Title: An Anatomy of Sin
Texts: Lk 15: 11-32
Date: March 14, 2010
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
So far, during this season of Lent, we’ve talked a lot about repentance and forgiveness. Now I think it’s time we talked about sin.
Why do we want to sin? We know it’s bad for us, or bad for someone else, yet we go ahead and do it anyway. Why do we desire self-destruction, to dehumanize other people and ourselves? Sin is simply the way we treat ourselves and one another as less than human.
And that’s the story of the prodigal son in Luke’s Gospel; we see how sin unfolds and stripes away the humanness of people. It starts when the younger son treats his father as less than human, as a vending machine, a bank account. I’ll read verse 12: “The younger of [the two sons] said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me’” (Lk. 15:12). The younger son has this money coming to him when his father dies. But he can’t wait. He wants it now. So he acts like his father is dead. He turns a loved one into a lifeless object with a value. The son takes the gift of his father and runs away with it—he runs away from the humanness of the giver.
Sin takes this same form in our lives. We take gifts while ignoring the humanness of the giver; we turn people into objects whose only value is what we want to get from them. Pornography is the classic example of this way of treating people. The humanness of people is reduced to their most apparent gift—their physical beauty—and everything else that makes them human is ignored. But this is also the case in ordinary human transactions: a plumber who does some work on your house, the person who scans your food at the grocery store, or the server who brings your food out at the restaurant. Nothing about their lives matters other than that they do what they are there to do in order for your life to be normal, without messy human contact.
Sin starts with our eyes, with how we see one another, how we look at other people. Through the lens of sin, we objectify, we reduce, we cannot see beyond the surface, we refuse to see the surprise—the mystery—that comes with being human. Sin is the way we refuse to receive someone as a gift, and instead take their gifts and run away. The giver becomes an object for our fulfillment; and once we get what we want, they mean nothing to us anymore.
In the story from Luke, the son takes his father’s gift and leaves the giver behind. He takes what he needs and leaves to the far country. The trouble comes with the “dissolute living” (v. 15), or as other translations have it, “prodigal living.” In Greek the word is asotos, and it means something like “a madness that knows no bounds” (BDAG). He is driven by madness, he consumes without limit, without a second thought about consequences, without a concern for others or himself. All he knows is his maddening desire, his unquenchable thirst for more.
Dissolute living. It’s to watch your life dissolve, to watch your life become something you never wanted, something you never intended. It’s to give yourself over to powers beyond your control, a madness that consumes you as you consume everything you thought you wanted, but only leaves you thirsty for more. Sin is this power of madness that takes over our lives and sets us on an unending journey of restlessness. Sin is a madness that comes over us and dissolves our humanness.
And that’s what begins to happen for the son in the story: “When he had spent everything… he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him…to feed the pigs” (vv. 14-15). He’s in a bad place. The son is without friends, without family, without any kind of support. His life has dissolved and he finds himself with pigs—a Jew working with unclean animals. He’s on the edge of losing himself.
But he doesn’t: “he came to himself,” the narrator says. “But when he came to himself he said…” (v. 17). The son comes to his self; something of his identity returns to him; he is able to see through the madness of sin that has clouded his vision.
He wants to return to his father’s house. But he doesn’t think he can return as a son; so he must return as “a hired hand” (v. 19). This is the voice of guilt. The younger son has sinned and now feels the weight of guilt. When we hear how the son imagines his return to his father, we can hear the voice of guilt. Like sin, guilt is also a power that comes over us and clouds our vision. The son convinces himself that he is “no longer worthy to be called [a] son”—that’s the voice of guilt: to believe that you are no longer worthy, that you are less than human, that you can’t receive forgiveness, that you won’t be welcomed back. The son thinks his father has disowned him, has excommunicated him, has cut him off from the family forever.
