Tears for the Fatted Calf

Lent 4C
March 10, 2013

Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm 32

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32b

Rembrandt, "The Return of the Prodigal Son," 1636

Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” 1636

The parable of the Prodigal Son is probably one of the most well-known parables in the Gospel of Luke.  This story of loss, repentance and redemption has been repeated and re-interpreted in more ways than I can even count.  As I started writing this post, I was going to do what every other commentator has done with this story: focus on the relationship between the father, the “good son” and the Prodigal Son, talking about God’s infinite mercy and grace.  (Note: Someone else has already done this far better than I ever could – see Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, Riverhead Trade, 2011).

However, as I was doing Lectio Divina this evening on this parable, one small detail leaped out at me which had previously gone unnoticed: the fatted calf.

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate (Luke 15:20-24).
Ian Pollock, "The Prodigal Son," Conteporary

Ian Pollock, “The Prodigal Son,” Contemporary

The slaughter of this animal, for some reason, stuck out like a sore thumb for me in the middle of this otherwise lovely story of forgiveness.

Ritual Sacrifice at the Altar

Ritual Sacrifice at the Altar

Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann says of the Jewish practice of sacrifice that “The several sacrificial practices .. are to be understood as vehicles and instruments designed to celebrate, affirm, enhance, or repair that defining relationship [between YHWH and Israel]” (Reverberations of Faith, 2002, pp.182).  In Leviticus, Chapter 4, the sacrificial laws call for a “young bull without blemish as a purification offering” (vv.3) when either the High Priest or the “whole Israelite community” (vv.13) has inadvertently sinned.  So when the relationship between YHWH and YHWH’s people as a whole is disrupted (even inadvertently), the slaughtered young bull is the visible sign of YHWH’s repairing grace.

When critical relationships – particularly collective ones – are disrupted, there is a substantial cost to repairing that relationship.  As Timothy Keller points out in The Prodigal God, “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 younger brother was thoroughly polluted by his behavior (consorting with prostitutes with his father’s money and ending up as a swineherd).  The visible sign of the reparation of his relationship to his father was the slaughter of the fatted calf.  Somebody had to pay.

Veal Calf in Crate

Veal Calf in a Crate

[WARNING: Graphic pictures of veal slaughter coming up.]  Veal (fatted) calves lead a very short and inhumane life.  They are taken from their mothers just after weaning and stuffed into crates where they cannot move or do anything other than eat until the day they are slaughtered.  Real prime veal has been raised that way for centuries.  Veal calves’ sole function is to be sacrificed for someone else’s pleasure.  The fatted calf is a symbol of status and wealth for its owner.  Its sacrifice is a symbol of open-handed generosity for the person eating it – just not for the calf.

Veal Slaughter

Slaughtered Veal Calves

So where is Jesus Christ to be found in this story?  Is He the open-handed father who forgives His tainted son?  I would argue that Jesus is the ally of the sacrificed calf: “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.  So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:11-12).  When we celebrate the redemption of the Prodigal Son, and the redemption of sinners in general, it is good to give thought to what (or who) is sacrificed at the celebratory feast.  Jesus is the ally of those who are served up to make others feel at home again.  Jesus is at one with the child at the home where the mother welcomes back her abusive husband.  Jesus is at one with the prostitutes served up to visiting dignitaries as a way of “making peace” between countries.  Jesus is at one with the poor who are routinely sacrificed and forgotten so that we can forgive ourselves for our excess consumption of the world’s resources.

A Better Sacrifice

This Lent, while we contemplate Christ’s sacrifice, let us be mindful of all others who, like Him, are sacrificed in a graceless, death-dealing world to buy forgiveness.  And let us try to imagine a world where that sacrifice is no longer necessary:

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God (Psalm 51:16-17).

One thought on “Tears for the Fatted Calf

  1. Jesus was killed after disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the temple (Matthew 21:12-13 and parallels). In the Ebionite gospel, Jesus says, “I have come to destroy the [animal] sacrifices, and if you cease not from sacrificing, my wrath will not cease from you.”

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