There is no mistake, no sin or flaw, not the worst act you can think of, that makes us or anyone unworthy of love or food or shelter.
The parable Jesus tells of this hungry son gets used to teach repentance, but the character doesn’t sound very repentant. In fact, biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine argues that his “lack of remorse is [found in] his line, “I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Biblically literate listeners would hear an echo of the empty words Pharaoh mouths…to stop the plagues.” We read in Exodus “Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.’” (Exod. 10:16). Levine says the people listening to Jesus tell this story would’ve known from this familiar phrase that “The prodigal is no more repentant, has had no more change of heart, than Egypt’s ruler.”
And still, the hungry son will eat his fill. We will never be so flawed that we are unworthy of food or love or shelter.
We can invite ourselves and each other to another way of being, again and again, we can do it quietly, we can make referrals, we can give gift cards rather than cash. We can donate to organizations rather than individuals. We can give spare change or big bucks or sandwiches or hot chocolate or advice or prayer. We can choose tough love, high expectations and mutual accountability. But even tough love must come on a full stomach.
“If you love me,” Jesus told Peter, “feed my sheep.” Three times he said it. Three times Peter would deny Jesus, in his fear, three times Peter would hide from the truth. Three times, Jesus told Peter, love me by feeding others, by filling bellies, by leaning right into the need.
Not just when the hungry person looks like us, looks receptive to charity, looks like they’ll really appreciate the food and know how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Not just when we can easily stare into this person’s hungry, thirsty, aching face. “But Lord, if we had known it was you hungry, we would’ve fed you, if we had known it was you thirsty, we would’ve brought you a drink! If we had known you were in prison, of course we would have visited you!”
We know what Jesus says, “anytime you care for the least of these, you care for me.”