“Two Journeys”


In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

“The Far Country.”

That was the first destination of the Prodigal Son in the parable Jesus told. The version we heard read today translates the original Greek as, “the distant country;” but however we refer to the land the man travelled to after he left his parental home, going there is a bad idea.

The man squanders his considerable inheritance in what this translation politely terms, “dissolute living.” Again, the traditional King James Version is more vivid: it says, “riotous living.” However you describe the man’s activities, he sinks so low that he notices that pigs eat better than he does.

Now while few of us have ever fallen as far as the Prodigal Son, most of us will have thought about escaping. It’s tempting to dream of avoiding our responsibilities.

Wouldn’t it be great to be like the Prodigal Son—inherit a pile of money and go off to a sunny island and live day-to-day doing just what we like, according to our whims?

And if we don’t think of wasting our money on exotic pleasures, we can still be prone to self-indulgence. While watching television, for example, doesn’t constitute riotous living, too much TV can become a convenient substitute for meaning and purpose.

The Prodigal Son is later described in the Bible text as “lost.” Too many fantasies and distractions and we, too, can end up feeling “lost.”

Happily, the parable isn’t only about the dangers of the Far Country. For when the Prodigal Son finally sees the error of his ways, he makes a second journey; he travels back to his homeland and appears at the door of his Father’s house.

The Father’s response is far more generous than what we would expect from the average parent. Rather than condemning the son’s waste of his inheritance, he embraces the Prodigal Son and organizes a great feast to celebrate his return.

In fact, The Father’s welcoming celebration is so lavish that his older son—the Good Boy in the family—feels jealous. He has behaved properly all his life, yet his father has never thrown him a party. The Father’s forgiving response makes the Older Son seethe. No “fatted calf” for him—not even a goat!

And the average reader will sympathize. Indeed, some commentators have remarked that the parable might be better termed, the Parable of the Older Brother.

For his response seems perfectly logical. Why hasn’t he gotten royal treatment? Why no feast? Why hasn’t his good behavior been rewarded?

The answer is: because the Older Son hasn’t made either journey. He hasn’t perceived the depths of his own temptations, nor has he realized his need for forgiveness.

Remember how the Father defends his decision to kill the fatted calf? He says to the older brother, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”

Still, the Older Brother might not be satisfied. He could reply, “So should I, too, go off and spend the money you have left in riotous living? Do you want me to get lost so that I can then return to the right track?”

This response reflects misguided spiritual thinking. St. Paul made a joke about such reasoning — he said that even though we believe that our sins are forgiven by God’s grace, it would be silly for us to sin more in order to get more of that God’s grace!

The Older Brother might have been wiser if, instead of envying the Prodigal, he looked at his own moral track record. Has he never wasted money? Has he never lost his way?

Has he always felt fully alive to the demands of God’s Kingdom? Has he always behaved perfectly here? Has he always obeyed his Heavenly Father?

Most important, has the elder son made the Second Journey? Has he discovered, as we heard in the First Lesson today that: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

When we think about the parable in this larger light, we see that it’s not just about stopping self-indulgent behavior—about cleaning up your act. The Second Journey is a positive way to spiritual wholeness.

And this characteristic of inner renewal turns out to give more joy than life in the Far Country!

Not that the old life wasn’t fun: Thomas Merton wrote of his pleasures of the flesh when he lived in Manhattan, before he joined a monastery. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin—who now leads his father’s evangelism ministry—has confessed to enjoying an extended period of eating, drinking, and being merry before he finally entered the ministry.

Reading these memoirs, the reader gets the sense sometimes that the converted Christians miss their former lives!

But the best of these memoirs also convey the greater happiness of life in Christ. Saint Augustine famously wrote of the “restlessness” of his heart which only disappeared when he found rest in God.

Augustine’s experience points to the deep problem with purely sensuous living. Such a lifestyle is restless; the soul can’t find peace but instead proceeds aimlessly from one pastime to another. Transient pleasures never really satisfy, and so hedonists must constantly look for new persons or indulgences to stimulate their interests.

But what genuine converts to Christianity discover is that the Second Journey is itself a way to a higher form of “pleasure.” The peace of God isn’t just an absence of restlessness. The peace of God is a way to the joy of “new creation.”

A good way to think of this is to remember times when you were longing to get home. Maybe you were having a hard time at college and you couldn’t wait for vacation. Or you had a long hectic day at the office and you longed for the moment when you would be unlocking the door of your apartment.

That is the feeling the Prodigal Son had when he returned to his father. The Father in the parable is, of course, a symbol for God. And so the story isn’t just about how we spend our money or whether we waste our time.

It’s about connection with the divine. Making the passage to spiritual depth and wholeness, to honesty and love. A journey to reconciliation with God, with friends and family—and with yourself.

A journey to the Father. A journey home.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen

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