Several years ago I heard a story told by a pastor of a prostitute he happened to meet. She was so weighed down by life’s challenges she was contemplating suicide. After the pastor heard her out, he encouraged her as best he could before inviting her to come to church that Sunday. “Why would I want to do that?” she asked him. “I feel depressed enough already.”
The pastor felt very saddened because he understood why the woman said that. If she had accepted his invitation, she would probably have walked into a reception of open contempt and condemnation rather than receive the solace and comfort she sought.
I, too, felt extremely sad when I heard the story because I knew it wasn’t just this pastor’s story; almost every church is now filled with self-righteous and judgmental people who would be cold, if not hostile, towards “sinners” that walked into church. (If you really want to understand what I mean by this, just imagine your reaction if a drunkard reeking of alcohol, a prostitute recognizable as one, a drug addict in a state of narcotic stupor, or a ragged beggar were to walk into church for a worship service and sit right next to you.)
So what can be done? We can remind ourselves of why Jesus came to the world, and nothing illustrates this better than the Parable of the Lost Coin.
Jesus and Sinners
Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke begins thus: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2).
This wasn’t the first time they were accusing him of “eating with sinners”. A few months earlier Jesus had invited Levi, a tax collector, to follow him. Shortly thereafter, Levi invited Jesus over for dinner, along with other friends. None of these were people Jewish leaders would be caught dead with, much less associate socially with, and they took great offense at Jesus. On that occasion, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
This time he told them stories. One of them was a story about a woman who lost one of ten silver coins she had. Obviously distressed, she lights a lamp and searches the house until she finds it. Then she joyfully celebrates with her friends.
To make sure nobody missed the point of the story or who the characters represented, Jesus ended it by saying: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
The woman in the story represents God, the Father, who exhibits the same emotions that she does when he loses one of his children to sin: he suffers, he searches, and then, when he finds his wayward child, celebrates with his friends in heaven—the angels.
But the woman doesn’t represent only God; she also represents us, and the role we all need to play in searching for the lost: all those who are spiritually adrift and wandering around aimlessly in the world.
God’s Suffering Heart
Men in the time of Jesus were the breadwinners for their family. A man would give his daily wages to his wife, who was responsible for looking after the day to day affairs of the home. They were typically paid a denarius a day. A denarius was a small silver coin, and a married woman would sometimes wear a string of ten such coins on her head as a sign of her marital status. So when she loses a coin, perhaps from her crown, you can only imagine her dismay. You can compare this to losing the stone in your wedding ring! She would have felt tremendous frustration and heartache.
Such is the frustration and heartache of God, but this is sometimes hard to understand unless one has experienced a similar pain of loss. I remember how, as a very young man, I walked out of home one day in a fit of rage after an argument with my father. I hadn’t gone very far when my anger began to subside, and with reason returning I wondered what to do next. I didn’t really have anywhere to go, and my pride didn’t let me return home, so I sat down at a bus stand feeling very low—and more than a little anxious—when I saw my dad turning the corner on his Lambretta. He had come looking for me and I couldn’t miss the relief in his eyes when he saw me. (I tried to hide the relief in my own.)
I never really gave much thought to how he must have felt at the time until I became a father and went through a similar situation with my own son. It gave me a tremendous sense of empathy, not only with my earthly father, but also with my heavenly father, and I can only imagine how much his heart aches as he sees child after child going away from him.
The parable of the son who leaves his father that follows the story about a lost coin depicts that sorrow even more poignantly. Jesus speaks about how the father saw the prodigal son returning home from a distance (see Luke 15:20) and I am not inclined to disagree with those who suggest the father saw the son returning because he was watching and waiting for his boy to return. Many artists depicting this story paint a sad man looking out of his window, and I do not believe this is an incorrect depiction because that is what a loving father would do. Watch. And wait.
We also need a suffering heart; a heart that aches for the lost. These include people who are broken and bruised by the vagaries of life; the helpless and the lonely; the outcasts and the ostracized. It is only compassion that will draw them to us, as the “sinners” of his time were drawn to Jesus. Jesus had some pretty strong ideas about sin, but he wasn’t condemning of anyone, except those who believed themselves to be sinless like the Pharisees. If we are to draw people to Christ, they need to see Christ reflected in us. This requires us to be a people who are not judgmental or opinionated, and extremely accepting of everyone. That encompasses the drunk whose breath could fell an elephant; the prostitute who might end up propositioning your husband; the drug addict who is so high in orbit he can’t put together a sentence that makes sense on earth; and the homeless beggar who nobody wants to be within a hundred feet of.
