32 – The return to the Far country
“he traveled to a distant country”
The son who wandered, wanders no more. That is one scenario as to what happened after he came home from his wild trajectory through strange places. There may, however, be a different set of ending to this story. Suggestions have been proffered that after he had stayed home for a while, eventually he returned to that far country. But why he returned has left us uncertain as to whether that was bad news or good.
The Call of the Wild
Many have suggested that he came home because his belly was empty, his pockets were bare, and his wardrobe a mess. A famine is a tough thing to face on your own. So he came home making a resolve to stay home and behave himself. But home is where the heart is, and his heart is not in his father’s house. For you can take the boy out of the far country, but it will take a miracle to get the far country out of him. He may have returned for famine relief. He may have returned, sorry for his stupidity in running out of money. He may have regretted the consequences of his choices, but may not have been sorry for the choice he had made to try his hand at the great adventure. He may have only been sorry his dreams didn’t work out.
At night, as he lays wide awake on his bed after a hard day on the family farm, his mind returns again and again to that far country. As time drags by, the call of the wild is heard and touches a deep yearning within. The memory of the music is a siren’s call. In his day dreams, while leaning on the fence scanning the distant horizons, memories of the fun he had experienced over-power the memories of the pain he had endured.
As the famine lifted, and the economy improved, it may have been that one dark night our young friend surreptitiously packs a duffle bag with edibles and valuables, and heads down the highway. He is off to his old haunts and the wild ways. This time he will stay away forever. Sad story!
But there is a happier possibility to end this tale on. In my mind there has always been the question: Did he ever go back to that far country to try to make amends? For he may have left behind him more damage than we got to hear about.
F. W. Boreham[i] in one of his essays takes an imaginary trip back to a Phoenician town on the Mediterranean coast, as a reporter following up on a story. He interviews the innkeeper and his wife and hears the story of that young man’s sojourn in their town.
“He had lots of money. A born leader. An adventurer. The young men of the town were impressed with him. He set a dizzy pace of life that caught them up in a whirl of pleasure and sensation. He opened the doors to the brothels and the bars for many of those young men. He taught them how to live life to its full in the gambling establishments and the world of glitz and glamour. As long as his money lasted it was a gay old time. But when the money run out, he ran home, and he left young men behind with appetites inflamed and addictions taking their hold on these young lives.”
“He was also handsome as well as wealthy. And the young girls in town thought him grand. They hung on his clever words, and acted like groupies at a rock festival. They found themselves selling their virtue for a mess of pottage, or, they squandered their reputations if not their virtue for far too small a gain.”
F.W. Boreham continues his investigation of that town. He stops at a shoemaker’s shop to talk to three men gathered there. He tells the story of the transforming forgiveness of the father for the son who returned back to his father. One man answers angrily, “It’s a pity that he didn’t discover the attractions of his father’s house before he came here.”
Then the story continues as “a young woman, whose face seemed robbed of its youthful brightness, and in whose eyes there was no suggestion of gaiety, passed at that moment, bearing a little child, Eastern-fashion, on her hip. The men were silent until she was at a discreet distance. Then the man who had not previously spoken snarled, “Go and tell her how happily it all ended! There is such a thing as being converted too late! There are men in this town whom your friend led into dishonour; there are women whom he led into shame! He dragged down some who were up, and others who were down he pushed deeper down.”
Then one of Boreham’s characters asks a question that is a valid one. “Does he suppose that his Father’s forgiveness is the only forgiveness he needs!” Good question!
I wonder, did he ever go back to make apology? To ask for forgiveness, not only of his God and his father, but of his victims and their families?
To live in remorse is no answer. To beat one’s self with flagellating guilt over the past is no solution. To punish one’s self unendingly for foul deeds done, adds health to no one’s life. Remorse is not productive nor healthy, but restitution may be.
Did he ever go back to make restitution for damage caused? And when he could not restore something that had been irreparably damaged, did he make compensation in his treatment of others from that time forward? I hope so. That is the nature of true penitence. It is not content only with forgiveness for oneself. It is concerned with the restoration of all things where possible. Zacchaeus restored four fold anything he had taken dishonestly. I wonder if our young man tried to undo the damage he had caused? I hope so!
Did he go back as a village evangelist, trying to do good where he had done damage? I hope so.
