Who Is Eating with Swine?
Rev. Kurt Lantz Lent 4 C Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
March 27, 2022 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear brothers and sisters,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Your room looks like a pigsty! Were you raised in a barn?” I’ve heard these harsh comments when I was a boy and needed to be confronted about the disarray and, yes, even filth in my disordered bedroom; or about my sloppy eating habits at that age when the growing body craves all the nutrition it snarf down. Even now, when pot-bellied pigs are enjoying a slight acceptance as household pets, most of us still have a pejorative view of pigs as dirty, smelly, filthy animals.
God had declared to the children of Israel that pigs were to be classified among the unclean animals (Leviticus 11:7), not to be eaten and whose carcasses were not to be touched. This was part of those ceremonial laws that separated and distinguished the Jews from other peoples. They were allowed to eat meat from animals that God set apart as fitting for sacrifices. The meat of the animals that were offered as sacrifices was eaten at home in a holy family meal and all other opportunities to eat meat were to serve as a reminder that their life and holiness came from God and His blessing upon the meat that they ate.
Animals that had anything to do with death, rather than life from God, were shunned. Pigs will eat dead carcasses and root around in the earth. They were therefore used by pagan peoples in their rituals to appease false gods and to seek power from death, rather than from the God who is the Author of life.
When Jesus came in flesh and blood to offer Himself as the one sacrifice to purify us from all uncleanness, He Himself declared all foods to be clean (Mark 7:19). Peter had a vision of a sheet let down from heaven with all kinds of unclean animals in it, of which God told him to eat. This happened as men came to his door to invite him to the house of the Gentile Cornelius, where Peter declared that God had made all men acceptable to Himself through Jesus Christ (Acts 10).
But when Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son, it was clear to everyone that the wayward sinner had reached rock bottom when he not only leeched himself onto a Gentile landowner who raised pigs, but took the despicable job of feeding those unclean animals (15:15), and also longed to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate (16). He was not just low enough to eat the unclean animals themselves, but to eat what they ate, and to eat with them. It couldn’t get any worse for that wayward son, and that is when he realized how far he had fallen and the only source of gracious love that could lift him up.
It was with a similar disgust that the Pharisees and Scribes grumbles about Jesus, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (15:2). They would not be caught dead doing such a thing; not conversing with cheats, not touching prostitutes, not sitting at the same table with tax collectors, not sharing the same food with sinners—not eating with such swine.
But Jesus knew that He had come to give cleansing and purity in His own flesh and blood for all sinners; for the Pharisee and the prostitute, for the Scribe and such sinners as they despised. He knew that He had come to give them a place at His table, to share His food with them, that precious supper of His body and blood, which was sacrificed on the cross for them all. He invites us all to eat of this flesh that had been dead and is alive again, to be fed by the Author of Life with the Bread of Life.
Some of those to whom Jesus offered His table fellowship became the great faithful heroes of the Christian faith. Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons; Matthew the tax collector who later wrote the First Gospel, Peter who himself confessed, I am a sinful man. But even more remarkable is that Jesus shared His table even with those whom He knew would not reach repentance and faith. He not only had His own betrayer at the table with Him, and shared the Passover supper, but even dipped a morsel of bread in the dish and handed it to him.
The Scribes and Pharisees were afraid that they would be polluted by such sinners. They would not eat with them. Jesus knew that these sinners were afraid of their own uncleanness and He came to purify them. He knew that they were desperate for someone to lift them out of their filth, like the wayward son eating with the pigs, who came to himself and remembered the gracious love of his father whom he had wronged. Jesus knew that they needed that kind of love that the father showed to his rebellious son, running out to meet him, embracing him, kissing him, clothing him, and not only feeding him but feasting with him.
Jesus has run out to meet us sinners. He has come into our world, into our lives in all of their filth in order to show us the love of the heavenly Father. He has embraced us as sinners, even before a word of confession could reach our lips. It is His coming to us that has given us hope to lift us out of wallowing in the mire of our sin. It is his coming to us that has directed our footsteps toward the home of our loving heavenly Father. It is His sacrifice that has given us the strength to return and to raise our eyes to see God’s love running toward us in Jesus, embracing us with His Gospel, washing us in Holy Baptism, clothing us in His righteousness, and feeding us with His festal sacrifice, prepared as a fattened calf for our homecoming meal.
Although there are parallels to going out for coffee with a friend, there is a whole lot more implicated in Jesus being willing to eat with sinners. To be invited to a sit down meal in someone’s house is an offer of peace, trust, and brotherhood. God is offering peace to sinners who have offended Him and injured His children. He is doing this for you by inviting you to His table. He is extending to you a brotherhood, an acknowledgement of your suffering and your situation as He has experienced it Himself in the Person of His Son. He is sharing your life of suffering and sorrow and giving You of His life of holiness and peace.
All of this is in the father’s command to “Bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate” (15:23). This is not just to give some food to a starving son after a long journey. This is so much greater than that. This is a welcome back into the family, an acknowledgement that the sin is past and a new life has begun. This is a public proclamation that the son is under the shelter of the father’s care once again and that he has been fully restored to a place of honour in the household.
The killing of a fattened calf was not just for the household. Have you ever tried to eat a calf, the whole thing? This was a feast for the community. It is not a matter just between father and son, or only for the household. This is an invitation for the whole town to come and recognize that all has been made well, that the wayward son is wayward no more, that he is not to be shunned or despised or avoided but welcomed and embraced and cherished as a member of the community, as a son and heir of the father.
The Pharisees and Scribes refused to participate in any such acknowledgement when Jesus received sinners at His table and ate with them. They did not want to eat with the swine or welcome them into the family. They did not want to regard them as God’s beloved children, their brothers and sisters in faith and fellowship. They did not want them to have a share in the inheritance laid up in heaven for God’s children. When Peter and Paul started to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ among the Gentiles, the Jewish Christians had a difficult time welcoming them as full-fledged members of the household of God, too. There were issues about sharing the table with those who were regarded as unclean even among Christians.
And so we have the older brother’s reactions to the feast that he finds underway as he comes home from working in the field. “He was angry and refused to go in” (15:28). He would not eat with such a prodigal pig. He would not participate in such an act of restoration and fellowship. Just like the Pharisees and the Scribes, he would never dare to eat with such sinful swine. He could not see justifying such expense as killing the fattened calf. He could not conceive that such a community celebration should be called. It was unthinkable to Him.
Yet, what did his father say to him, “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (15:32). It is the right thing to do when the sinner is brought to repentance and comes home. It is necessary to rejoice in such a wondrous act of God, because it is a celebration of the father’s unbounded love. That is what caused the wayward son’s return. That is why the rest of the household and the community were conjoined to celebrate. The father’s grace and mercy were the cause and source of joy. The repentance of the sinner has to be based on the love of the God who will forgive and welcome and celebrate their return.
Are you willing to sup with the swine? Are you willing to celebrate the grace and mercy of the heavenly Father in welcoming home the sinner? That grace and mercy is extended to you, for just as He has sent His Son into this world to rescue those who find themselves in the mire with the swine, so He has sent His Son into this world to beckon you to come in. He does not want you to storm off in disgust over sinners who have been forgiven. He doesn’t want you to run off in a huff to some faraway country where you might find yourself destitute and eating the pods of pigs. He has a feast going on right here, a feast where even the swine of humanity are brought in and given shelter, peace, and love. It is a feast for the whole community, a feast for you too. Because Jesus is not ashamed to eat with swine, we can celebrate the grace and mercy of God that also invites us to the table?
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.