27 March 2022
We can focus today on one element of the Gospel of the prodigal son. That of the “fatted calf”. We know that when the Father receives his younger son back to his property he welcomes him and speaks over him words of mercy and forgiveness. As a sign of this welcome and readmission to the family he states that a ring should be placed on his son’s finger, shoes on his feet and that he should be dressed by a robe. But also that the “fatted calf” be killed and therefore that a feast or celebration should take place. We know instinctively the meaning of this phrase (which has even passed as a metaphor into vernacular English) designating in the first place an animal which has been specially reared in order to be slaughtered and served as a delicacy for a special occasion. What would be our equivalent? Perhaps a special bottle of wine kept for Christmas or an extra-nice box of chocolates kept for a birthday or even an unexpected guest or occasion to celebrate.
That it was a calf, which is of course a young cow or bull, and one which had been specially fattened up to make a rare treat for the diners, reflects the fact that the Jews were a fundamentally agricultural people for whom ceremonies as well as stories such as parables were often linked to animals or arable produce. Think of the story of the “golden calf” in the book of Exodus, when the Jews committed the sin of idolatry, which, as well as anything else, indicates that a calf was something specially valued. Even today veal, the meat of a calf, is reckoned a premium foodstuff.
Some light can be shed by reviewing other incidences of the “fatted calf” in Scripture. There’s an occasion in the book of Genesis when Abraham receives three mysterious guests, believed to be angels, for whom he runs “to the herd, took a calf, tender and good, who gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.” (Gen. 18:7) This was an act of hospitality. Another is in the first book of Samuel, when King Saul visits the witch of Endor to ask her to summon up the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel. The witch is none too impressed with Saul who had himself as King banned this practice, contrary to Jewish and Christian faith. (An interesting case of the sinner unimpressed by the hypocrisy of the authority figure.) Nonetheless the witch does as Saul asks and afterwards out of respect for his office and person takes the “fatted calf” and kills and prepares it for the King and his companions.
But it is important to reflect that a Jew thinking of the practice of keeping and killing the “fatted calf” could not but make a connection with the broader practice of animal sacrifice. The concept of sacrifice was so fundamental to the Jewish religion that, whilst the “fatted calf” isn’t itself a sacrifice specified in the book of Leviticus, the connation or association with ritual sacrifice could not be divorced from this practice in the mind of a Jewish audience. Some of the Old Testament ritual sacrifices were of calves indeed (e.g. Lev. 9:2) and at the start of the book of Isaiah God says through his prophet that he is dissatisfied with the sacrifices of “fatlings” (often calves) not because the sacrifices are bad but because they were not being combined with works of mercy and justice in everyday life (cf. Isaiah 1: 11 and following). Jeremiah 34 refers to a special ceremony in which a sacrificed calf, cut into two pieces, represents a covenant between mankind and God. (cf. Jer. 34:18-19; also cf. Gen 15:8-20).
In the parable of the prodigal son, therefore, the discreet presence of the motif of the fatted calf can be understood as a subtle or almost hidden reference to sacrifice, especially given that it is killed and served for a celebration of reconciliation not only between father and son but between God and sinful mankind which is the deeper meaning of the parable. The reference of course is to the Sacrifice of Christ which is the one and only sacrifice capable of achieving this end. It is no coincidence that in the letter to the Hebrews Our Lord is compared to a calf, in which it is said that Christ after his death entered heaven and took with him “not the blood of goats and bull calves” as had been offered in the temple sacrifices, but “his own blood, having won an eternal redemption for us” (Heb. 9:12 [JB]). The point is that the sacrifice of Christ is more powerful than the sacrifices of olden times, because it alone can purify the human soul from the stain of sin and thereby reconcile man with God. This is the Sacrifice of the Cross because it is precisely on the cross that man is reconciled to God: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19).
In this perspective we can observe three things about the parable of the prodigal son.
First, the Father goes out to meet the son outside his house and there pronounces over him his words of mercy. But it is only subsequently, marked by the killing of the fatted calf, that the son enters the house and along with the Father and other members of the household shares in what may be called a banquet of love. So, Jesus, in his public ministry often pronounces words of forgiveness over individuals (the woman caught in adultery, the paralytic; in the parable of the prodigal son itself he speaks centrally of the divine mercy), but it is only in the sacrifice of himself on the cross that this reconciliation is perfectly accomplished through which we ourselves, sinners, are admitted to the communion of saints, the house of the Father, the Kingdom of God.
Secondly, the son and members of the household partake of the sacrifice, they eat of it. This was always necessary in the Old Testament ritual sacrifices. It was believed that unless someone, usually the priest, ate of the sacrificial meal, the benefits or blessings of that sacrifice would not flow onto God’s people. The best example of this is the paschal sacrifice which we hear about especially at Easter where a Jewish family had to kill the paschal lamb and then, as a family in this case, eat of it in order to share in its fruits. So Jesus died in sacrifice of the cross but it is only by eating of that sacrifice in holy communion that we come to share in the supernatural fruits of his one offering. This is a mystery foreshadowed in today’s first reading which speaks of the heavenly manna eaten by God’s people. As Jesus said, “the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). We find this truth reflected in the sacrifice of the Mass, in which whilst an individual Christian does not necessarily need to receive holy communion on a given occasion, and some are for one reason or other not able to receive, the priest celebrate must receive the body and blood of Jesus at the Mass in order, according to the traditional doctrine, that the sacrifice of the Mass is complete and its spiritual fruits applied.
Thirdly, the elder son is jealous of the killing of the fatted calf. In fact, it’s particularly the calf that he is upset about, more than the ring, shoes or robe which he doesn’t mention. In its early Christian context it would have been understood that the elder son represents those Jewish believers who resented the extension of God’s mercy to “gentile sinners” represented by the younger son. Such persons believed that they possessed God’s salvation as his chosen race, whereas Gentiles were unclean and outside this covenant. So, then, is the elder son jealous that Jesus died on the cross to redeem the guilty, rather clinging on his own privileges? We must consider that the elder son’s jealousy is particularly focussed on the manner in which the Father chooses to forgive, the gratuitous form of his mercy which is represented and enacted perfectly only in the sacrifice of Calvary. It is a reconciliation that he resents but in which he and all peoples are in fact invited to share.
As we now prepare for Holy Week, the Paschal Triduum and Easter, we reflect that it is precisely this mystery of reconciliation which we are to celebrate and by divine grace to enter into more fully in those holy days. We pray that as Easter approaches we may enter deeply into this divine mystery, and, with our sins forgiven, participate in the paschal banquet of the Eucharist. And that we may set our eyes not on the early Easter but the heavenly celebration of reconciliation and that sharing in the joy of the Saints, a thanksgiving which will never end. Amen.