I love parables. They are a truly amazing art form, a genre of story-telling that not only invites interaction from the audience – as all good story-telling does – but actually requires of the listener that she reads between the lines in order for the story to be told. In this way the person telling the parable is freed to say things so outrageous, they would never get away with saying them directly.
Jesus came to show us what God is like. Some people, who devoutly held to their image of God, didn’t like what they saw. On one occasion when they expressed their disapproval, Jesus responded by telling three parables (Luke 15). The purpose of his words is consistent with the purpose of his actions: to reveal what God is like. Reading between the lines, one of them went like this:
Your image of God – the One who created the heavens and the earth; who led his people out of slavery in Egypt; who dwells in unapproachable light – is incomplete unless you are able to imagine him as a fearful woman.
This woman has a husband, and therefore she wears the outward cultural sign of having a husband, a coin headdress. This headdress has the minimum number of coins; and not only the minimum number but also coins of the smallest value. Her husband is either a poor man, or he does not value his wife…perhaps as the story unfolds we will discover more…
One morning as she goes to put her headdress on, she sees that one of the coins is missing. With only ten coins, there is nowhere for the absence to hide. And the woman goes into desperation. Her husband is not poor, he is harsh. He will not reassure her, and help her to search for the coin. He will assume that she has used it as money, publically embarrassing him. Or that she has been careless, not valuing his reputation. Or that it has been taken as a token by a lover, humiliating him before the entire town. He is a suspicious and violent man, and, unless she finds the coin before he returns, she is in very deep trouble. He will concoct trumped-up charges to divorce her, and send her away. She will lose everything (however pitiful her ‘everything’ might be). And so she turns the whole house up-side-down. Looks everywhere.
When she finds the coin, she is utterly relieved. Calling her neighbours, her confidants, together, they share in her joy. All looked to be lost, but has been saved.
In the same way that this desperate housewife celebrates, so the company of heaven celebrates over a sinner who repents. An incredible release of emotion.
In the same way? The woman does not rejoice because a sinner has repented. It is the celebration that is compared, not the cause for celebration, nor even the actions of the woman in searching for her coin, or her motive.
That is a scandalous image of God. Jesus takes an older image of God as faithful husband to an unfaithful people and turns it on its head, painting God as the vulnerable wife of a harsh husband.
Who is this harsh husband? The devout, observant Pharisees and teachers of the law so suspicious of Jesus.
Who, in the parable, needs to repent? It is not the woman, who has done nothing wrong. It is not the coin – oh, come on! we all know it is the coin! The coin is a prop, conjuring the woman’s predicament. No, the person who needs to repent is the husband. And within the parable, that does not take place. That repentance is not the reason for the woman’s celebration. Heaven’s celebration is like hers, but greater. Will heaven get to celebrate today, or not? How will the listeners respond to the story they have helped to tell?
Hmmm…That’s an interesting reading ‘between the lines,’ but we all know that the one in need of repentance is represented by the coin. Is there any evidence to support the idea that the one who needs to repent is a husband who doesn’t even appear in the parable, other than as the original audience?
Yes, I believe that there is. We don’t know whether any of the first listeners repented or not; and it is likely that some became even more entrenched in their hardness. But I believe there is a concrete example of just such a repentance, and that we need look no further than the Epistle paired with this Gospel passage in the Lectionary (Sunday 15 September). Writing to his son-in-the-faith, Paul says:
“I thank Jesus Christ our Lord who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord Jesus was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:12-17)
A Pharisee, harsh – and unaware of it – repents, and joins the heavenly party.
If our presentation of God is incomplete without the image of her as desperate housewife, in what way does our theology need to change?
If Jesus is of the view that the devout are at least capable of acting, quite unawares, as harsh husband to God, in what ways does our self-awareness need to change? Where do we need to repent?
In what ways does this parable challenge our view of women, and men? Of marriage – let me be clear: in no way does being able to identify God with an abused wife give rise to a religious justification for requiring wives to put up with abuse, any more than identifying Jesus with those who suffer torture and execution should give rise to a religious justification for such abuses of a fellow human being – and family; of the Church?