Eating With (and Without) the Prodigal

Sunday of the Prodigal Son, February 28, 2021
1 Corinthians 6:12-20; Luke 15:11-32

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Eating is a major theme in the Scriptures. And have you ever noticed that it comes up four times in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

This parable of Christ comes from Luke chapter 15, which opens like this: “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them. ’”

Before Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal, He tells two others, both very short—one about a shepherd who loses one sheep and leaves behind ninety-nine to go after it and another about a woman who loses a coin and recovers it. And He says that there is great joy at the return of what was lost and explains that these parables are about repentant sinners returning.

But then He tells the story of the Prodigal, which is much longer and features what the Pharisees and scribes were complaining about—eating. Why would they care about that? These leaders in Judea understood what everyone in the ancient world knew and what we still know ourselves—when you eat with someone, you are in communion with him. And when you are in communion with someone, you are in community with him, and you become like him. So Jesus eating with sinners meant that Jesus must be a sinner Himself or in danger of becoming one.

So what are the four instances of eating? And what do they mean within this understanding of eating together as communion?

First, the Prodigal, after leaving his father’s house and wasting everything in a faraway place, is feeding pigs. He wants to have what they’re eating, because he’s so hungry. In fact, the Scripture says that he “gladly” would have eaten their food, because no one would give him anything.

At this point, the Prodigal is so out of community with everyone that he is ready to enter into communion with pigs. And of course pigs are a great symbol of uncleanness in Israel, a symbol of life outside the camp of God’s people, of the world of the nations. To be in communion with pigs is an image of idolatry, an image of the pagan worship of demons. And of course pigs were used in those sacrifices. That he “gladly” wants to eat with pigs shows that you can’t really live in isolation. You will be in communion with something, even pigs, even demons. There is no neutral space. You have to eat.

The second mention of eating is when the Prodigal comes to himself and remembers his father’s house, where even the hired servants “have bread enough and to spare.” The father feeds his servants well. They are in communion with him and have abundance.

This contrasts with the image of communion with uncleanness and idolatry. In the system of idolatry, worshipers had to feed and take care of the idols, just as the Prodigal had to feed the pigs. And yet he starved. Idolatry promises to feed you, but leaves you starving.

But in the worship of Yahweh the God of Israel, He is the One Who provides food for His people. We see this not only here in this parable but also in the showbread in the Tabernacle given for the priests to eat, in the manna given in the wilderness, in the feeding of the five thousand, and of course in the Eucharist.

The third reference to eating we see is in the return of the Prodigal, when his father says to bring out the fatted calf for a feast in honor of his son’s return. This mention of eating is the most explicit reference of what we would call the “religious” character of eating. How so? Fatted calves were kept for sacrifice, not for last-minute parties. So when a first-century listener heard this parable, he would have understood that the father was going to make a sacrifice to God in thanksgiving for his son’s return. And that is how the hymns for today interpret this calf.

But how does that relate to eating? Sacrifice is the act of offering food to your god and then eating it together with him. In Israelite worship, the best part is given to God by burning it with fire, and the remainders are given to the priests and to those offering the sacrifice (which is the opposite of how it worked in idolatry). Thus, worshipers entered into communion with God by eating with Him.

So when the Prodigal returns and the father offers sacrifice in celebration, it is not merely to feed his starving son, but it is a full restoration of the community—the father as the priest of the family, offering sacrifice, bringing the family into communion with God and each other. And the effects of communion are also shown—the Prodigal is clothed in the best robe, given new shoes and a ring for his finger. He is shown to be a son and heir again, not only a servant, but sharing in the rule of his father in the household.

The final mention of eating is in the epilogue of the story, where the older brother is jealous of his position with the father. He wants a “kid,” that is, a young goat, to share with his friends. And what does this mean? It is an act of schism. It is the desire to rupture community. He wants a table of communion apart from the father and the rest of the family, and he wants it because he resents the return of his repentant brother. He does not want to be in communion with him. Note that the father’s response not only affirms the repentance but also “all that is mine is yours,” that is, he wants communion to be maintained with his older son, as well.

The core preaching of the gospel is “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” What is the Kingdom of Heaven? It is the rule of God returning to earth. It is the presence of God in our midst.

But it is mutual. It is not a wiping away of humanity as God returns to reclaim what is His from His enemies who enticed mankind with idolatry. The Kingdom of God is communion. It is to eat and drink with our God. We are made part of His community, and He is brought into ours. He became like us in the Incarnation so that we might become like Him through communion.

But as we see in the tale of the Prodigal, and as is indispensable in the gospel, we cannot be in communion with God without repentance. We cannot remain in sin. We cannot continue to embrace the idolatry and insanity of the world if we wish to be in community with the only God worthy of worship. We have to leave those things behind and return to Him.

A pastor friend of mine recently told me that his congregation had become paralyzed by fear of alienating people. They did not want to change even in a way they said they believed in, because they feared some people would not like it. But the gospel is not “Welcome everyone no matter what, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It is “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

The call to repentance is indeed a universal call, which means that all are indeed welcome. But it is a call to action in order for that welcome to become communion. The Prodigal could not be in communion with both pigs and his father at the same time. The elder son could not go off with his friends and sacrifice their goat and be in communion with his father at the same time.

Being in communion with God means becoming the sons of God by adoption and grace. He has given us the gift of repentance to make that possible, and so like the Prodigal we have to use it. A place has been prepared for us, and God is ready to share His table with us.

So as we now prepare for this great season of Lent, we make our preparation to repent, to return, to restore, and to reconcile with God, so that we may eat with Him the Passover, that is, the Pascha of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.

To the God Who brings us to His table, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.