Feasting on Animals in Jesus’ Parables

In addition to Jesus’ miracles, which enable people to eat animals (fish), Jesus’ parables provide at least some verisimilitude of daily life that includes animal consumption.

We have already discussed some parables in terms of general dining. But other parables are more precise in what is consumed, usually an animal. I am not going to proceed in any particular order here, but most of these are found in Matthew and Luke, sometimes in their shared material (Q) and sometimes in their unique materials.

Matthew – in a parable reminiscent of some of Jesus’ fishy miracles – speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven as being like a net catching a lot of fish (Matt. 13:47-50):

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matt. 13:47-50 (NRSV)

For Matthew, the angelic sorting of the righteous and the evil parallels his explanation of the parable of the sower (13:36-43). Otherwise, good and bad fish parallel righteous and evil people. The emphasis on “every kind of fish” is interesting: it suggests both “clean” and “unclean” fish – that is, those fish with fins and scales (clean; accepted; kosher) and those missing one, the other, or both (e.g., shellfish). One may infer in Matthew’s parable unique to this gospel an association of “clean” with good and “unclean” with bad.

Matt 22:1-14 / Luke 14:15-24 provides another parable of the general banquet type, such as we saw before here. I will mostly follow Matthew’s version. In it the kingdom of heaven is like a king giving a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to invite the wedding guests, but the guests wouldn’t come. He sent them again, saying: “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet” (22:4; NRSV). Luke lacks this part. Some turned down the invite; others went so far as to mistreat and kill the king’s slaves. In Luke’s version, one person says he just purchased five oxen and needs to test them out and they do not kill the slaves (just turn them down). In Matthew, the King takes revenge on those who killed his slaves, and the slaves invited anyone they could find on the streets – the good and the bad – to the king’s feast. In Luke, the king has the slave invite the poor, crippled, blind, and lame.

Two details. Firstly, Matthew’s version appears to stand in tension with the parable just discussed. Before the good and bad are sorted: here, because those originally invited responded negatively, the good and bad are invited and mixed together. The second, and more to the point of this post, is that the idealized wedding feast Jesus imagines has oxen and fatted calves slaughtered for consumption. It makes one wonder if this would be the case at the banquets Jesus himself attended? And makes one wonder whether he ate some of this meat? It is certainly plausible, but uncertain. For Luke, the second issue is less of an issue, since it never says the King slaughtered animals; instead, we get the comment that one of the people who can’t make the feast has purchased some new oxen. Seems like a flash of verisimilitude. Luke’s version also shows up on the middle of Jesus having such a dinner and commenting on dinners in general; Luke has, therefore, organized a long segment of the narrative with Jesus going to dinner and commenting on how the dinner is run (discussed, again, here), and then ending with a parable about a dinner.

There is one final parable – a very long one – that includes quite a bit of animalistic imagery: the parable of the lost son (or “prodigal son”) in Luke 15:11-32, which, for Luke, comes in the chapter just after the parable of the great feast.

The parable of the lost son is the third in a series of lost things, after a lost sheep and a lost coin. The story is well-known, but here is a quick run-down of its contents: a man has two sons. The younger one asks for his inheritance, goes to a foreign country, and spends it all. When he was broke, there was a famine, and he gets a job feeding the pigs. He had gone so low that he found the pig food appetizing. He decided to go home and become a hired hand of his father so he would not go hungry, because the hired hands had enough bread. HIs father runs to him when he sees him; the son says he’s not worthy, but the father has his salves bring the best robe out, a ring, and sandals for his son. He also throws a party, killing the fatted calf, having music and dancing. The older brother hears the party, and finds out that his father killed the fatted calf for his younger brother. The older brother, angry with his father, notes he hasn’t even gotten a goat for a celebration, but his father gave his younger brother the fatted calf! The father notes that all he owns is the oldest brother’s as well, but they should celebrate that what was lost is found, what was dead has come back to life.

Clearly animals and eating structure the narrative. We get pigs, the fatted calf, and a goat. The pigs represent the youngest brother’s lowest point. He is in a foreign land (not Israel – pigs aren’t kosher) and is willing to feed and even fantasizes about eating the food of this unclean animal. The fatted calf shows the father’s compassion, but also relief and joy that his lost son has returned. The fatted calf represents the height of a party: it is what you do when you go all out, as seen in the earlier parable (see also 1 Sam. 28:24; Amos 6:4). This is something that the older brother’s jealousy highlights. He cannot get over the fatted calf – doesn’t seem to care about the ring, the robe, and the sandals. He wants a party too and he hasn’t even gotten a goat to slaughter to celebrate with his friends. The goat is not nearly as good as the fatted calf, but it would be something – and might show what, for example, a less wealthy person might do when throwing a party.

More so than the rest of the gospel narratives, Jesus’ parables open up to eating more than the fish found everywhere else. Instead of just fish, though fish and fishing are still present, we see oxen, fatted calves, and even a goat. While these would be a special treat – thus, it appears in the celebrations of kings and the wealthy and, even there, on a special occasion – they imagine the kingdom analogous to a place of eating the best meats.


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