So he comes home. And at first it’s fantastic. There’s joy and forgiveness. He feels knit back into the fabric of his family. His old friends are still around, pleasantly bemused and patting him on the back. Talking about how down to earth he seems. How much he’s changed. It’s the talk of the room, and it feels like these people are here for him for the long haul. Like it’s all going to be different.
But then there’s all this tension with his brother. And it starts to enter his head that not everyone thinks he’s changed. Not everyone believes in him. Not everyone is on his side. It starts to toy with him, because he knew (he always knew) that it didn’t make any sense for him to be forgiven. That they were thinking too much of him. He hears the truth of it in his brother’s words. Maybe it won’t be so easy.
And then, maybe his phone rings. And there’s a message from a friend from back in the glory days. And there’s pictures on Facebook of his old friends, all of them lit up with the spark of the way life used to be. And everyone is gathered around him, waiting for him to fail. The tension is heavy, and he wonders if he could spare them the wait. It starts to seem inevitable.
So he starts sleeping in the room closest to the door. Starts leaving a bag or two packed. And maybe his father points something out…just something small…but it reverberates around in his head. Because maybe he was looking for a reason to leave. He sees the person he wants to be dissolving. It can’t happen. He slinks out the door.
What if it happened a hundred times? What if he just couldn’t stay there? What if the guilt and the shame was just too much? How’s he supposed to outrun the ghosts of his mistakes?
Maybe there won’t ever be a time that his father isn’t waiting. Maybe there won’t ever be a homecoming without a party. But the wine will start to sour in his mouth, and the calf sit heavy in his stomach. Maybe the embrace of his father will start to feel like the greatest shame of all. And he will sit on the floor of the bathroom, looking up at the ceiling and wondering “why do I keep hurting these people who love me so much?”
Is this what they call hardening his heart? So why doesn’t he just stay there? Perhaps because he can’t shake the feeling that he will always be ‘the son who screwed up’. He feels like they’re waiting for him to do it again. It magnifies every failure.
And maybe, partially, he doesn’t want to be a puppet. He doesn’t want to feel like a servant, even though he was welcomed as a son. No matter how many times he ends up face down in a pig stall, he still starts to feel like he can make it work this time. Like he will do better on his own. Like he can prove he is good enough all by himself.
He can’t. And his father sits up at night watching him leave, knowing there’s no good way to make him stay without turning him into a slave.
His father lives for the nights his son comes home. It’s always worth it.