Sunday, March 6, 2016

“The Cost of the Prodigal” (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

There are lots of people who “weigh” the cost before they make purchases . . . especially the big ones like cars and houses.  They research, they compare, they ask the experts questions, and they do their homework so that they can figure out the exact “cost” of what it is that they are purchasing.  I imagine that there is not any of us sitting here this morning that would say that this is not a smart thing to do . . . do your homework to figure out the cost.

The definition of “cost” is “an amount that has to be paid or given up in order to get something.”  When it comes to purchasing something with money . . . we know the cost because it is right out there for us to see . . . we see exactly what we have to pay in order to have that something that we want.  That is the “amount” to be paid.  That is in the world of economics—the world of business; but, in life there is also the “cost” of other things that we want in our lives . . . the “intangibles” . . . and, they, too come with a “cost”.  Typically it comes with having to give something up in order to get what it is that we want.  It seems that everything in life comes with a “cost”.

My wife’s sister—my sister-in-law—has her college degrees in economics . . . a bachelor and master’s degree, and she told me years ago that all of life is based on economics.  Everything has its price in life . . . everything has a cost . . . nothing in life is free.  Now, as idealistic as I think I have been over the years since she told me this, I have come to the conclusion that she is right . . . everything has a cost . . . everything.

Consider our scripture lesson this morning.  Jesus is going about his public ministry . . . teaching and preaching to whoever shows up . . . and, we are told that in this particular scene the majority of those who were gathering around Jesus were the sinners and tax collectors.  These sinners and tax collectors are from the wrong side of town . . . they were the people that “good” people avoided and looked down upon . . . they were the people on the edges . . . the shadow people.  Yet, they are the ones who keep showing up.  This was not good for Jesus . . . it was ruining his reputation . . . putting a damper on his ministry . . . making him look bad.  At least that is what the Pharisees and teachers of the law were mumbling.  And, of course, what they think should matter, right?  After all, they are the leaders . . . the figureheads . . . power and representatives of the faith in the community.  To mingle with the scum was not acceptable and it brought Jesus down in the sight of those who were important. 

Jesus wasn’t deaf.  Jesus wasn’t blind.  He heard the words of these important people . . . he saw their reactions to the people he was ministering to; and, he didn’t care.  He didn’t care what they thought because what they thought was all wrong.  So, Jesus responds with a parable . . . actually, three parables.  In our reading this morning we focus on the third parable . . . the parable we all know as the “Prodigal Son”.

The youngest son of a man comes to him and asks for his inheritance.  So the man divides his estate between his two sons.  Not long after the youngest son takes his inheritance and skid-daddles off to the bright lights of the big city where he proceeds to blow everything he has . . . squanders it all on wine, women, and song . . . has a good ol’ time.  Then one day, he wakes up . . . discovers that he has nothing and he is sitting in the middle of an economic depression . . . there are no jobs anywhere . . . he is hungry . . . but no one would give him any help.  He was up the creek without a paddle.  It gets so bad he even considers eating the food being fed to the pigs . . . like one of the lowest acts that any Jew could ever commit.

But then he remembers . . . the old man has money . . . the old man has a clean place for him to live . . . the old man has food.  He figures that if his father takes care of his servants, surely he would take care of him.  He would throw himself on the mercy of his father . . . ask to become a servant in order to survive.

When you think about it . . . it sounds like a good plan; but, before he even gets up to his father’s house, his father sees him coming.  Filled with compassion he runs to his youngest son, throws his arms around him, kissed him, and welcomed him home.  Before the kid could finish his confession and seek his father’s help, the father is in the hospitality mode . . . he dresses his son in the finest clothes, decks him out with jewelry, kill a fatten calf, and throws one heck of a party . . . singing and dancing fill the air.  The father is exuberant that his son has returned.

Of course, the older son . . . the good and obedient son . . . hears all the commotion but refuses to go up to the house to see what is going on . . . refuses because he knows his ungrateful and sinful brother has returned home.  He is angry . . . angry at his brother . . . and, angry at his father.  He refuses to go to the party . . . to welcome his brother home. 

