Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Do you know where the “far country” is?
I serve a city church. Almost every morning, I walk by the door just outside my office and someone is sleeping on the steps. On the cold mornings, if someone is there, I stop and I watch until I see movement to know that nobody died on our steps overnight.
That’s the far country.
“No one gave him anything.”
The parable tells us the prodigal came to himself. Some preachers interpret that graciously: He recognized the error of his ways and resolved to improve his life. Others are more skeptical: He realized he was starving to death, so he decided to come up with a good speech to deliver to his father and head home.
The grace of it all is that it doesn’t really matter if he recognized the error of his ways or simply desired a solid meal. His father takes off running for him and there is a new robe, a new ring, a big feast.
That’s when the far country comes home.
“I have worked for you, I have slaved, and you never threw me a party.”
The older son has done everything right in his life. He stayed home and worked hard. The return of his younger brother from the far country and the joy of his father send him into an emotional crisis. Suddenly, readers of the story are back in the far country again … “no one gave him anything.”
In this moment, the joy drops out of the bottom of the story. The far country is a lonely place. You can do everything right and still wind up in the far country. You can play by all the rules and work hard and still wind up in the far country.
One day, your job’s gone. It’s cheaper overseas, and there you are, off in the far country. You can work so hard at marriage you don’t think you have anything else to give and, one day, your spouse says, “There’s nothing left,” and there you are: far country. Your children grow up and they don’t need you like they once did, and there you are: out in the far country. Everyone knows at some point in their life what it is to be underappreciated, to work, work, work and have someone else get the party. Everyone knows what it is to get hurt, and there you are: far country. It would be hopeless, the inevitability of the far country, if it weren’t for the relentlessness of grace.
Karl Barth said that Jesus is the son who went into the far country for us. Jesus is the one who, in a world “where no one would give him anything,” was willing to endure the sin, isolation and pain of journeying into the far country for us.
Perhaps you saw the movie, “What Dreams May Come,” a few decades ago? The late Robin Williams played a physician who was killed in a car accident shortly after the death of his children and is reunited with them in a bright and colorful heavenly playground. In time, he realizes something is horribly wrong. His wife is missing. Bereft of her husband and children, convinced that she was at fault because if she had been driving her maternal instincts might have saved her children, she elected to join them in death. Her tragic death plunges her into a dark and colorless world of terror and fear. Believing that nothing can ever be right if this is so, Williams’ character plunges himself into the very same terror, darkness and fear to go after her. In his dogged pursuit of her, he reminds her to cling to joy, and pulls her back into the light, back into a world of color and joy and play.
That is the truth of Jesus’s own journey into the far country.
When we say, “he descended into hell,” we acknowledge the truth of the crucifixion — that Jesus came to pull all of us back from the world of death and fear and terror into the world of color and light and joy. Jesus came into a world “where no one would give him anything,” Jesus journeyed into the far country to bring us home.
So, we make promises to one another. In baptism, we say, that we will accompany one another, even to the far country, because that is where Jesus found us.
And that accompaniment, that grace is what ultimately makes the parable of the prodigal son a story of great joy.
Questions for reflection:
- Have you or your loved ones experienced the far country? What gave you comfort in the hardest times?
- What does the inevitability of the far country tell us about human sin?
- What is the experience of joy that you cling to in your hardest moments?
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