A Long Way Off

Yesterday, while reading Henry Nouwen’s Show Me The Way (a Lenten devotional) I came across the following verse from the Gospel of Luke about the prodigal son:

I will leave this place and go to my father and say: “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.” So he left the place and went back to his father.

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him.

Nouwen’s reflection was an exposition on returning. His main idea was twofold, that returning to the Father was a lifelong struggle, and that God’s profound love provides the foundation of our returning. Of the two aspects of this reflection I certainly understand the former, and I struggle with the latter. It is this struggle that prompts me to write this post.

Within the above passage I was caught by the verse that says, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.” On a literal level the verse is talking about physical distance. Perhaps, in this story, the father’s house was on top of a hill, and thus he could see a good distance a way. So, one day he steps out to survey his land and far off, as little more than a speck on the horizon, he identifies his wayward son and runs out to embrace him. The son’s distance, however, is not just a physical reality. The boy is still a long way off because, though he is physically returning, in his heart he is not with his father. He is not returning because of a desire to be reunited with his dad, he is not longing to restore the lost relationship. Instead, he is coming home merely because his funds ran out, and life was hard. And yet, the father, who knows this very well, runs out to embrace the boy, to hold his beloved son regardless of why he has returned.

I am astounded by this verse, and particularly the words, “still along way off” because I am so thoroughly like this prodigal. I am a user in the distance, and my returning is more about me than God, is more about the gifts of God than God himself. I have known, struggled with, and in some measure been shamed by this mean truth for my whole adult life. I have long searched for genuine repentance, and ironically been very self involved in trying to find or produce it. Often, I have imagined God, for whom nothing is hid,  looking down upon my soul and seeing my impure motives and at best coldly letting me enter by some back door. But this passage, this blessed passage says that while the boy was still a long way off, his father astoundingly and unexpectedly runs out to embrace him. This is unspeakable grace.


God, I am not worthy to be called your son.

2 Responses to “A Long Way Off”

  1. Roger Green  

    I’m a big fan of Henri Nouwen – Here and Now: Living in the Spirit – ah computer time is up.

  2. K.L.B.  

    In much similar vein, I can identify with your expression. For me at least, I have tended to beat myself up over my own shortcomings and failures… even after being forgiven.

    On a human level, it’d be much like friend A constantly reminding and berating friend B for some thing about which friend B had sought forgiveness and been forgiven by friend A. However in the case which you illustrated, it is you (we ourselves) whom is our own worse enemy, and the one whom beats us up. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon character so many years ago once opined, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

    From a military perspective, it’s a psychological operation (PsyOps) in which the enemy attempts to defeat their adversary by creating turmoil, tension and conflict internally. Having no cohesion, they waste their own resources upon themselves, rather than upon an enemy.

    It’s schizophrenic… a true from of double mindedness.