Almost five years to the day, the prodigal son emptied his bank account, packed a few changes of clothes, and snuck off to the faraway country. Again. I’d wager that’s what went down. Five years is about the average life span of what we might call T.R.A.S.H. (“That Really Awful Sin Hangover”).

The first year back he was just glad to be home. He licked his wounds, put on a few pounds, worked on soiled relationships with his family and community. The second year was toughest; he still couldn’t get the taste of the pig slop out of his mouth—not to mention the shame that chewed away at his soul. The third year things leveled out a little. He started feeling more at home, back in synch with his former life. The fourth year, certain little things began to irk him—the same things that irked him before he left the first time. Some of the old itch for a no-strings-attached freedom began to demand it be scratched.

And the fifth year, it happened. The buzz he’d experienced blowing his dad’s money—the wine, the women, the song—they all came knocking, rapping their knuckles bloody, on his heart’s door. More than the shameful hell of feeding pigs, he could taste the sensual paradise of feasting on felicity. More than the raw guilt of hurting others, he could recall the intoxicating thrill of others pleasuring him. “Come join the murder,” the black ravens of his heart cawed. Come join it again, old friend.

And so he did. The prodigal relapsed. Re-sinned. Re-destroyed his life.

You know him—or her. Maybe it’s your brother. Maybe it’s your best friend. Maybe you gave birth to her.

Or maybe it’s the person staring back at you in the mirror. That thing you swore you’d never, ever, in a million years, do again, you did last night. You fell off the wagon. You skulked off, miles and miles away, from the straight and narrow path. You opened your heart to the rapping knuckles of former pleasures that once destroyed you. And will again.

The prodigals, whoever they might be, whoever you might be, will eventually find themselves right back in the pig sty. I remember when I did. The music has faded into the night, the fair-weather friends have all ditched you, and the temporary euphoria of so-called freedom has been replaced by the iron shackles of shame. And you stare in horror into the black eyes of the nearest muddy and stinking pig and see what? You see your face. You see your soul. You see and know what you’ve become. Again.

In that moment, on the plains of your heart, two vast armies line up in verbal array. Heaven and hell contend within you. Hell shouts, “Now you’ve gone and done it. You stupid, idiotic, piece of garbage. Listen! Can you hear your older brother scoffing as he tells all his friends that he knew, he just knew, you’d go and do it again. Can you hear the servants making you the butt of their jokes? Can you hear the congregation whispering, ‘Oh, I suspected he wasn’t truly and sincerely repentant the first time’? You’re a lost, lonely, hopeless cause. You’re not even human. You’re a damn pig. And that’s all you’ll ever be.” So hell spits. So hell accuses. I remember that voice well.

Second and third repentances are not met with half-ass parties in the Father’s house.

But there is another voice, not shouting but whispering, on the plains of your heart. It’s the voice of heaven, the familiar lilt of a Dad’s voice, echoing down the long hallways of hope, through your ears and down to the deepest, darkest caverns of your pain. He doesn’t accuse. He doesn’t berate. He only mouths two simple words in which are compressed the full expanse of heaven’s redemptive love: Come Home.

“Come home, my son. Come home, my daughter.
Come with your hands still clutching the bucket of slop—I don’t care.
Come with your mouth still sticky with the lipstick of licentiousness—I don’t care.
Come with your breath reeking of gallons upon gallons of liquor—I don’t care.
Come with your whole body slathered in pig sty mud—I. Don’t. Care.
All I care about is you. You are all that matters. Come home.”

Come home a second time. A third time. A thousandth time. The Father will not stay on the porch, arms crossed over his chest, and stare down at you as you come crawling on your knees to beg for mercy. The Father will not, this time, serve you liver and cauliflower and make you sleep in the dog house.

The second time, the third time, the thousandth time, he will sprint like a madman to meet you down the street, throw his arms around you, kiss you, and command that the fattened calf be barbecued and the keg tapped. Second and third repentances are not met with half-ass parties in the Father’s house. He goes all out, every time, his sons and daughters come home from the faraway country.

Let the older brothers stand in a circle and act like jerks as they question your motives and the “truth” of your repentance. Let the townspeople wag their heads and tsk-tsk the clemency of the Dad. Let certain religious groups hiss and point secretly to you as an example of what happens when Fathers forgive too readily. You know, you know better than they do, how much evil lurks within you still—and how much the Father forgives even that.

Come home. The front door is unlocked. The calf is fattened. And the Father is standing on the porch, his hand shading the sun from his eyes, scanning the horizon for the familiar image of the one who is, and will ever remain, his precious, beloved, forgiven child. Come home.