Irresponsible souls would have said “I was young! Sowing my wild oats. Hey! God has forgiven me! My father has too. Let bygones be bygones!” That is no Christian response. True penitence attempts to bring healing where the hurt has been caused. It is never satisfied with the forgiveness of the past, it wants to forge a different future for those who have been wounded.
Alfred Lord Tennyson[ii] retells the story of Camelot. King Arthur & Queen Guinevere had planned to rebuilt England in the image of the Kingdom of God. Then Lancelot had entered the scene. He and Guinevere had fallen in love, and the affair had done great damage to the dream of a Christianized Britain. Arthur went off to die in the resulting war. Lancelot was banished to France, and Guinevere retreated to a convent.
On his way to his last battle, Arthur visits Guinevere in the convent. These are his words to her:
“Think not that I have come to urge thy crimes.
I did not come to curse thee, Guinevere,
I, whose vast pity almost makes me die
To see thee, lying there….
And all is past, the sin is sinned, and I,
Lo, I forgive thee as Eternal God forgives.”
Then Arthur left her to meet his fate. When he is gone, Guinevere speaks:
“Blessed be the King who has forgiven
my wickedness to him, and left me hope
That in my own heart I can live down sin
And be his mate hereafter in the heavens
Before high God….
Ah my God
What might I not have made of Thy fair world
Had I but loved Thy highest creature here?”
If the story of her life had ended here, it would have been pleasant, but it would not have been enough. Tennyson ends the chapter that deals with Guinevere with these words.
“She dwelt with them (the nuns),
till in time their abbess died.
Then she, for her good deeds and pure life,
and for the power of ministration in her,
and likewise for the high rank she had borne,
was chosen abbess, there, an abbess lived
for three brief years, and there an abbess past
To where beyond these voices there is peace.
Guinevere knew herself forgiven, and in response served others for the remainder of her days. And I am an optimist. I think for a while the young son stayed home, participating in the joys of family. He took his turn at the responsibilities of life. But I also think he may have made a trip back to apologize, make amends where he could, and to tell the story of his shame as well as the story of the father’s generosity. And I would like to think that the good he did, far outdistanced the evil he had done when young, don’t you?
For years I have heard those voices, that wish to marry theology with the psychology of the day, who insist that we are to love God, love neighbour and love self, with the follow-up assertion that if we do not love ourselves, our love of God and neighbour will end up being neurotic. The exegesis of the Great Commandment of Jesus which reads, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:28-35) is then explained as, “You cannot love your neighbour as you ought, if you do not love yourself.”
I have had my misgivings about whether this finds any scriptural basis, apart from this unusual reading of the Great Commandment. The rest of the Bible seems to indicate that humanity suffers from an excess of love for itself, with little left over for others. Self-ish-ness, self-importance, self-preoccupation, and self-interest appear to dominate the choices of most of us.
But parallel to this common understanding of loving God, others and self, there are three other phrases built on a similar pattern. “God forgives you! I forgive you! You need to forgive yourself.”
In the recent film, “Amazing Grace”, which tells the story of William Wilberforce trying to end the slave trade in England, the director includes some conversations between Wilberforce and his pastor friend, John Newton. Newton appears in this film as a deeply distressed man. He tells Wilberforce that he is still haunted by the 20,000 faces of those slaves that he transported from Africa to the American Colonies. Remorse over his complicity in those dark deeds has stayed with him down the decades. He will go to his grave with the memory of those he victimized, but in the meantime, it steels his resolve to do all that he can to end that barbarous trade. He would never have thought that he was obligated to forgive himself or forget the crimes he committed.
And I am not sure that I am meant to “let myself off” from the things that I have done. I have never ceased to be grateful for the forgiveness of God, and the forgiveness granted me by the very people I hurt, but I have never ceased to feel bad about the hurt that I caused to others.
The God who says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34, Isaiah 38:17, Micah 7:19) does not actually forget our sins. That is presumed impossible for an omniscient God. But he does not “hold them against us” ever again. Nonetheless, he may find it useful to remind us of what we did, or failed to do. God wastes nothing from our past, as he works in us to redeem us from all evil. He may not want us to forget the evil we did or the good we failed to do. Repentance should lead us to life of penitence and humility.
But we need to be careful here. Memories from the past can lead us to despair, or can lead us to a more productive life. Memories can make us feel bad for a lifetime and make us prisoners of our past. But such memories can also provide part of the motivation to be good, and to do good, and to partner with God in trying to undo the great damage that the wider world suffers from.