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Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 24
September 11, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin represent two-thirds of a trilogy of parables completed by the parable of the Prodigal Son. The first and third parables tell us something about God, to be sure, but the middle parable - involving women, a lost coin and living successfully above the poverty line - is set in our world. The Real World.

There's a funny thing about blockbuster movie trilogies: The opening installment gets all the buzz, while the closing segment gets the great ending as well as all the awards.

But the middle installment is problematic. The second film has to do all the heavy lifting, keeping the story moving while complicating the plot, without the payoff of a real ending. And when it comes to the critics, the middle part doesn't always get the respect it deserves.

Today's scripture includes parts one and two of a blockbuster trilogy of parables. The parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son (the subject of another sermon) are celebrated with whole libraries of books and museums full of art.

But the middle installment - this parable about a woman in a tizzy who turns her house upside down looking for a misplaced coin - is the most down to earth, because it's set in our world, the place where we live!

Same planet, different worlds

It goes without saying that the prodigal son's father is rich. His wealth is obvious. He employs many others. He has clothing and jewelry to give away. Even after giving the younger son his share, the older son is still managing a large estate.

Likewise, the man who goes out looking for the lost sheep is not just a shepherd, he's a sheep owner. In an era when many shepherds were hirelings, watching the sheep of others, anyone who owned 100 sheep is well off.

Anyone who raises animals knows some loss is inevitable. In addition to predators and disease, some sheep just wander off. Indeed, in some cultures a sheep that wanders away is destroyed if it returns because sheep act like, well, sheep, and next time they might all follow that wanderer.

And who would leave a large flock open to danger in order to search for just one animal? Besides, if the owner of the flock held a celebration with his neighbors upon finding the lost sheep, as the man in this parable did, he'd be expected to slaughter one sheep - very likely the wanderer - to feed everyone, just as the father of the prodigal son killed the fatted calf.

What makes the Lost Sheep a great parable is not that it is realistic, but that it displays the audacious, extraordinary, risk-taking aspect of God's love. God is depicted as a shepherd in several psalms.1 God's people are lamented as lost sheep.2 There is rejoicing in heaven, there's a cosmic thing going on, when the lost are recovered. Hooray!

Back to the real world

Which brings us to the second parable. In contrast to sheep, who can wander off like us, coins don't stray. They may be misplaced, stolen, thrown out with the trash by accident or spent without remembering having done so, but they don't deliberately wander away from our purse or wallet. Wandering away is what real people do. And how about God? Does God lose us? No.

In addition, this second parable is set in a world of women. A century ago, people spoke of history as the study of great men. And they were mostly talking about men. Now, however history is the study of ordinary people, women, men and children, how they lived their daily lives. This kind of study is accomplished by sifting through trash heaps, studying what remains in ancient stoves, scanning bones and teeth of ordinary human remains to discover how long they lived, what they ate, if they received proper nutrition and what ailments they had.

For instance, 50 years ago visitors to Monticello learned all about Thomas Jefferson, and about his gardens and the trees he raised. Now visitors also learn about the slave quarters, and the work slaves performed to accomplish everything that was once credited to Jefferson.

Recent excavations in Pompeii show the dwellings of ordinary people were so small that there was no place to cook. They lived off the equivalent of fast food bought at their favorite stands.

There is a consensus among Egyptologists that the Great Pyramids are not the result of slave labor, but the respect work of those practicing skilled crafts, and that these prized workers had access to, believe it or not, three different health plans.

This middle parable also takes us into the real world, where we see that women are at the heart of the economy of the family.3 These ten coins, representing ten days wages, make the woman, to some extent, financially independent. She can handle certain kinds of unexpected problems that spring up because she has money at hand. And it's quite likely she has other assets - coins buried away or invested in a business that operates out of her home (a very common situation in many villages in that region) - and this extra money helps her deal with emergencies as well.

She seems to operate in a woman's world. In all three parables, there is talk of celebration with friends and neighbors. In this middle parable the friends and neighbors are other women (judging by the gender of the words in the sentence). They too seem to be in control of their own finances and have the ability to come and go as they please and associate with those who they want. When the woman finds her lost coins and she calls on them to rejoice with her, they are able to come.

Celebration calls for some sacrifice. In the first and third parts of this trilogy an animal is sacrificed in order to feed the celebrants. This scene, however, makes no mention of that. Perhaps the rejoicing involves just that - rejoicing. Or, since this is an association of women, perhaps everyone brings something to a potluck.

You may have heard of microloans. They're very small loans offered to people in the Third World to help them work their way out of poverty. In almost all cases, they are given to women. Experience has shown that men will sometimes get together and use the money from the microloan to have a party, eating and drinking the money away. Women are more likely to purchase a sewing machine, an oven, or some other device to make a product that they sell to pay off the loan, then get a larger loan to expand their business and advance the family.

I've got a question

The woman in the parable is a good manager of money - at least until she loses track of one of those 10 coins.

As we said, cash doesn't sprout legs and take off. We misplace it. We forget what we did with it. And then, hopefully, we find it.

And this brings up an interesting question. Most people see the shepherd in the first parable and the father in the third parable as representing some aspect of God. If these parables are consistent, shouldn't the woman tell us something about God as well? And if so, what does forgetting and remembering (which we associate with our human frailties, not the divine) tell us about God?

The fact that this is a feminine image for God shouldn't be a problem. Scripture includes several such images. One such occurs in Isaiah where the image of Zion, standing for God's lost people, laments, "The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me." To which God replies "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb. Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you."4 And don't forget God is also portrayed as Wisdom, a woman who cries aloud to her children to come home from their straying.5

When scripture speaks of God remembering, it is not with the implication that God forgot us, but it means God made us a priority. The woman in the parable made her lost coin a priority. She turned all her attention toward finding it, sweeping every corner and turning her simple dwelling upside down until she found out where the coin had rolled to, or what it had settled under.

I think sometimes we believe God has forgotten us, and yet perhaps it is just a matter of our prayers being answered in God's time, not ours. It may be that divine wisdom (and remember that wisdom is portrayed as both divine and as a woman calling out to her children) has determined when the best time is for us to be "found," and for our prayers to be answered. We are an essential part of the economy of heaven, and our time will come in God's time.

This is one more reason the parable represents the world we live in, the real world. That's the outer framework of this section of scripture. The three parables aren't told in a vacuum. The section opens with religious authorities grumbling because Jesus was eating with "tax collectors and sinners." Jesus welcomes these people without condoning their sins. The focus is on repentance and forgiveness.

And that is what is divine about these three linked stories Jesus told. There is rejoicing over the recovery of the lost. And in order for those lost to be found we have to make them a priority and go looking for them. Or, when we ourselves are the lost, we must swallow our pride and allow ourselves to be found.


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