In his classic work The Return of the Prodigal Son Henri Nouwen offers some penetrating insights into the symbolism behind the younger son’s departure. He says: “Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one. It is a denial that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows.”
The prodigal son experienced what we would call today an “identity crisis”, a term coined by the sociologist Eric Erikson to describe that period in our teens when we struggle to dissociate ourselves from our parents with the hope of forming a secure identity. This explains the turbulence of those years. We are like strangers in a storm looking for the bridge that will take us to adulthood and safety.
The prodigal tried to solve his particular crisis by dreaming of a “distant country” where he believed he would discover himself. He had not come to terms with the fact that he was the beloved of the father, and that this constituted his identity. Instead, he chose to be defined by the world.
In his book Nouwen draws a striking parallel between the prodigal’s fantasies and the temptations of Christ. Satan offered Christ instant gratification, worldly treasures and the acclaim of the people – a shortcut to self actualisation. Yet Christ resisted these: He had just heard the voice of his Father, saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
These words tell us who we are and where our true home is. When we are in touch with our sonship, as Christ was, we become immune to the onslaughts of the tempter.