Luke 2:41-52, Jesus’ Childhood

[December 30, 2012] The First Sunday of Christmastide. In today’s Gospel-reading Luke gives us a glimpse of a turning point in Jesus’ life—the first time He went to Jerusalem since infancy, a year before His bar mitzvah, perhaps in anticipation of that event. We get the impression of an awakening of sorts that the sight of the city and its Temple, and of pilgrims from all the recesses of the gentile world, might have stirred in Him. It was the time of Passover and Jesus, already instructed in its lore, saw for Himself the festival at the Temple. Until then He had been educated at the local synagogue in Nazareth, steeped in the narratives and prophecies and instructions of the scrolls kept there, and in the Mishna (the codified oral law) taught there. He saw the world from the point of view of those who traveled through the town; Nazareth was a crossroads for many travelers: Jewish priests and scribes, gentile merchants, and Roman soldiers. And He heard from His mother and father the strange stories surrounding His birth.

Luke alone of the Gospel-writers tells us this story, just as he has told us unique stories about the Lord’s birth, stories told from the perspective of the women he probably interviewed. Matthew tells the story of His family’s flight to Egypt (probably Alexandria) when He was around two years old, and their return to Nazareth. After that, this here is the only story we are told of His life prior to His baptism by John. The others all rush to that story, John even skipping over the baptism to tell us of it in retrospect. They have little interest in Jesus’ interior story; Jesus is a flower fully blossomed by the time they open the curtain. And we should be wary of thinking that Luke’s interest is psychological. He approaches Jesus’ bios from a cosmopolitan and literary point of view (very different than Matthew’s Torah-like composition of haggadot and derashot), that gives us a personal and subjective view of Jesus missing from the others. The psychological insights we draw, however, reflect our own interests, not the story-teller’s. He sees Jesus from the point of view of the church’s apostolate, its world mission, and Jesus as the peoples’ Savior and exemplar Apostle, with a strong sense—from a cultured gentile perspective—of the church’s rootedness in Palestinian and international Judaism. We always are given to see Jesus from the point of view of others—what He means to us—rather than from His own point of view, allowing that Luke’s inspired literary craftsmanship is controlling how that meaning comes across to us.

So what is Luke’s purpose in this story? It is sandwiched between verses 39a-40:

“They returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth. The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.”

and verses 51-52:

“And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor [grace] with God and men.”

These frame the story for a reason, guiding our interpretation in a way that we have still to determine. Obviously the story has to do with Jesus’ growth in wisdom and grace; and we see it through the eyes of Mary, who, we are told, “treasured all these things in her heart,” as an invitation to the reader to do the same.

One thing that is striking for us (it may have not been so for Luke), in view of later developments, is just how human Jesus is. Luke never departs from this perspective, though He never questions (I am convinced) Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ humanity is always down to earth and personable, approachable and accessible. It is not that Jesus is our modern idea of humanity—trivial and laughing and always casual; He is never artificial but possesses innate natural nobility; He breathes the air of heaven but is self-possessed among men and very down to earth. The life of households is predominant throughout Luke’s presentation, and the lives of women (and children) are in view. The humanity of Jesus is felt in His closeness to us; one feels a familial intimacy with Him that is nevertheless the Presence of God. Though He is so flesh and blood with us and affected by the same things, there is nothing trivial about His compassion for us; somehow it is awe-inspiring; it awakens in us a sense of a great Presence of which we are only touching the margins, but the margin of which is true to the center: the heart of God is touching us.

So here is this twelve-year-old boy, thrilled by His visit to Jerusalem, excited by the crowds, intensely interested in what is happening. And apparently He is very knowledgeable, because of His mother’s instruction no doubt, and deeply thoughtful, so that the teachers in the Temple are amazed at His understanding and answers. Knowing the story of who He will become, we are perhaps not so surprised that He is a precocious youth. Those preparing for bar mitzvah sat under the teachers in the Temple and were examined by them. The education of young men is one of the roles of the Temple scribes. That Jesus should have their audience is not so surprising. Christians are quick to attribute the “miraculous” (magical?) to Jesus, which of course immediately keeps Him at a distance, but what we see here is entirely natural (miraculous in the true sense, though it may be). We might even overlook that Jesus “was listening to them and asking them questions” and only see that they were amazed at His answers, as if He were instructing them. No, Jesus was not sitting at a lecture nor was He being cross-examined by the teachers. Rather, the method of instruction was Socratic; skillful questions fished out the correct answers from the boys; it made the boys think. Jesus was there as a Learner; apparently He was thrilled with learning; and they were impressed at how readily He grasped what they were instructing Him. He was a thoughtful and insightful Learner, fully engaged with the teacher in the subject matter; but He was a Learner nevertheless. They were teaching Him to see deeply into the Biblical texts, and they were impressed at the skill that He already possessed.

Jesus was not teaching them; He was learning from them. His time for teaching would come later.

What astonished His mother (which clues us in as to what should be astonishing to us) was not His brilliance—that probably was no surprise—but that He stayed behind in Jerusalem when the family left and never said a word to anyone. “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” For four or five days He stayed without them, still fully engaged in what He was doing; and He was surprised that they did not expect Him to be there now. “Why is it that you were looking for Me?” Four or five days: His parents spent a day’s journey traveling away from Jerusalem, at least part of a day returning, and three days looking for Him. Where was He sleeping? What was He eating?—the Boy was only twelve! Perhaps Mary had kindred still at Jerusalem (Elizabeth, for example, lived in the hill country of Judah). But still, how could this Boy allow His parents, younger siblings, relatives and acquaintances to all leave, and Himself to just carry on as if that were okay? As if He said to Himself, “Why should they worry? I’ll find My own way home.”

