13. The Far Country

13 – The Far Country

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country.”

 

The younger of the two sons has been the most interesting of the characters in this story, perhaps for several reasons. We have a fascination with adventure.  This young man is an adventurer.  We like suspense.  At the beginning of the story we wonder if the wanderer will ever return.  We like stories of human transformation.  This is what all great stories are about.  It is probably for this reason that this story will always be called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” even though he is not the major character.

He is a son of his father, but somewhere in  his journeying he has decided to take on only its privileges, and none of its responsibilities.  He asks for his share. He cashes the checks, and takes off.  And where does he go?  Down to the nearby village, or the closest large city?  No.

He travels to a distant country, to the far country.  Why did he go so far in his attempt to go far in life?  We are not told the reason. But creative minds have made suggestions positive and negative.

Did he travel far because it was the thing to do in that age of the world, as young Jewish families and young men joined the waves of Jewish émigrés?  (It is calculated that in Jesus’ day, 4 million Jews lived outside Palestine, and only a half a million remained in the homeland.) Was it that he had always wanted to travel, and this was an opportunity of a lifetime?  Who among us have not wished to be able to travel and see parts of the world, being held back only by frugality or inopportunity? Was it that people from far-off places, who had come to his village, were always the center of attention and seemed to be so much more interesting than people who were local? Had he heard that the economy was really booming in such and such a place, and he wanted to do well in his new venture, so he went where success could be had?  Any and all of those reasons are quite within the realm of plausibility.

Others, however, have posited more insidious reasons for his going to the distant country. Was he trying to get as far away from his home village as he could?  Was he attempting to put as much distance between himself and his father or brother as possible?  Was he like the prophet Jonah, whom God had asked to go to Ninevah, a city in the distant east, who had instead boarded a ship headed for Spain, the western most point in that ancient world?

But why would the young man want to get away from his hometown?  Perhaps he is ashamed to do what he intends to do close to home.  If he is to change his lifestyle it may be prudent to change location.  In the far country he can live without hearing questions raised by over-protective parents or nosey neighbors. In the far country he can live like the devil, away from the expectations of others, for home can be rather inhibiting.  Having served as an instructor of young adults, I have seen the phenomenon often. Young people going off to university or college, may quickly abandon the way of life they had lived at home. The college and university are often blamed for corrupting the youth, when they have simply been convenient places away from home for some to simply “be themselves.”  The far country is usually not to blame; it can often be the victim of adolescent experiments in freedom.

Of course, we are all curious about where he went. Sodom and Gomorra are no more, so they are not options, though some have looked for an equivalent place, sensing he went looking for a cesspool.  Others have chosen Tyre or Sidon, the home base of the wicked Jezebel 800 years earlier. Others have selected Corinth or Rome, also places where debauchery was acceptable and easily practiced.

But my observation is that all sorts of villainy or vice can be found in any city, town or village, and companions for a journey into stupidity can be found anywhere.  Each year I see young people coming to college, and in a matter of days each student gravitates towards those who share their values or their intent. There seems always to be at least one group that exists to benefit as little as possible from the academic influences of such a place.  One does not have to go far sometimes to find the far country, and the far country does not have written over the arches of its gates “Abandon all hope you who enter here!”  They look as safe and secure as the communities we live in, just more exciting.  Any place can serve as the far country.

So they arrive by plane, train, bus, and car: young people looking for a future, trying to escape a past, running towards the bright lights, running from dark circumstances, or just running with uncertainty. If the young man is “every man”, then the far country is “any place.”

 

 

Theological Reflection

One of the great reasons for the existence of the church is to be finders of those who are lost, and to invite them all to come home to the Father.  We do that best when we are there when the lost arrive.  We know that the pimps and drug dealers will be there.  We know that the irresponsible will be there, inviting the newcomers to hang out with them. But we also are residents of the far country when the flotsam and jetsam of our age arrive. We too have a part to play when the lost land in our community.  I recognize that the word “evangelism” carries some negative baggage in some circles, but whether we like the word or not, or approve of some methods used by others or not, it does remain a major part of the mission of God’s church to be helping lost people get found.

Most of our churches have become insular and self-contained.  Most churches are declining in attendance or participation.  Many churches maintain the status quo, simply replacing the members they lose year by year, usually by migrants from other congregations. Even in the churches that are growing, 70% of church growth now comes through the “transmigration of souls”, where people switch churches in a merry-go-round of musical chairs that is not so musical, though music is often the source of our discontent.  Church shopping by the saints has become epidemic in North America as we look for a better church that will please us more.  Those churches that are “full service organizations” will benefit most from the traffic flow. When churches are growing, 20% of their growth is usually due to biological increase in the families already within the church through the birth of children or by the additions of brides of grooms, and grooms of brides.  Only 10% of church growth takes place through the winning of the lost and bringing them to God and into the fellowship of the church.

It is for this reason that some of us involve ourselves in street ministries. It is at the center of large cities where today’s prodigals arrive. It is in such places we have the chance to leave the safe world of congregational life, and to take the good news to those that do not seek us out in our more comfortable surroundings.  Years ago Sam Shoemaker’s poem “So I Stay Near the Door” motivated me to hang around soup kitchens, just so I could be there when lost sons and daughters were coming to the end of their hopes.  His words reminded me that it’s a good thing to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.

 

So I Stay Near the Door[i]

An Apologia for my Life

 

I stay near the door.

I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.

The door is the most important door in the world –

It is the door through which men walk when they find God.

There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,

When so many are still outside and they, as much as I

Crave to know where the door is.

And all that so many ever find

Is only the wall where a door ought to be.

They creep along the wall like blind men,

With outstretched, groping hands,

Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,

Yet they never find it…

So I stay near the door.

 

The most tremendous thing in the world

Is for men to find that door – the door to God.

The most important thing anyone can do

Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,

And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks

And opens to the man’s own touch.

Men die outside that door, as starving beggars die

On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter –

Die for want of what is within their grasp.

They live, on the other side of it – live because they have found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,

And open it, and walk in, and find Him…

So I stay near the door.

 

Go in, great saints, go all the way in –

Go way down into the cavernous cellars,

And way up into the spacious attics –

It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.

Go into the deepest of hidden casements,

Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.

Some must inhabit those inner rooms

And know the depths and heights of God,

And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.

Sometimes I take a deeper look in,

Sometimes venture in a little farther;

But my place seems closer to the opening…

So I stay near the door.

 

There is another reason why I stay there.

Some people get part way in and become afraid

Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;

For God is so very great, and asks everything of us.

And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,

And want to get out. “Let me out!” they cry.

And the people way inside only terrify them more.

Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled

For the old life, they have seen too much:

Once taste God, and nothing but God will do anymore.

Somebody must be watching for the frightened

Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,

To tell them how much better it is inside.

 

The people too far in do not see how near these are

To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.

Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,

But would like to run away.  So for them, too,

I stay near the door.

 

I admire the people who go way in.

But I wish they would not forget how it was

Before they got in.  Then they would be able to help

The people who have not yet even found the door,

Or the people who want to run away again from God.

You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,

And forget the people outside the door.

As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,

Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,

But not so far from men as not to hear them,

And remember they are there, too.

Where?  Outside the door –

Thousands of them, millions of them,

But – more important for me –

One of them, two of them, ten of them,

Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.

So I shall stay by the door and wait

For those who seek it.

“I had rather be a doorkeeper…”

So I stay near the door.


[i] Samuel Shoemaker, Extraordinary Living for Ordinary Men,  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970) p. 140-142.

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