The father goes out to his oldest son in hopes that he can convince him to come and join in the festivities.  But the older son refuses and complains . . . complains that he had done everything that was expected of him, stuck around and did all the work, and what did he ever get from his father . . . nothing . . .  not even a goat to throw a party.  Then he points out that the wayward son . . . the sinful son who did nothing but squander his inheritance . . . gets the royal treatment.  He refuses to welcome his brother home.

This floors the father . . . he does not understand . . . his heart is broken.

Who paid the greatest “cost” in this story?  The youngest son who squanders his inheritance?  The oldest son who sticks around, does everything according to the book, and then refuses to welcome back his brother . . . to step back into the relationship of sibling . . . at the risk of losing his relationship with his father?  Or, is it the father who loses his estate when he splits it to give each son their inheritance . . . who loses his youngest to a sinful life . . . or, lose his oldest by welcoming the sinful son back into the family?  Who pays the biggest price in this story?

Well, the youngest son loses quite a bit of money when he squanders away his inheritance in wine, women, and song . . . he is rock bottom and knows that there is nothing left for him back home except the possible mercy of his father.  The oldest son . . . he loses a brother . . . possibly a “life” since he does the work of two by staying with his father to do the work . . . and, he loses his father.  Those are some pretty heavy “costs” that both the sons pay . . . but, I think that it is the father who pays the greatest cost in the end.

The father loses his wealth and status when he gives up his estate in order to provide his sons with an inheritance . . . he is not yet dead, but he gives it all up for his sons.  This does not look good to those in the community around him.  He allows his youngest to go off and blow his inheritance . . . and, to blow it in the most decadent way possible . . . and, to return with a status lower than a servant.  I am sure the tongues were wagging in the community about the man and his youngest son.  Then he welcomes his sinful son home . . . throws him a big party . . . and, never once, does he ask for anything in return from this wayward son . . . no apology, nothing.  How silly he must have looked to the community.  And, then to have his oldest son . . . the hard-working, abiding, and obedient son refuse to come and take part in the festivities . . . to ignore the wishes of his father.  To allow his oldest to basically tell him to go to h, e, double toothpicks.  This got the tongues wagging even more.  Nothing this father did was the way he was supposed to act . . . was not the way that things were done . . . and, with each act the father fell further and further down the social ladder of his community.

And, he didn’t care.  He didn’t care what anyone else thought.  His son had returned to the family, and he gladly welcomed him back into the family.  The lost had been found.  The family was restored.  This is not a story about the prodigal, but the story about the one who welcomes him back . . . it is a story about the father.  The father is full of grace and forgiveness in welcoming his son home . . . he does not care whether or not it is the way that things are supposed to be done . . . he does not care whether or not it knocks him down the social ladder.  He does the right thing and welcomes the lost back into the family. 

So it is with God.

Jesus is doing all the wrong things in welcoming and allowing the sinners and tax collectors into the family . . . but, he does not care.  He is welcoming others . . . it is pure grace and love.  With it, God is happy because Jesus is doing exactly what God wants him to do . . . he is restoring the family . . . finding the lost . . . and, not only bringing them back to the family, but welcoming them in.

In the season of Lent we are to weigh what it is that keeps us . . . as individuals and a church . . . from fully embracing our relationship with God and others.  One of those things that we should consider is the “cost” of following Jesus—his words and example . . . faith is not free, it comes with a “cost”.  To do the will of God is often to go against what others think is right . . . what society thinks is important . . . what gives us status with others . . . what gives us importance and power.  It is to go against the flow.  And, when we cannot pay the cost we act a lot like the oldest son . . . the cost is too much . . . and, though the world around us stands beside us in principle, we lose in the end.

In this season of Lent we weigh the cost . . . the cost of being a prodigal.  Is it worth stepping up and embracing those who are the sinners, taxpayers, and those who are standing on the outside looking in because they are not the status quo?  Jesus thinks it is more important to welcome those who have been lost than to dance with those who think they have already attained sainthood.  It makes God happy.  In the end that is all that matters . . . and, Jesus really did not care whether or not anyone else agreed. 
     Jesus told a story . . . what will be our story?  Amen.

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