“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Like a Mother
This is mother’s day, and I have been thinking about my mother. She used to tell me to eat my vegetables, brush my teeth, go to bed, without concern for the fact that I did not want to do any of those things. We simply thought differently about them. She was right, of course, and I eventually changed my thinking.
Changing your thinking
Changing your thinking is often hard to do. We get one idea about something, one way of looking at it, and it’s hard to dislodge it. But we all grow up, and we learn, and we do change our thinking, especially when the change helps us to live better. Most of us probably love thick juicy steaks and sugary desserts, but now we know that we must think of cholesterol and carbs more critically if we are to live in good health.
The same thing is true spiritually. Changing our thinking is the essential first step in our spiritual lives – for that is precisely what the word “repent” means – changing in thinking that produces changed behavior. I don’t just think differently about vegetables, I actually eat them.
This text before us is about changing thinking and behavior – the point of the story is that there is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents – who changes his thinking and behavior. But there is a double irony here that I find amazing – and it leads to different changes than one might have guessed at first.
First Irony: coins don’t repent
The first irony is that the coin in the story does not repent. Now think about this for a moment. This is one of 3 parables of “lostness” that Jesus told: the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son – what we call the prodigal son. Jesus was under no obligation to tell 3, but he chose to, even though, of the three lost items, only one, the son, is capable of repentance. The sheep does not change her thinking and behavior and come back – it’s the shepherd that goes out to find her. The coin cannot do anything but sit on the dark floor waiting for the broom. The son returns, but only after the money runs out – hardly a sincere moment of clarity and remorse!
Accepting our lostness
So the first irony is this: the parables about the joy in heaven over the lost things that “repent” are not about repentance like we think about it – feeling guilty, shameful and full of remorse. The only possible repentance for all three is what the son finally gives voice to: the change is simply accepting our condition of lostness and waiting for the shepherd, the lady with the broom, and the father.
When we stop thinking of ourselves as good people, worthy people, already-found people, and beginning to think in a changed way, finally realizing our lostness, then we are ready to be found; and God is already out on the search path.
That’s why a church, by definition, cannot be a place of exclusion of anybody, but must be about inclusion. We are here because we know how lost we are; the more lost a person is, the more they fit in with this group. In our demographic, we are pretty skilled at putting a fresh coat of paint on the outside to dress ourselves up – not like younger folks who tend to telegraph their lostness – but which is more honest?
Anyway, the first step in our spiritual lives is repentance: a change in thinking from “I’m fine, thank you.” to “I’m lost; I need to be found.”
The second change in our thinking that is so important for our spiritual lives is the second irony: that God is not like we thought he was. You might think that the most powerful motivator for repentance would be fear – fear of punishment, hell in the future and bad luck on earth. You would think that picturing God as the great judge in the sky, angry, mean, unbending, unsympathetic, a one-strike-and-you’re-out rule-keeper would be what we needed to have in our minds. But the opposite is true.
The great irony is that God is more like a shepherd with a shepherd’s staff in his hand than a judge with a gavel. God is more like a father running down the road he has been staring at than the justice sitting at the bench. And God is more like a woman with a broom in her hand than an executioner with an axe.
God like a woman? Could that be possible?
Well yes, but Jesus is not really breaking any new ground here. Of course God is overwhelmingly pictured as a big male person: a king mostly, a male deity full of storm clouds and thunder, and eventually, a father. But God is also pictured in the Old Testament in feminine terms. We have made use of some of those texts in the liturgy.
Isaiah the prophet’s reply to people who feel forgotten by God is to ask,
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb? (Isa 49:15)
The Psalmist pictures the feeling of security and calm he feels in the presence of God as a weaned child, resting with his mother (Ps. 131). God is also pictured as a protective mother bird, sheltering her young under her wings (Deut 32:11).
The Lady with the Broom
But in this text before us, God is the lady with the broom. We know that in the creation story in Genesis it says that the Lord made Adam and Eve, both of them, in his image; we know (with one side of our brains) that God cannot be limited to one gender, that God is not just a big man in the sky – so why is it so hard to picture God as a lady with a broom?
I’m sure the answer is culture – there is no big mystery there, but the question is also, do we need to think of God in this way? What would we gain by it? Let’s stay with the story and find out.
There is not too much that is different between this lady and the shepherd; both leave alone the things that are not lost, both get pro-active and search for what is lost, both call for a celebration of joy when the lost is found. So why tell the story at all? What does it add to our understanding? The only difference, besides the change from sheep to coin, is the gender of the seeker. The point has got to be that if we are to have a correct understanding of God, we cannot exclusively think of God as male – the big man upstairs. God takes up the tool that is most often in the hands of a woman, the broom, and starts doing women’s work – sweeping.
God’s feminine character
In order to understand our relationship with God, we have to know that he has those qualities and characteristics that culturally, we most often associate with women. God is lots of things that my mother is: kind, gentle, loving, as well as concerned, nourishing, sheltering, guiding.
Mothers and lost children
But there is one characteristic of mothers that is even more important: their response to lostness. Mothers care, and care, and care for their children – all through their lives – no matter what their children do. Mothers show up in visitation rooms in prisons; mothers show up even on execution day here in Alabama in Atmore (Holman prison, death row). There is just no condition of lostness that ever changes the fact that a mother’s child is her child.
Sure, Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son and his father – but it’s quite odd; the father does all kinds of counter-cultural things – even loosing his dignity running down the road. It’s frankly, hard to picture. Not so with the searching woman with the broom. She is doing what she does: refusing to let lostness be the last word. She will light the lamp, grab the broom and search until she has found the lost coin – because that’s what she does.
This is why I need this parable, and why I need to change my thinking about God as the big man in the sky: I need to know that I cannot be too lost for God; that I will never stop being his child; that like a mother, God will always search me out and rejoice when I am found.
Probably there are times when I need someone to lay down the law and tell me to march in step or else face the consequences – it’s so easy to picture God the male drill sergeant; but there are many times I desperately need to be that weaned child at rest; that chick, under the protective wing, that small object in the hands of the lady with the broom.
There are all kinds of ways to be lost; perhaps you are in one of those lost places now. Do you feel the presence and love of God around you, or distance? Listen, if there is distance, it is not because God put it there or wants it like that. If you are the coin, sitting in the lonely darkness today, God is the lady with the broom, and he is coming for you. It’s going to be a party when the sweeping stops.