Luke 15:1-3, 11-23
by Isaac S. Villegas
March 10, 2013
On Monday mornings, a few years ago, there was a worship service in a clearing in the brush and trees for the people who lived nearby, in the woods. We worshiped on an abandoned concrete slab, a stones throw from an onramp for Interstate 40. After Paul would lead us in a few hymns with his guitar, after someone would read from the Bible, after Carolyn would preach, it was time for Communion. The pastor would stand at the flimsy card table and read from 1 Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread.” She would take the Hawaiian bread from the plastic bag on the Lord’s Table and hold it up and tear it in half. Then she would take the Welch’s grape juice and pour it into the cup, saying, “In the same way Jesus took the cup, the cup of the new covenant.”
Once, as the minister walked from one person to another in the circle, serving Communion, she came to a man who was new to our community, a homeless pilgrim who had wandered into town and would wander away when the time came. I could see his hands, held out in front of him, mud-stained palms, thick fingers, yellowed by cigarettes. I caught a noxious whiff of stale alcohol sweating through his pores. As the pastor tore a piece from the loaf and put it in his hands, I saw his eyes begin to water, his eyes swimming in tears, tears streaming into his beard.
In the story we heard from Luke’s Gospel, a son returns to his father’s house, smelling of pig slop and fornication, and he is welcomed to communion at his father’s banquet without question, without a lecture, without a call for repentance.
“But while he was still far off,” it says, “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 cannot wait for his son to arrive, so the father runs to him and embraces him, welcoming him with a kiss.
The son begins the speech he had prepared on his long walk home, the one about being worthless, unworthy of love, the speech about being a slave not a son, a hired-hand not a member of the family. But the father interrupts his speech, he doesn’t let his son finish groveling in his shame. The father cuts him off and begins to prepare a feast instead: he says to his servants, “Quickly… get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
With his love, his unconditional love, this love that moves him to run out to his lost son, the father washes away his child’s guilt and shame. In his father’s house, “there is therefore now no condemnation.”
That’s almost true, because we do hear condemnation from the eldest son who cannot tolerate the stench of his brother’s sin. He, of course, focuses the father’s attention on sex, as we so often like to do: “when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
The older son thinks of his life with his father as obedience and punishment, and since the younger son has disobeyed, he must be condemned and punished, not welcomed, not celebrated, not desired and loved. The older son thinks of his life as one of slavery—that’s what it means to live in his father’s house: obedience as slavery, piety as slavery. “I have been working like a slave for you,” he says, “and I have never disobeyed your command.” He’s worked so hard, he is so valuable to the household, so he should get payment, he should get more than his wayward brother. What he does not understand is that his father loves without a reason, his father loves without calculation, without evaluation, without comparisons.
This is where we find God in the story. Like the father, God is the one who loves, who desires reunion with his beloved, with his children, all of them, all of us, no matter what we’ve done, no matter where we’ve been. Shame and guilt do not come from God; those accusations come from us, as we play the role of the older son in the story, the accuser. God has no need for us to grovel in our worthlessness. God is the one who interrupts our confessions with grace, with forgiveness, with communion, with a party, a celebration. As Paul puts it in our passage from 2 Corinthians, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their transgressions against them.”
The good news is that we are loved, that we are fundamentally loved, that the most basic thing about us is that we are loved by God, desired by God, that we belong to God, as children not slaves.
To have faith is to come to know, to believe, that the truest thing about yourself is that you are loved. To have faith is to believe that you are worthy, worthy of love, that you are lovable.
Church, our congregation, our life together is an exploration of how we are made lovable, how we are worthy of love. Our life together is our confession that God’s love is possible, here and now, with us, God’s love made flesh, in our flesh. To believe in this love, to trust our lives to this God, we need all the help we can get — we need sisters and brothers who show us what it means to be loved by God, not accusers, not people who shame us, but children of God who hold us with the father’s arms, who wash away our guilt with the father’s kiss, people who show us, with their tears of joy, how it feels to be welcomed, to find a place at the Lord’s Table, God’s banquet.
After the Communion service in the woods, with his eyes still wet with tears, I heard the homeless man ask to borrow a cell phone so he could make a call. “Hey,” he said into the phone, “I’m at this place, I think it’s a church, and you’ll never guess what happened. They let me take Communion.” He was bewildered, shocked with joy.
I think the challenge of the story of the prodigal son comes at the beginning of the passage. The beginning of the story calls us to think about where we can find Jesus, as we follow him into new life, the new creation. This is how the story begins: “The 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.’ ”
Who do you eat with? Who are the sinners who are too dirty, too impure?