He Eats With Sinners
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 – The Prodigal Son and how it can help us integrate the various warring parts of our personality. Check out Jody Sinkway and the choir following the sermon.
The 15th chapter of Luke begins with a complaint about Jesus’ table manners. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the religious authorities grumble, and everything that follows is Jesus’ reply to that charge.
Now the beauty of a great parable is that it can be explored over and over and like a beautifully cut diamond we see a new facet every time we come to it. I have seen in this a morality play with the younger brother looking almost as good as a hero and the elder brother as bad as the devil himself. Neither of these is true.
You can look into this parable and see what Karl Barth saw – an allegory where God is Father, Jesus the Prodigal and the righteous elder son the Pharisees whom Jesus is critiquing in this parable. I’ve also seen this parable as a psychological story of what we call the superego, ego and id. A story of how we struggle for integration within ourselves. And how this is born out of that internal struggle to find our way home to reside within ourselves and within God.
When we read this parable and understand how first century Palestinians would have heard it we realize that both the younger son and the older son are sinners. Both have offended their father. Both have shown him disrespect and dishonor. And the parable leaves us with unanswered questions. What does the older son do? What does the Father do? What does the prodigal do?
And that is a pretty good description of what makes us who we are – dysfunctional at best. There is the id – the pleasure principle within us that propels us towards things that are beautiful, awesome, fun, and pleasurable. Out of control the id looks like an addict in search of his next fix. But without the id we become austere, stoic, cold, hardhearted, self-righteous.
Which leads us to the ego. The ego is what propels us to greatness. The ego is what makes it possible for people to accomplish great things like rising from the ordinary – any one of us, to the extraordinary – like Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Jobs & Bill Gates. You can name your own examples.
But this magnificent thing called the ego, this thing in us that propels us to greatness, also comes with its dark side the misuse of the power that comes when the ego tries to ease God out. When the ego tries to do this. It seeks to separate itself from God a.k.a. the Superego.
The Superego’s job is to help the ego find balance with the id. Like the Father in the story of the Prodigal, the Super ego tries to give direction to both sons who are lost, one has been found, the id, but the ego is still outside and angry with the Super ego for it’s extravagant display of hospitality for such a fool as the id because it violates the ego’s sense of fairness and justice.
And the ego is a tough nut. We in this sense our own worst enemies. The reason the Super ego within us always will welcome back the id or the prodigal son is because relationship or integration is its goal. Fairness is not possible in this type of relationship because the Father is more concerned with integration, which is only possible if the way that the Superego loves them both can be accepted by both the ego and the id.
In other words the older son and the younger have to come together with the father or else there can be no sense of home, no place of belonging, which then leads to even more rebellion by the id as it says, “I don’t need judgment.” And the ego says, “Yes you do.”
As long as that dynamic exists there can be no peace within our souls. You see this all the time. People who have overly identified with either the rebellion of the younger brother – who shuns responsibility and self control over and over again and at the opposite extreme the older brother – whose need for fairness is never satisfied and in their presence you always feel a hardness, a sense of judgment, a lack of acceptance. But as the Father knows all to well it’s not about fairness. It’s about love and grace.
We find peace and rest for our souls only when we come home. Only when we repent and turn from the self -destructive behaviors that lie at the extremes of these two brothers can harmony in the home or soul be restored. God knows what the ego cannot accept that for the ego to feel peace it must let go of its need to control events on its terms. And the id has to let go of its need to rebel.
And this can only happen through the ability of the father to out endure the sinful nature of his sons. And because we have been in rebellion for such a long time we forget that our rebellion comes with a great price.
If they would just ask him, God could tell them that coming home always involves a profound crisis of identity. You can’t have peace and stay exactly who you are, or even who you want to be. Sometimes you have to make huge concessions, sacrificing things as concrete as fields that have been in the family forever, or things as intangible as honor, greatness, rightness and self-respect.
And it seems as if God is willing to do whatever is necessary, even allowing himself to be shamed by his children, even dying if necessary, to save his children from a hellish life. It’s all a matter of priorities, and for the Father, reunion is all that matters. Reunion waits for what is lost to find its way home. It beckons the ego to accept that mercy is more important that fairness. It wants both sons to see life as a gift given, not an inheritance to be received. Reunion brings the dead back to life.
Any way you look at it, this is a disturbing story. It’s about throwing parties for losers and asking winners to foot the bill. It’s about giving up on the idea that we can love God and despise each other.
We simply cannot, no matter how wrong any of us have been; because when we give up on others we also give up on ourselves. How can the father say to either son – “I have no need of you?” It would be like the superego saying I don’t need either the id or ego. You cannot be whole unless you make peace with what is at war within you.
Meanwhile, there is a banquet going on. You can hear the music even if you’re standing out in the yard, and there is plenty of food left to eat. Only one question remains: “Are we smart enough to go in?” Amen