It was a move to set off, far and away, propelled by the desire for freedom from the prison cell of the ordinary. It means leaving home, and in this case, the comfort of a father’s abiding presence. “Country” here could mean that which is starkly different culturally even if geographically, the younger son need only cross a creek that defines the boundary. But this “country” is qualified as “distant,” the storyteller’s way of emphatically saying it is geographically and culturally a different world to inhabit.
To this “distant country” the younger son could be thinking the distance itself would be a good rehearsal opportunity to flap his wings towards the freedom he so desired. He could whistle his way out while walking this distance, the whistling and the walking almost involuntary and light as a feather on the air. Yet, it was a decision he made and the father was solicitous enough not to spoil or delay his plan. The father’s heart was spacious beyond imagination there was no sign of coercion, threat, anger, or subtle exercise of control. Such non-coercive poise of the “authority of the house,” especially when attributed as one quality of the Holy is difficult to understand. It can lead hearers and readers to a state of aporia or “loss” and bewilderment of its meaning, blowing an air of persuasion to image or reconsider the Holy in a different way. This state of aporia appears now and then in the impatience and positivist scientific dominance of our time: how could God wait patiently for millions of years for human consciousness to emerge when He can do it with His omnipotent magic wand in a thousand year or less? But our storyteller seems to convey someone as a paragon of patience, always listening without judging, willing to be always on the receiving end of the line than being on the front line of machination. One contemplative says that we are Godlike in our waiting. Was there pain on the part of the father, when the younger son set off to this distant country? Every loving parent who just dropped off their child for the first time in school, or the day their son or daughter fly or sail off for college to a different province knows the answer. Except that in the case of the father in our story, it was more freefalling into many unknowns. When will he see his son again? Or will he ever? What’s in store for him (or for the dinosaurs before their extinction) in that distant country the cultural topography he had no access to?
Let’s face it: this “distant country” will appear a relic of an ancient world in our age of lightning speed of travel and communication. The word “distant” must be anachronistic in the face of instant tweets, online videos, and Facebook status updates. Classifying it as irrelevant for our age is presumably less a lame of a judgment though not without a challenge. This “irrelevance” blocks us from imagining the distress of the father who behold with longing gaze the moment the son took his first few steps away from the “center,” from a home of love into a future unknown to both of them.
So what is “distant” for our time when our digital technology easily bridges and eases our longing for face-to-face encounters at least on the human level? More pointedly, what is “distant” for our time as a movement away from “home” the center that exudes like spokes from the hub of a wheel a sense of meaning and values for its dwellers yet too familiar to take notice of? We can sure come up with colorful spokes of interpretive responses to the questions – consumerism, permeability of cultures, global migration as a way of life, power as social exercise and networks disadvantageous and oppressive of the poor, and many more. With some contingency as one response, what about our digital age’s vulnerability to be distracted by the non-essential, by things less foundational to the question on what makes us truly human capable of being transfigured into His likeness – His humility, His simplicity, His empathy, His sense of anonymity or self-erasure, His silence? Distance in this sense could mean distractedness by the plethora of non-essentials buzzing around like flies as if needing our valuable attention. Distance as distractedness from the Christian means and goal. Now and then, I would ask students to weigh this in: more often, which has more weight and density for you – your desire for new gadgets or your desire for Him to change you? Depending on the group, the common answer is either gadgets or silence. Hopefully, the question shortens the distance, bringing us all back to some momentary sense of what is essential, creeping back to our senses even if with trepidation.