I grew up on a farm in the rolling hills of eastern Iowa. We didn’t own the farm or the house we lived in at the end of the gravel lane. Though my parents paid $40 in rent each month, it didn’t enter my mind that we were only tenants. I just knew we lived on a farm.
Life can be lived more simply in the country. One popular form of recreation for us was trying to figure out what our neighbors were doing. From a quarter to a half-mile away, watching what someone else was doing seemed interesting to us.
“It looks like Carol is washing her sheets today.“
“That looks like Florence. Is she washing her windows or is it one of the kids?”
“Sounds like Herb and Nick are having an argument. Just like brothers!”
The one thing we did which I remember most vividly was watching for vehicles through the vantage point of the hills and valleys. Not only did the open valley give us a bird’s-eye view of the homes and farms that went on for mile-after-mile, but we could also watch for traffic coming down the dusty gravel road connecting us all together.
In those days, people would often go for a “Sunday drive,” though it wasn’t typical for them to take their Sunday drives into the country on gravel roads. Gravel roads are hard on cars. The rocks fly up off the road. They beat on the bottom of the car, dent the rocker panels, and nick the paint. Plumes of dust billow behind you. On a gravel road, it was really unfortunate if the wind was to your back and you had to stop at an intersection – especially on a hot, dry, summer day when car windows were rolled down. It didn’t take long before you were inundated with the fine yellow dust produced by the disintegrating limestone gravel roadbed.
If just out for a drive, you weren’t likely to be on our road. Either you were driving home, or you were driving to see someone. Drivers didn’t come out our way just to appreciate the rolling hills of eastern Iowa.
From our viewpoint, we could see cars coming our way for miles down the road. If the sun didn’t shine off the chrome bumpers or windshields and catch our attention, then the growing clouds of dust would do the job. Regardless of what we were doing, an oncoming car could quickly grab our attention and focus it on the oncoming vehicle.
“I wonder who that is coming down the road? Is that a blue car? I’ll bet it’s one of the Smith’s.”
But then, the blue car would go past the mailbox at the end of the lane leading up to the Smith’s house.
“Hmmm. I wonder who that could be?”
If the car turned right, or north, at the “T” intersection at the end of the road, it was coming our way.
“I’ll bet it’s Eddie Jones’ car. I wonder what he’s been doing.”
“Nope. It’s not the Jones’ – they’re still coming this way. Who is that?”
Most often, the car would keep coming and drive right past our driveway on the road in front of our house. When it passed, we would look at each other and say something like, “I wonder who that was?”
Occasionally, the car stopped at the end of the lane, and it would be an unexpected guest. An uncle and aunt with their kids, or friends from church. Whoever it was, we’d seen them coming from a long way down the road. It may have been a surprise visit, but there had been at least three or four minutes to pick things up in the living room, throw them on the upstairs steps, and close the door. If Mom were home, she would even have a chance to put a comb through her hair or run to the bedroom and make a quick change of clothes from her blue gingham housedress to something a bit more stylish.
Having grown up in the country, I may better understand what Jesus was trying to say when he told the story of the Prodigal Son’s return home. It’s recorded in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 15, verse 20. Are you familiar with the story?
The younger of two sons decided he couldn’t wait for the day when he would receive his inheritance and be done with farming. It probably broke his father’s heart to see his son so dissatisfied with his life. The father had worked hard to build up something of value he could pass on to his sons. He had invested everything he had; his financial resources and back-breaking, physical labor. His entire life had been centered on providing something of value for his family. Yet, the youngest son despised his lot in life and decided he would do something to change it all.
“Give me what’s coming to me.”
“But son, if you could just wait a little while longer, your share will have a higher value in a few years.”
“I don’t care about the future value. It doesn’t matter to me what will happen in a few years. And I don’t care if the herds double in size within the next three years? If I don’t get out of here now, I may die of boredom in six months. I want out now!”
With a heavy heart, the father responded by giving the son his share of the estate. In a short time, the son got together all he had and left for another country. While in a foreign land, the prodigal squandered his wealth in wild living. Before long, all he’d ever had was gone.
For a time, he hired himself out to a farmer who sent him into the field to feed his pigs. The prodigal was so poor and so hungry he began to think even the pig’s food looked good. In that condition, he realized his father was a good man. His workers didn’t just feed the livestock; they ate real food and even had leftovers! Surely, he could at least go home, get a job with the other hired men, and have food to eat. Swallowing his pride, the prodigal headed home to an uncertain reception, all the while knowing he would ask his father’s forgiveness for his arrogance. His greatest hope was to be received back as a hired hand.
To this point, the focus of the story is on the pride and arrogance of the prodigal. But, from this point forward, the story focuses on the goodness of the father who is watching and waiting and hoping for the return of his son.
Luke relates to us the parable Jesus told like this. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.” (Luke 15:20). This is where I begin to understand the story more clearly. I can easily imagine how the scenario unfolded as the father looked up and saw someone off in the distance coming his way.
“I wonder who that is coming down the road? Does he have black hair or brown hair? I’ll bet it’s one of the new workers Joshua hired to help with the harvest.”
But then, the figure walks past the path leading up to Joshua and Phoebe’s house. He must not be going to work for them.
“Hmmm. I wonder who that could be?”
Then, the figure turned north at the “T” intersection at the end of the road and continued heading for the father.
“I’ll bet it’s Levi the tax collector going to see Saul. I told him he might just as well add an extra denari for a bribe to keep Levi out of our hair. But ‘No, I’m not going to do something like that. If he wants the extra denari, he can walk all the way out to my home and collect it.’”
“Wait. He didn’t turn into Saul’s place. He’s still coming this way and it doesn’t even look like Levi. Who is that?”
In a moment, he realizes the figure coming his way isn’t doing so by accident. The man isn’t just out for a Sunday stroll. It’s the son the father has been watching for, waiting for, hoping for, and he’s coming home.
The father didn’t just stand there and wait for the son to finish the long walk – to come to him, to bow before him, to apologize, to squirm, and beg forgiveness. Jesus said, “He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (v. 20)
There’s another important point to consider, one easily lost in just a cursory reading of the parable. Not only could the father see the prodigal coming the road, but the son had his eyes fixed on the house from the time he rounded the corner and could see through the valley where the hills gave way in just the right spot to give him a spectacular view of the father’s house. As a young boy, I remember how good it was to be driving home on those dusty roads and to look up and see our house in the distance, nestled near the top of the hill. To me, coming home is like drawing closer to the Father who loves me without conditions.
I’ve failed. I’ve sinned. I’ve gone my own way. I’ve squandered the resources the Lord has given to me. I’ve missed opportunities. I don’t deserve to be called a son. I’m willing to be a slave if it allows me to be close enough to enjoy the blessings of the Father.
People who have left the care-filled surroundings of the Father should come home. Perhaps there are things in the way and have hindered the flow of relationship between them and God. They’re still His son – still His daughter – but things aren’t as they should be.
The father is watching, waiting, and hoping. Your step in His direction will be met by Him running in your direction. Can you feel it in your heart? You don’t have to be alone or estranged anymore. It’s okay to leave behind the pride, the hurt, the misunderstanding, the tension, or whatever it was that caused you to leave home or to wander and go your own way.
Can you see His house from where you are? Can you see through the valleys, hills and other distractions? Can you catch a glimpse of the Father watching, waiting, and hoping for you to come home?
He’s not mad. Things will be okay. It’s time to come home.
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Ric Shields – © 2021
P.O. Box 2023
Broken Arrow, OK 74013
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