Why did the prodigal take so long to return? Why did he linger in that pig pen which was so humiliating and hateful for him (as a Jew) to endure? Why didn’t he simply head straight home to his father once the money was gone? Why did he drag it out until he was practically starving?
It wasn’t pride. That’s what people usually say when I ask the question in class, especially classes on recovery from addictions. They know only too well how pride and shame held them back from making a quicker return to the Lord. We all have pride and pride is involved in every sin, but it wasn’t pride that Jesus points us towards seeing as the real reason.
It wasn’t the lure of the world either, though that was certainly a part of what had led the prodigal off on his ill-conceived journey. All that had been burned out of him. Like many before him and countless others since (myself included), he had dived head-long into “the world” thinking it was going to Shangri-La and it turned out to be an empty, soul-killing mirage instead. He was through with the world, but he was still stuck in it.
The prodigal’s real reason for delay was that he was afraid of his father. He was afraid that His father wouldn’t or couldn’t be able to welcome him or love him—as the moral failure that he had discovered himself to be—so he devised a plan to go back and try to work his way into his father’s good graces. Jesus says he had thoughts like these: “Maybe he’ll take me back as a servant or a slave—at least then I won’t perish with hunger.”
Next to free will, our inward spiritual sense is the most dangerous thing about us. The prodigal’s inward sense was telling him he had lost his father’s love and favor. That he had to work hard to be good—even make himself a slave—in order to get his father to take him back and keep him in the household. How utterly wrong his inward spiritual sense was!
Henri Nouwen wrote in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son,
I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere? Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father?
Let’s take this insight one step further into the prodigal story: Why did he leave home in the first place? Pride? Love of the world? Or was it not because he failed to see that the greatest love of all was right there at his side? In asking for his inheritance, the prodigal was really saying (as any Middle Easterner would tell us), “Father, you mean nothing to me alive. I wish you were dead so that I could collect my inheritance and get on with my life without you!” To put it in the vernacular, he wanted to “get the hell away” from his father—and created a hell on earth for himself in the process. And still his father welcomed him back with open arms. But only after a self-punishing and unnecessary delay in the pigpen.
That doesn’t have to be us! We (believers in Jesus) are those who have been launched on a journey to manifest to an unbelieving world the goodness of our Father’s Heart of Love. The next time you find yourself in a spiritual pigpen due to sins and wrong choices, don’t delay another second. Jump right up and run back to your Father’s wide open arms of love. To paraphrase Karl Marx:
Prodigals of the world unite: We have nothing to lose but our chains!