Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Presence of the Fatted Calf in the Prodigal Son

Last week, I had the chance to teach the Prodigal Son in Sunday School. The parable is always fascinating to teach and discuss, as it usually evokes a personal reaction from many. At different stages of our lives, we can relate to the the elder son's frustration, the father's overwhelming compassion, and the younger brother's rebelliousness and and eventual contrition.

But I think that there is an important symbol in the story that can be overlooked: the fatted calf during the time of the feasting. Of course, it can symbolize the celebration, as well as the genuine pride that the father has for its son's journey to repentance. Studying Leviticus 16 alongside the Prodigal Son can add another layer of richness in understanding the role of the fatted calf in this parable.

Leviticus 16 is an explanation of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest of days for the Jewish people. Yom Kippur was said to be instituted on the day that Moses received the 10 Commandments. Forty days after the Lord gave his second set of instructions to the Israelites, they were granted atonement from the sin of the Golden Calf, through Moses' pleading on behalf of them.

In Leviticus 16, the Lord makes clear of the need for sacrificing animals as part of Day of Atonement. A bull was sacrificed on behalf of the high priest and his household, a goat for the priests, and another goat was released in the wilderness on behalf of the Israelite people (the scapegoat). From these scriptures, sacrificing animals as an offering for sins became established.

Considering the story of the Golden Calf and the Day of Atonement, I think that the fatted calf also offers some important aspects to the story:

1. The fatted calf, like the Golden Calf of the Old Testament, produced joy and merriment for the people in both stories. However, the Golden Calf represented the people's rebellious nature in turning from God. The fatted calf symbolized the celebratory nature the people had for a son turning toward God. Or perhaps, the fatted calf's death alludes to the "death" of the younger son's former life of riotous (and probably idolatrous) living.

2. The Golden Calf and the fatted calf in both stories also present dual aspects of God's character. God's reaction to the Golden Calf is angry and vengeful. But in killing the fatted calf, Christ shows God's character as one of compassion and mercy. The Prodigal Son's story, as seen from the calf in the story, is integral to gaining a more complete picture of God's character.

3. The son's "sins against heaven," as the Jewish audience understood, required expiation of some kind. So, it makes sense that there is a type of animal sacrifice illustrated in the story. But unlike the use of a bull or a goat as explained in Leviticus, the fatted calf is a new animal not yet mentioned as a form for sacrifice. Perhaps Christ was trying to teach that in the new law he was seeking to establish, there would be a new kind of atonement made as a result of our sins. Christ, in a very literal sense for us, is the fatted calf in the story. Just as the son's homecoming inevitably involved the slaughter of the fatted calf, our joyous homecoming to God does involve the sacrifice of a perfect being.

Image by Lawrence OP.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Taking off my rose-colored glasses: my childhood in Baltimore and nearby Ferguson

My siblings and I at Shaw Park in St. Louis, donning our St. Louis Cardinals Christmas hats.

I may seem, in the words of some, "unmappable." That may be true: I have lived in Boston, Washington DC, Provo UT, Hong Kong, Glasgow, St. Louis, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Beijing, and New York City. And now that my family lives in the Middle East, I seem to have even less of a homebase.

While living in numerous areas has given me an affinity for different parts of the world, two cities on that list have deeply shaped me: Baltimore and St. Louis, the places of my childhood. When people asked how I could possibly love these cities, I staunchly defend them both. Were they not aware of Baltimore's beautiful Inner Harbor, Forest Park, Baltimore's memorable seafood, Ted Drewes, and everything else that had been integral parts of my idyllic childhood?

But I was not completely shielded from both cities' social problems. When I was growing up in Baltimore,  my sister and I once gleefully pranced down the stairs in our new Easter dresses, ready to go to church. My mother gently, but firmly, told us to go back upstairs and wear something else. We were disappointed, until we saw poverty's ugly face in our congregation: black children my age not wearing shoes. Women wearing faded pants and a t-shirt because they could not afford to wear a Sunday dress. A child with an eye-patch because his parents could not afford an eye operation. And then I understood why I never saw my dad wear a suit on Sunday, and why, in this case, it was not appropriate to wear my new Easter dress. We were far from rich, but even our tiny house in a modest neighborhood looked like a Taj Mahal in the eyes of many.

Then I went to church in St. Louis County for the first time and was shocked at what my nine-year-old eyes saw. "Mom," I said, "Where are the black people?" As a child used to worshipping and interacting with blacks, I could not understand why everyone in our congregation was white and largely affluent. It didn't seem right. But, unfortunately, it was a sad reflection of St. Louis's harsh truth: it is one of the most (if not the most) segregated cities in the nation. We learned early on which parts of St. Louis were safe, and which ones to avoid. Indeed, St. Louis has a checkered sort of character: areas are known as either largely "white" or largely "black."

My high school experience would have largely reflected my church-going experience, had it not been for the inter-city busing program that brought in kids from St. Louis City. When the program suddenly was deemed as "too expensive" by our superintendent, the majority of our high school body marched out to protest. "Homogenize milk, not students," said one sign. Indeed, the sign's witty statement described a sad reality. Without this program, our high school body would have indeed been quite homogenous: 95% white. In my high schooler's eyes, our protest seemed to represent progress and open-mindedness. Not to mention that our actions made a difference: our superintendent agreed to delay the decision for another eight years. 

Yet, the vestiges of segregation still shows its ugly past. I recall remarking to my dad while driving one day of how strange the interstate highways of St. Louis were mapped out. My dad then pointed out that the interstate highways were specifically planned to avoid St. Louis's poorer areas. And history tends to repeat itself: when the Metrolink public transportation system was going to create a stop close to my community of Clayton, dubbed as "the bubble," controversy brewed. In one of the richest areas of St. Louis County, residents protested that creating a stop would increase crime in our area, as now "anyone" could come to Clayton. Our comfortable, yet insular "bubble" now had the potential to be popped.

When the riots exploded in St. Louis and in Baltimore, I was heartbroken. Mike Brown does not look that different from the high school boys that I went to school with. Freddie Gray could have easily been someone I had gone to church with. But was I surprised? Hardly. While we may claim to be in a post-racist society, many of America's cities are designed from urban planning, government policies, and housing projects that stemmed from prejudicial views. And in areas that do not seem to bear any hope for the current generation, what else can they do? While I do not condone looting and violence, I cannot help but see how, in MLK's view, riots are often the voices of the unheard. And I am glad that many Americans are tuning in and listening to those who are stuck in a perpetual cycle of poverty.

I still love St. Louis and Baltimore. I still cheer for the Cardinals, crave Ted Drewes ice cream, and reminisce on my walks on Baltimore's Inner Harbor. But I also understand that I have to take off my rose-colored glasses when I think of these two cities and view them as they really are. I hope and pray that things will change--that we will actually become a "post-racist" society.