So this is a mystery. It was not that He was disobedient. At least we are not supposed to draw that conclusion, for Luke makes a point of telling us afterwards that “He continued in subjection to them.” Nor would Luke or any of the evangelists or apostles have accused Jesus of transgressing a commandment. The problem was not Jesus. It was His parents who did not understand. Jesus’ own behavior reflected that He was growing in wisdom (not just the knowledge and understanding that He demonstrated to His teachers). Apparently, His peculiar behavior was a reflection of His profound wisdom.

But what was it that they did not understand? What was this “wisdom” that led Him? “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s [house]?” Literally: “Did you not know that it-behooves [or, it-is-necessary-for] Me to-be in the [things] of My Father?” The expression “to be in the things” only occurs elsewhere in 1 Timothy 4:15, “Occupy yourself with these things; be in them.” The word “occupy” (meletaō) means to take care, take pains with. Jesus said to His mother, “Did you not know that I had to be in the things of My Father?” It was necessary, by the (obvious!) nature of things, that I should be immersed and absorbed in them.

The key phrase here is “My Father.” If we grasp the significance of this, then the necessity of His absorption in the Father’s things might become clear. Mary says, “Your father and I,” where His father is Joseph, and Jesus answers with “My Father,” meaning God. Moreover, He does not say, the Father, for the Jews believed God to be their Father, but My Father, as if He were in a peculiar sense God’s Son. Mary might have told Jesus what the angel Gabriel had said to her: your Son “will be called the Son of the Most High,” for “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy [Child] shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:32, 35). Mary told Him this: “Did you not know?”—He says to her.

The kings of Israel were also called sons of God (as were angels), and Gabriel told Mary that “the Lord God will give [this Child of hers] the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” But, that Mary did not get pregnant by Joseph (who had to subsequently adopt Jesus into his line, the lineage of David) but by the Holy Spirit coming upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her, meant that the holy Child so conceived was not merely a “son of God” in this royal sense but in a much more profound and unique sense, a sense that Jesus was probably beginning to grasp.

What we see in this story, I think, is Jesus awakening to His sense of unique divine Sonship, His actual kinship to God. As He entered into adolescence, He differentiated Himself from Joseph by recognizing a more authentic sense of identity, His true Self. We cannot imagine how He could awaken to such a sense without an immense sense of grandiosity, but that did not happen in His case. Jesus spoke not with a sense of grandiosity but of profound acceptance of what was in fact true. My own guess is that He recognized this about Himself, but it was not until His baptism that He realized that His own “I” was God’s “I am.” At what point Jesus was able to distinguish His ego (or conscious sense of self) from His Person, probably began at the age of twelve. This is reading into the text; I am not saying that this is what the text teaches. When He was tempted in the wilderness, He was able to consistently renounce His sense of Self and not identify It with His “I” (as the Son of God).

Jesus expected His mother to have drawn what for Him was the obvious conclusion: He had to be “in the things” of His Father, which at that point meant being a Learner at the Temple. The Father provided this for Him. His profound trust in the Father’s providence meant that He was also not worried about getting home. This is Jesus’ wisdom from which He does not depart when He is older.

God is also our Father, for by the grace of baptism we participate in the Sonship of Christ. We too, then, ought to be “in the things” of the Father, and likewise trusting in the Father’s providence to take care of us when we do so (see Matthew 6:33).

But what is it that Luke wants us to receive from this story? It is about Jesus’ growing up (hence the framing of the story in verses 39-40 and 51-52), and perhaps it speaks to us about our growing up in His company. Is this story not also about the Christian household, as we live with each other in God’s grace and wisdom? For example, Luke gives us the story of Martha and Mary, which demonstrates how Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and Martha should not have resented her for that. When we are “in the things” of our Father, can we make room for each other? Mary did not understand Jesus’ behavior, but she treasured these things in her heart. She accepted what she could not understand until that understanding was given to her. Something was going on here with Jesus, and Mary’s role was to nurture it. Can we not be like that with each other? Can we not recognize when “sonship” is at work in one another and not react according to the ways of our culture, the ways of the world? This is especially true with the convert, or the new believer, whom the Holy Spirit is leading in ways that we cannot comprehend.

Perhaps. There is also something to the hint that Jesus is coming into His own, that He is beginning to live into Who He is, that He is becoming Himself as He matures into the realization of His identity. In his epistle, James compares a person who hears the Word to a person who sees his or her birth (genesis) face in a mirror: “If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his birth-face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (James 1:23-24). When we look intently into the Word (here we mix the metaphors of hearing and seeing), we behold our original face; but then we immediately forget who we are and proceed as if we are someone else; we become society’s person. Like Jesus, we too—in Him—are sons and daughters of the Father (this is who we were before time). If we could sustain that vision and not forget who we are, we would naturally be “in the things” of the Father, immersed and absorbed in those things as our natural element. Jesus began to see who He was, but unlike us, He was not forgetful but stayed in that element; He kept in His natural milieu.

When we behold Him in the Gospel, we are beholding our own original likeness. May we not so readily turn away and forget who we are.

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