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.

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