sin and restore us to himself. He undertakes the ultimate personal expense to bring us back to himself and God.
According to the Greek, the woman is 'goonay' which can indeed mean a woman or a wife. She 'holds' the ten pieces [possibly not literally!]. The silver coin is a drachma. A Greek drachma = Roman denarius = 2 days' wages for female labourer. Maybe the woman has earned this money? The word for loss [apollumi] can be translated 'destroy', 'die', 'perish'. To light is also 'to set on fire' and the candle is 'lookhnos', a portable lamp [probably an oil lamp]. When the woman finds the coin, the word 'hyoorrisko' can mean 'obtain', 'perceive' and 'see'. She calls together or convokes her friends 'sugkaleo' and relates 'lego' her story. When Jesus uses 'I say' later, he uses the same verb. The joy 'kharah' of the angels includes delight and cheerfulness. And they share their joy in the presence/sight of God when the sinner thinks differently 'metanoeho'.
Ten is a significant Bible number; reflecting the commandments, the clauses in the Lord's Prayer, the Old and New Testament tithes, redemption money [Exodus 30:12-16; Numbers 3:47 ], the plagues of Egypt, the ten kingdoms owned by the Antichrist, the ten righteous virgins and a number of other significant 'tens'.
The woman seems to live in a small and mean house which appears to have been dark and maybe without useful windows. The ten silver coins might represent the woman's dowry. But for a peasant woman, that lost coin was very valuable. Jewish homes then often didn't have many windows. So to search diligently, the woman needs to light a lamp.
John B Green notes that the woman described is a poor peasant, and the ten silver coins, corresponding to ten days wages, "likely represent the family savings." The coins may also have been the woman's dowry, worn as an ornament. Both theories may be true, and either one explains the urgency of the woman's search, and the extent of her joy when the missing coin is found.
Green suggests that the invitation to the "friends and neighbours" may reflect a celebratory meal, which recalls the meals Jesus is accused of sharing with "sinners." The woman's diligent activity in searching may symbolise either Jesus' own activity or that of God the Father. The rejoicing of the angels is understood to be rejoicing along with God.
These coins were apparently often worn with five pieces on each side of the head, fastened with little hooks. So losing one piece is plausible. The homes at that time usually had floors of either dirt or stones and a small piece of silver having fallen would be difficult to find.
Quotes from early Christian writers
The Parable suggests that a candle should be lit, signifying reason which throws light on hidden principles; then...within oneself, we should search for that lost coin; and by that coin the Parable hints at the image of our King...but hidden beneath the dirt; and by this we must understand the impurities of the flesh, which, being swept and purged away...the object of our search. Then the soul herself who finds this rejoices over ...the image of the mighty King revealed in all its brightness at last...[Gregory of Nyssa]
Similarly, the parable of the drachma....we equally interpret with reference to a heathen; albeit had been "lost" in a house, as it were in the church; "found" by aid of a "lamp," …by aid of God's word. ...this world is the one house of all; in which the heathen, who is found in darkness...[Tertullian]
This is a parable about women which immediately follows, and makes the same point as, a preceding parable about men. In the Greek, the "friends and neighbours" are female. At least one commentator has suggested that the woman is a representation of the Holy Spirit. The reasoning for this is that the shepherd is the Son, the father of the prodigal son represents our Heavenly Father, so a feminine Holy Spirit completes the Trinity.
The parable of the lost coin can also indicate the mission of the Son. Jesus came to be the Light of the World. Jesus provides the light for sinners to be found of God, just as the woman needed light to search carefully for her lost coin.
What might it mean for us?
We are certainly aware of the phenomenon of looking for coins which have fallen on the floor; especially if money is tight. Most of us have done that at one time or another. We might even switch on the light or use a torch to see more clearly or use a brush, especially if our coin had fallen somewhere dirty or dusty. However, once the lost coin is found, having a party or celebration with friends would probably be seen as extravagant and alien to most of us.
Christians are familiar with the seeking and rescuing done for us by God. Jesus' way back for us is the splendid, marvellous, most glorious act in the history of the universe. God seeks sinners and rejoices when they are found. So God, like the woman keeps diligently searching until he finds us. This is comforting; all we have to do is sit tight!
In conclusion, if we are the woman, then we are co-workers with Jesus in finding those people who are currently 'lost'. We seek him as He looks for us, then we take that encounter into a further search with and for others. And maybe, along the way, we will find Christ in one another. We are, by God's grace, His hands, voice and feet in the world!
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours. [Teresa of Avila]
Sources, books and websites used:-
Strong's concordance [for the Greek] : 1 John 4: 19