What about the Bath?
Episcopalian priest Michael Marsh speaks about an experience he had when teaching the story of the prodigal son. ‘Bob, a gentleman who was probably in his 70s, had been quiet and attentive throughout the evening. When I finished speaking Bob was the first one out of his chair. I could tell that he was upset. “What about the bath,” he demanded. “You didn’t say anything about the bath.” I had no idea what he was talking about and told him that I did not understand his comment. He became more agitated the longer he talked. “You know where he had been! The son was dirty and smelly. The father would never hug him, kiss him, or put a robe on him until the son first had a bath. Why didn’t you talk about the bath?” I explained that a bath was not part of the story, that we can never ‘get clean enough’ to go home. The father receives the son as he is. The son is immersed in his father’s love. Bob just could not believe that, so together we read the story again. When we got to the end his eyes filled with tears and he said, “All my life I thought this story said the son had to take a bath before he could go home.” I said to him, “And all your life you have been trying to get clean enough to go home.” He simply nodded in silence, tears running down his face.
Each of us can probably name parts of our life and being that we have judged unacceptable and unclean. They are the parts of ourselves that we dislike, condemn, and sometimes even hate. We allow them to declare that we are not enough to be God’s child, never have been, and never will be, so we exile those aspects of ourselves to the distant country. We then live as fragmented, broken, persons trying to get clean enough to come home. Over and over the voice of the Prodigal Son echoes in our ears, “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The unclean parts of our lives are real, but they are not our final reality. Instead of keeping us from going home, they become the way home. They become places of healing, new life, wholeness and forgiveness.’
We, too, will then feel immersed in love. ‘You will experience the presence of God within you, which some theologians name uncreated grace. You can’t manufacture this by any right conduct. God isn’t going to love you any more than God loves you right now. We can’t diminish God’s love for us. What we can do, however, is to learn how to believe it, receive it, trust it, allow it and celebrate it.’
Gospel Luke 15:1-3.11-32
The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’. So he spoke this parable to them:
“A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery. ‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating, but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then his son said, “Father I have sinner against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feats, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.”
‘The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it is only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”‘