The story centers on the impatience of the younger of the two sons. He wants his inheritance before the death of his father. I’ll read verse 12: “He said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me’” (Lk. 15:12). When the father dies, the son will get the money. But he can’t wait until then. He doesn’t want to wait. He wants his inheritance now, even though his father is still very much alive. He asks if they could all just assume he’s dead, legally dead, for the sake of the pay out from the inheritance. He values his father as only a bank account, he thinks about him as like an atm machine, a lifeless object for his service. The son takes the gift of his father and runs away with it—he runs away from the life of the giver. In his impatience, he sins.
Sin is a kind of dehumanization, to treat a person as if they were dead, as if they didn’t matter—to treat others as if they have less feelings and perspectives and needs than we do. To sin against another person is to diminish the life that God has given them, to act as if their life matters less than ours, to regard their life as important to us only for what we can get from them, as if they are just furniture in our world, as if they’ve been scripted into our lives as supporting actors for our stardom, to make us look good, to help us get what we want when we want it. Sin is that impulse, like the son in the parable, to take without regard for the life of the giver.
All of this is very personal, about how each of us acts as people, as persons in our relationship with others—with family members, with friends, with coworkers, with the cashier at the grocery store, with the stranger who asks us for a couple dollars. We also should recognize that the grip of sin reaches beyond us, that there is a structure of sin that organizes the ordinariness of life in such a way that diminishes some for the sake of others, a world of sin that has everything to do with global economies of violence and the looming migration crisis as regions of the earth become less and less inhabitable. There’s a sinfulness to this world that is beyond our willpower. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible, in the small parts we play. We are implicated in the violences we abhor, the harm we would never choose for anyone to experience. All of this just comes with the territory of living in a country that is a global empire.
Sin is a power, beyond us, outside of us, that holds us captive—not just us, but the world. This world has been captured by sin as if by a foreign power, an invading force taking hold of our lives. And we’re tempted to collaborate with that alien regime—to become collaborators with the occupation. That’s the temptation of sin, to let ourselves become enlisted in acts of harm against the goodness that God has given us, the goodness of this human life we share with our neighbors, a life of peace, of joy, of love, all of what God creates as good.
The parable that Jesus tells in Luke 15 shows us how sin captures a life, how a person isolates himself in the pursuit of his own desires, an impatience with what he has that leads him to refuse the goodness around him, the goodness of others, the gift of God in the life he has. He takes what he wants and leaves his people behind. They mean nothing to him anymore, once he gets his inheritance, once he’s able to secure all that he thinks he needs in order to succeed in life, in order to pursue his goals, to achieve his dreams.
Then troubles finds him—a famine, which is trouble not just for him but for everyone. He doesn’t have anything, no income, no savings, no social safety net, because he’s sacrificed all of that for the sake of “dissolute living,” we read in verse 15. Other translations say “prodigal living.” In Greek the word is asotos, which means something like “a madness that knows no bounds” (BDAG). A madness has possessed him, driving him to consume without limit, without a second thought about consequences, without a concern for others nor even a concern for himself. All he knows is his maddening desire, his unquenchable thirst for more.
“When he had spent everything,” this is verse 15 again, “When he had spent everything, he hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him…to feed the pigs” (vv. 14-15). This is the low point of the story. He is a Jew who now has to work with unclean animals. He’s on the edge of losing himself—the dissolution of his identity, of his sense of self, of who he is.
But there’s a shift, a turning in the story. “He came to himself,” it says in verse 17. The man returns to who he is. Something of his identity comes back to him. He is able to see through the madness of sin that has clouded his vision. And he wants to return to his community. But he is overwhelmed with shame about what he has done, about who he has become. He convinces himself that he cannot return as a member of the family, but will have to beg for a position as a hired hand, as a servant in his family’s household (v. 19).
This is the voice of guilt and shame, of self-loathing—to be ashamed, and for that sense of shame to overwhelm him, to convince him that he deserves what has happened to him. He finds himself detestable and expects others to feel the same way about him. That’s what shame does to us. Shame is a lie that distorts our sense of God’s goodness.
The man decides, by himself, according to his own calculations, that he is “no longer worthy to be called [a] son”—and that’s the voice of shame: to believe that you are no longer worthy, that you lack value, that you won’t be welcomed back, that no one would ever forgive you because you can’t forgive yourself.
Shame is a voice in our heads that lies to us, that tells us that we are worthless, that we will forever be outside the embrace of someone’s grace, beyond their forgiveness. Shame is a lie that tells us that, because of what we’ve done, we have become unlovable. 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 in the same way that we see ourselves.
When the man in the parable returns home, he grovels before family. He starts to recite the speech he had rehearsed along the way, but his father ignores those self-loathing words and instead throws a feast, a banquet to welcome him back to the community. There is no lecturing about his sins or questions about what he has done to his life. There is no time for that with all the partying going on. Instead, there is feasting, a celebration for the restoration of this one who had been lost.
This is the good news from this passage for us: the most basic thing about us is that we are loved. We are graced, God made us with grace. God’s forgiveness is the core of who we are. God welcomes us without a lecture, without accusations, and without punishment or demands for repayment of what we’ve squandered with our lives. God keeps no records of prodigal living.
To have faith is to come to know, to believe, that the truest thing about yourself, the most fundamental fact about your life, is that you are loved. To have faith in God is to believe that you are worthy of love, that you are lovable. And the Christian life, what we do here as a church, is to remind each other of that love from God. We remind each other, with words and deeds, with acts of care and concern, because we need all the help we can get, given the world we’ve made for ourselves, full of lies that echo from everywhere about our value, our worth—all sorts of lies about who we have to be in order to matter, what we have to do in order to be considered a success.
We are here, you are here, as a church, to remind each other and our neighbors that the one who made us also loves us. Because all of us are children of God, each of us a beloved child of God.
Even when we wander, God finds us.
 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.”
 Stanley Hauerwas: “We’re captured by sin, we’re captive to a power, not as something so much that I do as something that I’m captured by and that I don’t even recognize as captivity.” See Rodney Clapp, “What Would Pope Stanley Say: A Conversation with Stanley Hauerwas,” Books & Culture, Nov/Dec 1998, https://www.booksandculture.com/articles/1998/novdec/8b6016.html
 Sebastian Moore, The Fire and the Rose Are One (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), chapter 22: “An Anatomy of Guilt,” 66-70.
 McCabe, God Still Matters, 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.”