“I’m sorry I smell so bad.”
I had been approached by a guest in the backyard. He was wearing clothes that were wrinkled and dirty. This apology were the first words out of his mouth.
“You have no need to apologize,” I said to him, “How may I help you?”
“I need fresh clothes, underwear, pants and a shirt. I can wash up in a gas station bathroom.”
Then he apologized again, “I’m sorry I stink.”
“It isn’t you who should be apologizing,” I responded.
“If not me, who? I’m the one who stinks.”
“How about the rich, the powerful, the people who run this country. The capitalists and bankers and politicians. They’re the ones who need to apologize to you.”
Another guest standing nearby said, “Ain’t that the truth!”
I told the apologetic guest, “Meet me at the front door and we’ll get you set up with some fresh clothes and a shower.”
Earlier in the morning, when I had first arrived at Manna House, I went into the laundry room. I was greeted by the stench of shit. I traced the stench to one of our big black trash cans that serve as laundry baskets for the dirty clothes of those who shower. I sorted through the clothes and found the offending underwear. It is not unusual for the underwear of our guests to be soiled in this manner. No public restrooms combined with soup kitchen food leads to bathroom emergencies unmet. In other words, shit happens.
I thought of St. Paul and his famous metaphor of the Body of Christ. Paul once wrote how God the Creator, “has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as God wanted them to be.” Paul noted that “there are many parts, but one body.” And he continued, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.”
Then he drew the theological and ethical conclusion, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (I Corinthians 12:18-26).
Paul reflected the insight and ethos of Jesus and the prophets. If one part of the body (a member of the community) stinks, it is up to the other parts to do something about it. Those other parts must not shame the part that stinks but do something to take away the stench. Like, give that part a shower and some fresh clothes.
But Paul goes further. He names the cause of the stench. The stench is from the injustice and division that caused some to stink while others luxuriate in perfumed palaces. So, beyond a shower and a change of clothes, the very way all the parts of the body are related needs to be recognized and affirmed. Society needs to be structured so that the most vulnerable are treated with special honor.
I would guess that Paul’s insight into a Gospel response to stench was connected to his knowledge of how Jesus responded to stench. You might recall the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus arrived days after Lazarus had died. When he commanded that the stone to the tomb be taken away, Martha the sister of Lazarus objected, “Lord, by now he stinks… It has already been four days” (John 11:39). Undeterred, Jesus had the stone removed and raised Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus prefigured an even greater work by God. God moved beyond the resuscitation of Lazarus to the resurrection of Jesus. Those who came early to Jesus’ tomb after he had been crucified may have well expected a stench. Instead, of the stench of death there was the surprise of resurrection. God’s loving power raised Jesus from the dead. Easter calls us to this resurrection reality, and to the fragrant Gospel work of hospitality and justice so no one stinks.
One thought on “The Fragrant Work of the Gospel”
Thank you for this humbling reflection on redemptive love, compassion, and justice. Dr. Gathje, I listened to your recent interview on the Cosmic We and was moved by your respect for the body of Christ. Thank you for this legacy work!