Just a suffering heart, doesn’t do it, however. We also need a searching heart.
God’s Searching Heart
Houses in Biblical times generally didn’t have many (if any) windows. One reason was to keep the cold out. Another was a defense against burglars. The rich would get their light and ventilation from courtyards in the center of their dwellings; the poor would usually be in semi-darkness as the only windows might be small little holes high up on the walls. Consequently, the woman has to light a lamp to find the coin she has lost, and it isn’t just the darkness she has to contend with; there is also a floor littered with straw. This was another method used to warm up the house, and it served its purpose very well. However, when it came to finding lost things, straw made finding them as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in the proverbial haystack. The woman was undaunted by such things and set about determinedly to find the lost coin, shaking out the straw, handful by handful, until she laid her hand on it. God is like that. He, too, has a searching heart that doesn’t give up.
Jesus does not mention the father going out to find his child in his story of the lost son, but given how this story (and the one before) shows how actively the characters search for what they have lost, there is little doubt that the father also searched for his lost son. (Why, then, didn’t he find him? As the story has it, the boy went away to a distant country, determined not to be found.)
God continues to search for his lost children today, but he needs us to help him. We are, as Jesus said, “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). We are God’s beacon in a world that is very dark. We need to be the torch in God’s hand like the lamp was in the woman’s. But that’s in one hand. In the other we need to be the broom, knowing that although the bristles may be a little damaged, it can still be put to good purpose, and as time goes by and the broom keeps sweeping, we will be made smooth.
And just as the woman expended considerable energy in trying to find the missing coin, we too have to exert some effort to find the lost. Sometimes we give up when the going gets difficult, or we face ridicule or serious opposition, but persistence is the key to success as evidenced by this story. Then, when we finally bring the lost home, whether it is one or many, we will celebrate like God celebrated.
God’s Celebrating Heart
When you have succeeded in accomplishing something important, especially after much heartbreak and struggle, the joy is simply overwhelming, and this is what the woman in the story experienced. She was so happy she couldn’t contain it within herself, and had to share it with her friends who were good and gracious enough to rejoice with her.
That’s pretty much how God feels when someone who is lost is found and the celebration is huge. Have you ever been at the stadium where the final of a World Cup or World Series event is being played (or watched it on TV)? The jubilation at the end is something to behold! It is not just the winning team that rejoices though, it is also their supporters, and it is impossible not to get caught in the general sense of euphoria even if you are just a spectator. Although the image of God jumping up and down in delight along with all the angels in heaven is a hard one to picture, that is exactly how I believe it is.
I imagine that’s how the early church used to rejoice every time somebody was saved, because it was not just a big deal, it was a huge deal that demanded celebration! We cheer at the movies when a Private Ryan or a Captain Phillips is rescued, often at great cost to the rescuers, but we don’t really cheer any more when somebody is rescued from the clutches of the devil where they would have remained for all eternity had it not been for the efforts of the few people who still seem to care. That’s partly because we don’t understand what salvation truly means; if we did, all of us would be out there doing nothing but saving souls or, at least, expending considerable energy and resources to do so. How can one, after all, having been saved, sit by idly and let others go to their eternal destruction? That place is hell, which unfortunately is not a subject that many people like to talk about anymore, but is a terrifying reality that exists, and most of the people in the world are headed there. How can we sit by idly?
Yet, we do, and one wonders if it isn’t history repeating itself with us playing the roles of the Pharisees and the scribes now, foolishly secure in our self-righteousness. This should not be so, and it is the prayer of this author that we change because otherwise we would be just as damned as those we consider lost. Both as a church and a people we need to start having the suffering heart of our Lord, his searching heart, and then his celebrating heart. This becomes easy when we have a relationship with God, because we will then be able to feel the beating of his heart. And we will know how well we have succeeded when those who sit with us at the dinner table will be those the world would prefer not to be seen with: the alcoholic, the prostitute, the drug addict and the homeless. And they will be in our churches as well.