2-23-14 Prodigal Son Bar Mitzvah
Next Saturday I have the honor of taking part in the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah of a young man about to turn 14. His father is of Jewish heritage, and his mother grew up Roman Catholic. They decided together that both of their sons should be Bar Mitzvah’d at the appropriate age, but they agreed that the occasion should celebrate not only the Jewish heritage of their sons, but the Christian heritage brought into their home by their mother.
The parents were fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of a rabbi who is open to this sort of interfaith ceremony, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to bring a Christian perspective. Three and a half years ago, I participated in the Bar Mitzvah of their older son, and now their second son is coming of age.
The wonderful challenge for me this time is that the younger son is autistic. He is very high-functioning, in my layman’s opinion, and is quite outgoing and happy. I feel this is a by-product of growing up in a home full of parental and sibling love and support. Unlike many autistic children, the youngster will make fleeting eye contact and is enthusiastic about learning.
My challenge is that he has difficulty with abstract concepts, and theology and religious education is full of abstractions. I decided to refine his “Christian” lessons with the goal of one or two core principles. I wanted him to understand that God loves him, and every other person, as his children, and that love is unconditional. The kind and scope of unconditional love that God gives to all of us is often hard to fathom, but Rabbi Jesus gave us a powerful parable that helped me instruct this young man. That is: The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which might be more appropriately call the Parable of the Waiting Father, because the father’s unconditional love for both of his sons is the point Jesus was making.
Today’s readings give powerful support of this concept of the unconditional love we receive from God. What we call “grace” is the one-word equivalent of this unconditional love. Grace is a gift from God that is given freely and in unlimited quantity, and nothing is required of us in return other than to live a life of love. We are made in God’s image, so it comes naturally to human beings to love, and the readings today point to that fact. Our egos sometime make us miss the mark, and “missing the mark” is the true definition of what is called “sin.” But, just as the father in the parable shows his renegade, spendthrift son immediate and unrestricted forgiveness, so does God show that same forgiveness to us when we return to the path of love we are born into.
The young Bar Mitzvah candidate had his last lesson yesterday, and I was delighted that he understood the parable and that God is happy when we are nice to other people. And he understands that, even if others are not nice to us, we still have to be nice. That, my sisters and brothers, is the Christian path in a nutshell. Be nice even in the face of adversity.