Staying too long with the fattened calf

By B.J. Funk

Something in our human nature makes us doubt stories in which the bad guy wins, especially when he has done nothing to earn his victory. In this story of the prodigal (Luke 15), the impertinence of a renegade son is wiped away overnight by an unbelievably loving father. The greedy youngster turns from his sinful behavior as he runs into the welcoming arms of his father. The point is easy to understand: God’s love toward sinners is incomprehensible. His mercy far exceeds anything we can imagine. When we stray, God waits with open arms to receive us back. That is powerful!

Of course, there is no recorded conversation after the son asks for his share of the inheritance. He asks for it, and in the very next verse, he gets it! After the son wastes his father’s money, he finally “comes to his senses” and returns home. He is welcomed as royalty. The father lavishes his love on this squandering son. Instead of disowning him, the father owns him. He orders a banquet with a fat calf as the main menu, an abundant homecoming meal. The story is entirely beautiful in its content.

The events leading up to that reunion puzzle me. My father would never have agreed to give me my share of the inheritance before his death. A firm “No” would have left me wondering why I even asked. And, if I did ask, his “because I said so” would be ample response. I would not ask again!

I wonder how long the son sits at the table. I wonder if he becomes fat and satisfied in the feast of his father’s goodness. Does he receive the meal with gratitude, and then later go back to his old ways? If we knew the rest of this story, would continuing dialogue show a self-serving son? Or, would we instead see a son who, after realizing the healing comforts of forgiveness, gets up from the table and shares that love with someone else? It would be nice to think that he looks at his older brother, incensed by all the excitement poured on his little brother, and invites him to feast with him at the Table of Reconciliation.

We’ve seen this story repeated in our churches. A repentant son comes home to God, and the church rejoices. We welcome him as he sits down in our services to drink in the sweet juice of forgiveness. But, he never gets up. He picks and chooses the food he will eat, and not all of it makes him comfortable. Maybe he squirms at the pastor’s challenges each Sunday. As he stuffs more meat into his mouth, he begins to think the Table of Reconciliation gives him special privileges. It is, after all, all about him, right? Imagining himself exempt from expectations of the Christian faith, he disregards the high calling of a son, while at the same time indulging in the privileges of a son.

Suppose the prodigal begins to think he deserves the fattened calf. Self-importance rises to interrupt any thoughts of gratitude. He then becomes a welfare recipient of God’s goodness, always expecting more and never taking responsibility for his own growth in God.
Are you still sitting? Have you gotten up yet and shared the love you found from the fattened calf?

The meal was meant for celebration, not stagnation. The scrumptious food taught a valuable lesson: God loves us in spite of where we have been or what we have done. When we repent, we can eat at his kingdom forever. But, there is a more: We are to go and do likewise.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this son sliced the prime beef and gave the best parts to the servants who had always had the scraps? It would make great sense if he opened his own soup kitchen out in the front yard. He could reciprocate his father’s generosity by doing unto others as his father did unto him.

Each Sunday, our pews are lined with those who are staying too long at the table of the fattened calf. They are content to receive but not to give. They have never learned to cut a piece of the meat of God’s Word and share it with someone.

I’m guilty. I like roast beef more than I like giving out Bibles. I am much more comfortable with prime rib than I am with bringing someone to Christ. It’s time I move away from the table. Will you come with me?

B.J. Funk (bjfunk@bellsouth.net) is associate pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She is the author of The Dance of Life: Invitation to a Father Daughter Dance, a regular contributor to the South Georgia Advocate, and a frequent speaker at women’s retreats.