I was only vaguely aware of him at first. I was much more interested in finding the Chipotle Hummus. Somewhere in the edge of my consciousness though, it registered that there was a tall young man standing beside me pondering another item in the grocery store’s refrigerated section. Just as I spotted the hummus, he made his selection and moved away. I turned just in time to see him deftly slip the item he chose not into the red basket into his hand, but into the pocket of his large winter coat.
What do I do? I wondered.
I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. No one had. I scanned the busy holiday crowd for an employee of the establishment. There were none to be found. I stood frozen as I watched him walk nonchalantly down the isle, perusing other items. Then, the overwhelming love of God flooded my heart for him, and I knew what He wanted me to do.
Go to him! Offer him mercy.
I walked straight up to him. Just as I reached him, he turned to face me. So young…maybe only a year or two older than my own son. A coat two sizes too large. Hair unkempt. My heart broke.
I looked into his eyes- someone’s brother, someone’s little boy, God’s precious son…
“You don’t have to do this,” I said softly. “Whatever you put in your pocket, I will buy for you.”
His face reddened.
“I didn’t steal anything!” he protested.
“Yes, you did. I saw you. But you don’t have to. You have another choice. I will buy it for you.”
His face turned redder.
“I didn’t steal anything.”
“Ok,” I said sadly. “But I want you to know that if you change your mind, you don’t have to do what you are doing. I will pay for it.”
Then, I turned and walked away. My heart was heavy.
What now? I asked God.
But there was nothing left to do. The young man fled the store into a brutally cold December afternoon- I assume with one small item in his pocket and a heart full of guilt.
Oh, the weight of shame! It drives us away from mercy…restoration. Shame tells us we can never come back home.
Christ-like love is risky sometimes, isn’t it? I don’t even know what he stole and yet I offered to pay for it, not out of the goodness of my own heart but because of the prompting of a merciful God who overwhelmed me with His love as He was reaching for this young man.
And God’s reply to this (His children’s) cry is mercy beyond all understanding:
“Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?…
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:20)
Can there be any deeper dimension to the term “father” than this compulsive, forgiving mercy which is beyond comprehension?- The Lord’s Prayer, Joachim Jeremias, 1966
The really wonderful news of Christmas is that shame has no hold on us. Because of the Baby in the Manger, the price for all our failings, mistakes, and rebellion has forever been paid. God’s heart is the heart of a Father to His precious children that rises up to us in an impulse of mercy when we cry- despite our iniquity, or how far we have wandered. When we cry out to Him, He runs to save us and then…He walks His dear child home.