The voice of guilt has even convinced him that he is now only an object with economic value. The son thinks of himself as a “hired hand”—a servant, not a beloved member of the family. Sin has lodged itself in his mind, and now he speaks with the voice of guilt—which always pronounces worthlessness. That’s what guilt says to you. You come to believe that you mean nothing to the world, that you are forgotten, that you are not loved by anyone—that you are, when all is said and done, unlovable. He cannot imagine being received as a beloved member of the family.
That’s what guilt does to us. It’s a voice that convinces us that no one will ever love us again because of what we have done. We feel worthless and so we imagine that others think us worthless. We project our feelings about ourselves onto others. We assume they see us through the same eyes of guilt. We assume that if we can’t love ourselves, then no one else can. And, ultimately, we project our feelings of guilt—our feelings of worthlessness—onto God. We imagine a God who thinks of us as we think of ourselves. We make God into our own image, a God who wants to punish us as we think we should be punished.
So, the son begins his journey back to his father, ready for a life as an unloved hired hand—the work he can do with his hands is the only value he can imagine for himself. But his father sees him from a distance: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (v. 20). The sight of his son overwhelms the father with love. He doesn’t wait for his son to arrive. He runs out to him and welcomes him with a full-bodied embrace. And then the son gives the speech he had prepared, the one about being worthless—he starts, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). But the father ignores the speech and prepares a banquet instead: “get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate,” he says, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (vv. 23-24).
He dissolves all his son’s expectations. The only cure for the son’s sin and guilt is the love of his father. Despite the sons feelings of worthlessness, his father’s forgiveness was always there, waiting for him, with open arms. He belongs, no matter what. The son did not think he could ever belong in his father’s house again, yet the father received him without a lecture about his sin or questions about what he had done. Those concerns dissolve when the father washes his son with his kisses. The father’s love drowns out the voices of sin and guilt.
Well, almost. The condemning voice of sin and guilt comes with the elder son, not the father. The older brother speaks of condemnation, of punishment, of sin. He steps into the place of the accuser and says to their father: “this son of yours came back… [the one] who has devoured your property with prostitutes” (v. 30). The accusing voice of sin and punishment, of guilt and condemnation, is not the voice of the father.
In other words, God is not our accuser. God is not the one who reminds of ours sins and wants us to grovel in the dirt, to show that we are serious about our sins by feeling bad about ourselves. God has no time for that because he is too busy preparing for a party. Forgiveness is the way God always welcomes us back into his house, no matter what we may think of ourselves, and no matter what our brothers and sisters may think we deserve.
The good news is that you are loved, that you are fundamentally loved, that the most basic thing about you is that you are loved by God. To be you is to be loved by the one is this story who welcomes without a lecture and without questions, without punishment. And to have faith is to come to know, to believe, that the truest thing about yourself, the deepest fact about your life, is that you are loved.
Once we have returned to the household of God, we slowly become deaf to those voices of sin and guilt, and begin to hear the voice that loves us, that speaks eternal life into our lives. To put it simply: to have faith is to believe that you are worthy of someone’s love, that you are lovable. The Christian life is an exploration of how we are made lovable. And to feel that love in a dehumanizing world like ours, we need all the help we can get—sisters and brothers who show us what it means to be loved by God: you and me, held by the God who washes away our sin and guilt with his kisses.
(here’s a pdf of the sermon: An Anatomy of Sin)
 Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters (London: Continuum, 2002), 238: “He values the gift more than the giver; and it is just here that sin comes in.”
 See Sebastian Moore, The Fire and the Rose Are One (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), chapter 22: “An Anatomy of Guilt,” 66-70.
 Sebastian Moore, Let This Mind Be In You: The Quest for Identity Through Oedipus to Christ (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), 82: “So the cure for the human sickness and all its frightful consequences is to experience myself as I am, as desired by God.”
 Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, 241.
 Ibid, 174-175: “good news—the news that we are loved, not simply by this or that person…but fundamentally loved, that the basic thing about us is that we are loved…. To have faith is just to know that the ultimately true thing about you, the deepest irreducible fact about you is that you are loved.”