The parable of the prodigal son

No, I am not going to go all religious. I am not going to explain the meaning of the parable of the prodigal son. There are many people much better qualified to do so than I am able to do that.  I can, however, talk about the killing of the fatted calf. This story points to the practice of the time of eating meat only on special days – not least because they would never have been able to produce enough for daily consumption that we may be used to.

Of the prodigal son’s return to his family home the gospel writer, Luke, wrote:

22 “But the father said to his servants, … 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

How should we interpret and use these statements?

I think that it is reasonable to assume that the peoples of the Holy Lands and the neighbouring regions would not have wasted energy time and resources on rearing beef cattle in order to produce t-bone steaks. In fact we know that rearing animals just for their protein is inefficient. On the other hand, the milk from goats and cows would have been a useful renewable source of liquid protein. The “cow” is respected in Hindu for this reason. Male progeny would have been culled quite early in their lives but when big enough to eat.

From what I can see the peoples of Jesus’ time would have eaten meat only on special occasions. Indeed I have read that in Greek tradition that they gathered to eat meat on either special days, say birthdays, or on days commemorating events that were special to the community. For Jews the Passover is a special event. The completion of the gathering of the current year’s harvest would have been marked by a harvest festival. The winter solstice would have been a special occasion as people looked forward to a cycle of new life. With different iterations of calendars Christmas and New Year celebrations have become detached from the winter solstice but clearly that must be the origin of these festivals. But I digress.

Why would meat from lamb, goats and calves have been eaten only on special days?

One reason is that if a lamb, goat or calf is going to be big enough to eat it will probably be too big for the nuclear family – mum, dad, 2.4 children and one or two grandparents, perhaps. For sure if they were going kill and take the life of an animal they would not want to waste anything that could be eaten. They would have gathered the extended family together and probably included their servants.

Alternatively they would have had a community event, a street party, as it were. You can imagine that a long-lost community member returning home would have meant something to the whole community as well as the immediate family. Again nothing that could be eaten would have been wasted and we can see the concept of charity developing as meat was distributed to the poor.

How do I know this? I recently went to a Muslim wedding feast. There was plenty of meat and there seemed to be plenty left over. I am told that it was taken away and distributed so as not to waste it.

Contrast that with a secular love affair with meat. I remember when Marks and Spencer started selling fresh food and short-dated ready meals. The shelves were usually empty by mid-afternoon. There was clearly a policy of not overstocking so that little meat was thrown away. Today we expect to see supermarket shelves full so that we can buy meat at almost anytime of the day. Much gets wasted posing the question: “How many animals die in vain?”

I have written this in part in the context of the often ill-informed conversations about the cruelty of halal slaughter. What I have described are infrequent occasions when meat was eaten in Biblical times. Animals were or should have been killed with reverence. They were cooked with care. There were probably good practical reasons. Animals treated badly at slaughter may well not have produced good meat. Improper cooking would have led to food poisoning. Throwing the inedible carcass onto a spoil heap would have attracted vermin and posed a health risk so they learned to burn it.

This is the origin of sacrifice. It’s how they prepared their meat in Biblical times and earlier. They probably gathered at a dedicated piece of land kept clean and protected for this purpose – hence the concept of consecrated land.

I think that we can say for sure that the peoples of Biblical times did not know about bacteria but for sure they, or rather their priests or prophets, would have been able to work out what was good and bad practice. We can also assume that they had a sense of the “sanctity of life”. In Muslim tradition a prayer effectively to thank Our Creator for his bounty and to ask forgiveness for taking life is offered. Jews do something similar. Christians traditionally say grace at mealtimes.

In our secular world all these considerations are abandoned. We expect to eat meat any day. We are usually disconnected from its production. We have introduced intensive rearing and industrial slaughter where animals are treated as mere commodities. Some this is changing. In recent years we have become aware of factory farming and campaign against it but we care not to think too much about what happens between the farm gate and supermarket shelves. We have moved a long way from the reverential concept of sacrifice around two thousand years ago and earlier. Too many of us are too quick to condemn the religious component of slaughter but perhaps we need to revisit it.

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