Bob, a gentleman who was probably in his 70s, had been quiet and attentive throughout the evening. I was teaching about the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). When I finished speaking Bob was the first one out of his chair. I could tell, as he made his way to the front of the classroom, 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!” “Yes,” I said, “in the pig pen.” “And you know what he would have smelled like and what was on him.” “Pig poop,” I said kiddingly. He did not think that was funny. Then he went on to explain, “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. Instead we go home to become clean. The father receives the son as he is. He hugs him, kisses him, robes him – all without a bath. The son is immersed in love. Bob just could not believe that, so together we read the story again. When we got to the end of the story 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.
Bob’s story is not all that unusual. 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. We cannot imagine how anyone, let alone God, would embrace or love them. We certainly do not, 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 have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
For all the years he spent in the distant country Bob never did get clean enough to go home. Instead “he came to himself.” He started gathering the fragments of his life – the clean and the unclean, the acceptable and the unacceptable, things done and things left undone – all that he was and all that he had. He recognized that the unclean parts of his life were real, but they were not his final reality. In the past those parts of his life kept him from going home and exiled him to the pig pens. Now those pieces of his life would become the way home. They would become places of healing, new life, wholeness, forgiveness, and grace.
I do not know what took Bob to that distant country or what he so desperately tried to wash away but I know that his story is my story and your story. We have been to the distant country. We have lived with the pigs. We have washed but cannot get clean. In coming to himself Bob would ultimately have to trust the Father’s love more than he trusted the pig stink. After all, if the Father does how can we do any thing less?
This post appears as an article in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Reflections, a magazine of spirituality published by the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas.