When Cristiano Ronaldo played his first game back for Manchester United—having 12 years earlier departed the club where he shot his name into stardom—many called him the “prodigal son”. The painful memories that Mancunians shared of his exit to rivals Real Madrid were erased as he scored a brace against Newcastle United.
“The Manchester United fans, they are special, I know, I remember very well,” he said in a pre-match interview with manutd.com. Speaking about Sir Alex Ferguson, the now-retired coach that brought him to the club in 2003, he said: “[He] is like a father in football for me. He helped me a lot, he taught me many things.”
Never mind the fact that his greatest glories came after he left, nor that the last time he played against Manchester United he scored, ripped off his shirt and pointed to his abs. Manchester United fans are happy to erase all those memories and embrace the current situation, where they have the world’s record goalscorer back. He might have left them for a new relationship with Real Madrid years ago, but Mancherster United fans aren’t the jealous type. They don’t sweat the little details. They’re just happy to have him back.
“Biblical excitement for the return of Old Trafford’s prodigal son,” declared The Times writer David Walsh. It’s debatable whether he was referring to the consumeristic numbers behind the move; Manchester United shirts with “Ronaldo” and his famous number seven smashed single-day sales for any athlete, ever. I love the Sales reported that those sales alone brought the club almost $AU300 million. A smart investment given the club only paid a measly $AU24 million for Ronaldo’s transfer from Juventus.
But perhaps it does bear similarity to the renowned Bible story of a father and his son that left home and lived a life of party. He had requested his share of his father’s estate, after which he “set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). Manchester United fans will be shaking their head in agreement. Sounds exactly like our Ronaldo. During his nine years at Real Madrid, the Portuguese striker scored 451 goals, becoming the club’s greatest ever goalscorer. He also won four Champions League trophies, three Club World Cup titles and two Spanish domestic league titles. It was there that he also was seen by many as adopting a bad-boy image—the epitome of ego, fame and excess.
What might seem like a prophecy foretold in the ancient text has application for people today. How often have we wandered from our ways in hopes of “wild living” like the son in the story?
Multiple psychologists have noted a phenomena inspired by an old saying called the “Grass is Greener Syndrome” (GIGS), where people cling to the idea that something better is awaiting them “on the other side.” Psychotherapist Nathan Fieles writes in Psychcentral that this occurs because “we’re usually (if not always) placing personal unhappiness with ourselves onto something outside of us—generally a partner, career, living environment, etc. We rely on polishing our external environment to soothe a deeper internal dissatisfaction.” Call it ambition, logical thinking or insecurity; most of us can certainly identify a moment in our lives when we’ve become convinced that a sea-change or new things will result in a better outcome than the outcomes in our current life—whether there’s good reason to think it or not. This was certainly the case for Ronaldo, who scored a £80 million transfer fee when he left to Real Madrid in 2009.
The prodigal son, however, discovered that the end of the road wasn’t what he expected as he stared into the empty bag once occupied by many riches. As a contingency, he started a new job where his employer “sent him to his field to feed pigs” (Luke 15:15). With no money left and even less food, in desperation “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16). A sad turnaround for a man so assured in his decision to leave in the first place.
At home, waiting for his return with unconditional love, was a father. When former Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson proudly applauded as Ronaldo returned to the pitch he once graced, it bore similarities to the father in the Prodigal Son story. Despite all his son’s transgressions, the father was nonetheless “filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20) upon his son’s return.
What the son experienced is explained scientifically in “Grass is Greener” syndrome. Fieles reports that while “Grass is Greener” syndrome “starts out nice and shiny”, fixation on better outcomes “will begin to wear a bit with use.” He concludes: “As human beings, we are all in some ways less than perfect, and therefore, the shiny grass is an illusion. Our job is to keep the grass as green as possible . . . But no matter what, it won’t remain as green as the moment we first set foot on it.”
The father in the prodigal son story represents God. Whether or not we’ve had a relationship with Him before, He still created us and is waiting for the moment when we’ll come home. Maybe, like Ronaldo, we’ve gone away and achieved great things but in doing so we’ve lost a part of ourselves. Reconnecting with God is easy when you realise that God is ready and waiting. It all came together for the son in the moment when he was laying among the pigs.
“How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:18). Once He returned home, the Father’s response is the same as God’s, who is waiting for us to reconnect with Him. Talking to the prodigal son’s sibling, he said: “this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32).
If you’d like to find out how you can reconnect with the Father but you’re not sure how, send us a line here. We have some discovery courses which will help you learn about who God is and what plans He has for your life.
Daniel Kuberek is assistant editor for Signs of the Times magazine. Unfortunately, his personal soccer career yielded zero trophies, a dislocated finger and a wounded ego.