I am not one of nature’s ascetics. For me the Golden Calf and the Fatted Calf are one. There is nothing quite like a nice bit of Vitello Milanese, 'with chips', soaked in red wine vinegar.
It is one of my fondest memories of a year spent in a Roman Seminary, forty years ago. This, I hasten to add, was the Scottish one, which I left after a retreat given by an Irish Dominican.
Moses stands in the breach before God on behalf of his headstrong people who have committed idolatry, seeking consolation and security in something tangible and visible, a substitute for the real and living God. Pope Francis has spoken often of such temptations in our own time. He reminds us of the real solution to be found in the mercy of Jesus.
St Paul says: 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I myself am the greatest of them; and if mercy has been shown to me, it is because Jesus Christ meant to make me the greatest evidence of his inexhaustible patience for all the other people who would later have to trust in him to come to eternal life.'
He is the 'Fatted Calf', killed for the feast of the very Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The lost sheep and the lost coin lead on to the lost son. If the lost son has been dead and then brought back to life, then we are all called to join in the celebration. However the calling is much more persuasive and urgent when we realise that we too need bringing back to life from death: the death of alienation, bitterness, negation, hatred of self, others and God. Only the calf, who has himself undergone death to defeat it, as one like us in all things but sin, can be our means of liberation and resurrection to new life. If like the elder son, we choose to stand outside the feast of the fatted calf, we then refuse the offer of resurrection to new life from death.
The feast we are invited to is the Father's heavenly banquet, where Jesus is the 'Fatted Calf, of the parable, now in reality the lamb of sacrifice offered for the sins of humanity, once and for all, at the Last Supper and on the Cross of Calvary.
Like the younger son, we need to come to our senses, and realise that we are dying of hunger for the food of heaven, Jesus himself. He is the one who, as St Paul tells us, gives us strength and calls us into his service regardless of our past and present sins.
The mercy enables us to show the mercy and compassion of our God to others. 'Rejoice with me' is the invitation to join in the feast.
It is hard for the elder brother, (or sister) to join in this rejoicing: 'All those years I have worked for you and never once disobeyed your orders.' Is this the real relationship of a Father to his loving Father? The Father reminds the elder son that 'you are with me always, and all I have is yours. The life of relationship with the Father is a gift shared, not to be jealously hoarded.
The resentment of the elder brother in the parable mirrors the resentment and bitterness of those who have not quite taken the risks of the more reckless among us. Often a truer and deeper repentance comes from those who have sinned the most. Perhaps those of us who have not openly rebelled, have still our own little 'golden calfs'.
The repentant younger brother upsets our settled way of living. The rejoicing and feasting is beyond my control. It is mine, in relationship with the Father, and with all the others he has invited to the feast, not just our friends.
God's mercy is offered freely, on his terms not mine.
Jesus is the mercy and compassion of God, not a Golden Calf, but a Fatted Calf, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.