Our English bibles talk about that place where the Prodigal Son went as the “distant country”: “The younger son left his Father and went to a distant country to squander his wealth.” (in more poetic Filipino, it says: “At hindi nakaraan ang maraming araw, ay tinipong lahat ng anak na bunso ang ganang kaniya, at naglakbay sa isang malayong lupain; at doo’y inaksaya ang kaniyang kabuhayan sa palunging pamumuhay.“).
Those translations do not capture the beauty of the original Greek. In the Greek version, the distant country/ the malayong lupain is Chora Makra. Chora Makra means the ‘the Great Emptiness’. The son did not just go to a ‘distant country’, he went to a place of seeming no return. We have a similar word in Filipino to describe someone who has separated himself from the rest of the world and acts as if he has nothing to lose: NAGWALA. Nagwala ang anak.
The beauty of the story then is found in the literary and psychological genius of Jesus (or the one who translated his story). This is someone who truly knows the human experience. For those of us who have lived life to its extremes and have gambled with its limits, the experience is familiar–and ‘Chora Makra’ captures it beautifully.
Or maybe we are the more subtle Prodigal Sons: on the outside, there is no wealth to squander, but on the inside, we may have squandered our talents and abilities gradually over the years and have lost our confidence, direction and our sense of vocation. Or we may have entered into abusive relationships and lost our sense of worth. The great emptiness — this distant country — is different for different people. But we are all brothers and sisters in prodigality. Just like in director Ang Lee’s movies where his movie backdrops are characters of their own, Jesus tells us that the Great Emptiness is not just a place, it is WHO WE ARE when we are far from home.
And I have always asked the question: why let the Prodigal go?
Maybe because there are things in life that we cannot just spiritualize. Or maybe because there are things in life that we have to experience ourselves in order to learn. Maybe because we learn best when we bleed, and get hurt, and go through hearbreak and pain. Maybe because some experiences cannot fully teach us their lessons if we merely go through it vicariously or take it from second or third hand. Maybe because we have to live life without regrets and what ifs.
But the story of the Prodigal is not just the story of leaving home. It is the story of coming back.
It takes awhile of course. Lessons are not easily learned. But then for some strange reason, we catch on. Something happens–a crisis, a death, a problem so great it shakes our very foundation–and we are not just brought to our knees but to our senses. We somehow find it in ourselves to be alive again.
Emptiness has changed us, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But it has changed us. We now know what it means to be in the dungeon with the pigs. We now know what drives us to waste our life away. But we also know that at the end of our rope, we find in ourselves the capacity to hold on, and see light. It is strange, this capacity–to not think about ourselves too much, to not wallow in self-pity, to think about other people. It is strange, this capacity–to bounce back, to shake the dust off our dirty selves, to push ourselves back up.
It is strange. It is mystery. That at the end of the Great Emptiness, while we do not find ourselves where we began, we still find ourselves back home.
Prayer of the Prodigal Son
by eric santillan
they all thought you were at home
but i got your message the other day-
the one that says you will be here for me-
and realized you knew where i was
and what i was doing.
you watched from a distance
as i wasted my life away.
you gave me time
knowing perhaps that i had to be far from you
to know how precious you really are to me.
(if you had watched more closely
you would have seen our picture
at my bedside table.
i look at it every night
and this may take a long time
but i am here too
on life’s byways and highways
looking for home
looking for you
looking for me.
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