While he was still a long way off, the young man collapsed as if dead. His legs burned and his stomach ached. He was parched, hungry and tired and his body was failing him. His eyes could just make out the walls of his father’s property but now, it seemed farther away than it ever had before. He had hoped that the sight of his family home would be enough to pull him forward, that last bit of motivation he needed to keep moving. But now, the weight of his shame and regret began to crush him and his body was too weak to fight back.
The wine and women, the parties and the dark nights filled with ecstasy were gone; even the tiniest flickers of their memory no longer gave him comfort. Instead, they reminded him how much he had wasted. The clothes on his back were now held together more by dirt and grime than by needle and thread. His hands were red and blistered by the sun and hard labor. His feet were caked in mud and horseshit. The filth of the pigs that he had been sharing a barn with only weeks before was still buried deep under his finger nails.
He hadn’t seen his own face in ages and now he had no desire to. Once, he had been handsome but now, wounds and sores, bruises and scars covered every inch of his face. Even the women he paid could not hide their disgust.
What would his father say if he could see him now?
It was all he could do to prop himself up against a tree that offered no shade. His breath was shallow and his heart was barely beating somewhere deep inside his chest. His home, his father’s home, the place where his brother still lived began to fade.
He would die soon and this would all be over. Knowing that was the first bit of pitiful relief the young man had felt in months.
At first, he wasn’t sure if his fevered mind was playing tricks on him.
But, there was a crowd coming toward him, a crowd of ten or twenty men.
Dread crept into his heart. He had hoped that he would return and be welcomed back into the home at least as a servant, able to serve out his remaining years working to pay off his debt. But now the truth was beginning to sink in; he wouldn’t be welcomed back at all. Of course, the entire estate had suffered because of his arrogance and greed. To them, he was no better than a thief. He was returning to a lynch mob.
Out in front of the torch wielding mob ran a lone figure that he immediately recognized his heart stopped.
The old man’s arms waved in the air and his voice was growing hoarse from screaming. If the young man hadn’t been paralyzed with fear he would have laughed at how foolish his father looked, a person his age, running like a child. Instead, the young man began to weep with fear. He had seen his father angry hundreds of times. Now that wrath would be directed at him.
He should not have come back, better to die out in the wilderness, unknown and forgotten rather than face judgment.
His father was closer now, so close. “Father,” he said beginning the speech he had rehearsed over and over. “I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make…” but he could not finish. The old man fell upon him and gripped him so tightly that the words could not leave the young man’s throat.
Confusion replaced his fear.
“My son, my son,” said the father. That old man’s fingers gripped his boy’s face. The miles the young man had traveled in the sweltering heat seemed so easy compared to this. How he wished he could just walk it again a hundred times over rather than look into the eyes of the father he had betrayed.
The old man was flush. A mixture of sweat and tears glistened in the evening light. How hard he must have run. Panting and out of breath the father said, “My beautiful son.”
What did he say? Did he not see the scars, the bruises and the sores that decorated his face? Could he not smell the filth that permeated his clothes? Was he ignorant to all the actions that had brought this broken man back to his father’s door step?
Then the father leaned in and he whispered the sweetest words the young man had ever heard, words made sweeter because the voice that carried them shook with tears and barely bridled joy.
The boy could do nothing else but collapsed into the arms of his father.
“Quick, bring the best robe and put it on him. Take off these rags and have them destroyed in fire. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again.” The father’s voice was sure and authoritative and not a second was spared by his servants to obey his commands.
Right there, the boy transformed from criminal to son. He was too weak to do anything. He couldn’t even undress himself or put on his own shoes. That work was done for him by the ones that served his father. They picked him up and carried him and the old man sang and danced all the way home.