Sunday, September 4, 2016

Luke 15.1-10: Woman's Ten Coins

One of Jesus' parables about lost things, the gospel reading for Proper 19C/Ordinary 24C (Luke 15:1-10) takes us into the world of women. In the second of the three parables, we find a woman who has lost a coin (between a shepherd who has lost a sheep and a father who has lost a son). For many depictions of the story the title could just as easily be "The Sweeping Woman". In those superficial illustrations the woman stands - or sometimes bends over for a closer look - as she works with her broom hoping to uncover the coin in the dirt floor. There is very little interpretation, though the illustration is fine, if repetitive.

Our assumption is that the woman is poor and that is why even a single coin is so important. We can imagine that she carefully tends her little hoard of coins, counting them often to double check that they are still where she left them, keeping them safe in a bag or other container in a safe place in her home. Her home is usually shown as simple and dominated by earthtones with baked brick walls and dirt floors. The woman's clothing is a plain tunic of fairly coarse material. Eugene Burnand's image (left) is typical in those details. Burnand has chosen not to show the sweeping woman but rather the woman who has had a successful search. She stands on the balcony of her home, and in her left hand she holds the long-sought coin, sharing her joy with friends and neighbors. We can imagine that what happens next is that the woman takes the coin back inside her house and carefully places it in its container with the other nine coins, tucked safely away.

But perhaps there is another way to consider this coin and this woman. What if the coins aren't kept tucked away? What if the coins are on display almost every day of this woman's life? In William Holman Hunt's painting "Bride of Bethlehem", the woman's coins are on display across her forehead and in her jewelry. This practice, where jewelry serves as the woman's "bank account" is common in Palestine, Turkey, Armenia and other areas in the Middle East. In some cases "coin" refers to flat disks of coin-sized silver rather than actual money coins. The pure silver could be exchanged for its value in money. Though there are also examples where actual coins are drilled and used on headdresses and jewelry. An Arab proverb says "Bracelets are for the difficult times." Presumably because one can sell them.

What if the ten coins are ornaments on the headdress of the woman in Jesus' parable? Certainly they would still be important, especially if she has only ten on her headdress - unlike the woman in Hunt's painting - but these coins would be part of her life, not just a stash that is hidden away. Perhaps she takes off the headdress at night and discovers broken threads or an open wire jump ring and an empty place where there should be a coin. And then she begins her search for the coin - remembering where the errands and tasks of her day have taken her and retracing her steps - perhaps even sweeping the floor - until the coin is found.

Imaging the ten coins as part of a headdress doesn't change the point of the parable - that the woman would look for a single coin, even if she had others. But it might change the way we imagine the woman and her life.

You can read a veritable inventory of women's jewelry in Isaiah 3:18-20ff.
Top: Eugene Burnand. The Lost Coin. Drawing. Illustration for "Les Paraboles", published in 1908.
Bottom: William Holman Hunt. The Bride of Bethlehem. 1884. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

For thoughts on lost sheep, click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page...Could the coin pictured here have been one of the ten coins mentioned in the parable? 

No comments:

Post a Comment