Someone Has to Pay

My 60th Easter is days away.  Some years Easter feels more routine and I find myself thinking about all the fun of it.  But today I’m thinking about the cost.

The quote is from Tim Keller’s outstanding book The Prodigal God. It references the familiar story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. You can read here.

“Over the years many readers have drawn the superficial conclusion that the restoration of the younger bother involved no atonement, no cost. They point out that the younger son wanted to make restitution but the father wouldn’t let him – his acceptance back into the family was simply free. This, they say, shows that forgiveness and love should always be free and unconditional.

That is an oversimplification. If someone breaks your lamp, you could demand that she pay for it. The alternative is that you could forgive her and pay for it yourself (or go about bumping into furniture in the dark). Imagine a more grave situation, namely that someone has seriously damaged your reputation. Again, you have two options. You could make him pay for this by going to others criticizing and ruining his good name as a way to restore your own. Or you could forgive him, taking on the more difficult task of setting the record straight without vilifying him. The forgiveness is free and unconditional to the perpetrator, but it is costly to you.

Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgivenessalways comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness.

The younger brother’s restoration was free to him, but it came at enormous cost to the elder brother. The father could not just forgive the younger son, somebody had to pay!  The father could not reinstate him except at the expense of the elder brother. There was no other way.  But Jesus does not put a true elder borther in the story, one who is willing to pay any cost to seek and save that which is lost.  It is heartbreaking. The younger son gets a Pharisee for a brother instead.


By putting a flawed elder brother in the story, Jesus is inviting us to imagine and yearn for a true one.

AND WE HAVE HIM! Think of the kind of brother we need. We need one who does not just go to the next country to find us but who will come all the way from heaven to earth.  We need one who is willing to pay not just a finite amount of money, but, at the infinite cost of his own life to bring us into God’s family, for our debt is so much greater.  Either as elder brothers or as younger brothers we have rebelled against the father.  We deserve alienation, isolation, and rejection. The point of the parable is that forgiveness always involves a price – someone has to pay. There was no way for the younger brother to return to the family unless the older brother bore the cost himself. Our true elder brother paid our debt, on the cross, in our place…

How can the inner workings fo the heart be changed from a dynamic of fear and anger to that of love, joy, and gratitude? Here is how. You need to be moved by the sight of what it cost to bring you home. The key difference between a Pharisee and a believer in Jesus is inner-heart motivation…Christians have seen something that has transformed their hearts toward God so they can finally love and rest in the Father.”

Powerful. Forgiveness is costly, yet we’ve been provided with all we need to pay the price because of the price that was paid for us.

That’s what Easter is all about.

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