The Prodigal Son & the Golden Calf

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Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son and Israel’s worship of the Golden Calf are some of the best known of all Bible stories.  The connection?  Maybe they both reveal much about the nature of sin, idolatry, grace . . . and of the Father’s merciful love.

Everyone knows the bible stories of the Prodigal Son and the Golden Calf.  But they don’t usually put the two together as do the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary time.  So what do the two tales have in common?

Sin, Idolatry & the Golden Calf

Answer: they both speak volumes about the nature of sin.  Think about it.  God sees an enslaved people in miserable bondage to the mightiest nation on earth.  He champions their cause, smashes the armies of Pharaoh, brings them out of Egypt into freedom, and makes them his own chosen people.  And while he is giving to their leader a blueprint for their new life, they decide to worship what their next-door neighbors, the Canaanites, worshiped: power, virility, fertility, prosperity.  The golden bull symbolizes all those things, and for this very reason, was a leading idol in the Ancient Near East.

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The Prodigal Son

Now let’s look at the Prodigal Son.   He’s born into a prosperous family and receives all good things from his father.  But rather than waiting for his dad to die, he demands his inheritance now, thumbs his nose at his father, takes the money and runs.  He wastes all that he has on partying and fast living, pursuing the very same idols as the Israelites did in the desert.

The food sated him.  The wine exhilarated him.  The carousing titillated him.  But after it was all over, he found himself broke, empty, and alone.

prodical son and golden calf

This is the grand illusion of sin.  It is dangled before our eyes as the key to fulfillment and happiness.  It is all about enjoying the gifts of creation in defiance of the Creator, in a way contrary to his wise and loving design.  And because those things were in fact created good by God, it seems to work at first.  Sin initially tastes good.  But ultimately, it always turns sour and leaves us with an empty, aching sadness.   In contrast, God’s will may at first sting, but later brings a profound joy that makes our hearts sing.

Merciful Love of the Father

So how do the stories of the golden calf and the Prodigal Son differ?  It’s really the difference between the Old and New Testaments, between a preliminary, partial revelation of God and the full revelation of God in Christ.  In Exodus, God Almighty reacts to sin with righteous anger, as he did in Genesis when he sweeps the world clean of sin through the flood.  If not for Moses’ intercession, he likewise would have destroyed the bull-worshipers and started over.

In the gospel, God, the compassionate Father, looks past the sin to focus on the sinner.  The older brother of the Prodigal wants punishment.  The Father insists on mercy.

Repentance of the Prodigal Son

There is a very important point in the story that should not escape our attention.  The motivation of the prodigal son is not sincere sorrow at how badly he has offended his father. It is not even that he misses his father.  It comes back simply because he is hungry.  He admits his sin and wants pardon, yes, but it is to save his skin.

Does the Father care?  Does his insist that the son’s contrition be pure or perfect?  Does he even pay attention to the son’s rehearsed speech?  No.  He is overjoyed that the son has begun the journey home, for whatever reason.  He lavishes gifts upon him before he even gets to the house.


The elder brother insists that he does not deserve such treatment.  The Father does not contest this.  The Prodigal deserves nothing.   But the Father, in his generous mercy, gives him everything.

God’s freely given, unmerited grace precedes even our expression of sorrow.  In fact, without God’s grace, we can’t even make the first step on the road back to him.  He loves us when we were yet sinners, and seems to lavish the greatest graces on the most undeserving.

Ask St. Paul about this.  Perhaps he writes more about grace than any other biblical author because he needed it so much more.   Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who said that God helps those who help themselves?  Paul, the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), understood that it is quite the opposite: God helps those who can’t help themselves.  That’s what grace is all about.

This post on the Prodigal Son shows the story’s connection with the Golden calf, sin, grace and the merciful love of the Father.  It is a reflection on the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C (Exodus 32; Psalm 51; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32).

For more on the merciful love of God the Father, see the THEOLOGY Section of the Crossroads Initiative Library.

  • Bob bonnell
    Posted at 09:54h, 09 September

    …we are so thinking, praying, living and in CommunionFire with you along these lines with types and shadows both in Old and New Testament and then compared for our learning through the witnesses of the Holy Martyrs and Blessed Saints… 1 Corinthians 10:11 Are we not that generation upon whom the ends of the world hae come? Then the power of God is unleashed in us around us and through us by virtue of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, The Holy Communion and His Holy Fire – Maybe you could post that “Fire” song Crossroads recorded and preformed 40 years ago! Love to you and the family and George and family, Andy, Francis, Jon Polce, Father Ed, Fred and so many others… saw Ralph this morning. Any way – Here we go My Dear Man of God, and Susan Woman of God and your Holy Family of God and Ministry! – We are the early church of our Day and its about to bust loose as never before in any other generation. Alleluia!

  • Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Posted at 12:33h, 09 September

    Let the Fire Fall! Working to digitize it and make it available once again!

  • Bob bonnell
    Posted at 13:44h, 09 September

    Awesome! Thank you!

  • Kevin Wallis
    Posted at 21:08h, 06 March

    Thank you, most encouraging

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