It is like a snapshot. Luke offers us a portrait of Jesus at age 12, a confirmand of sorts (Luke 2:41-52). It is the only such account of Jesus’ life between toddler-age (Matthew 2) and the advent of his public ministry, when he is around 30 years old. Here is Jesus, to us quite young, but at the cusp of adulthood in the culture he is raised in.
The family has traveled to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover, a yearly sojourn that was a big deal, requiring enormous investment and attention. Their participation is essential to their self-understanding and the practice of their faith. Though not explicitly said, this would be a particular time for Jesus to be mentored in his faith obligations.
Luke tells us nothing about the experience of the week-long festival itself, moving quickly to the journey home. The pilgrims are a day’s distance outside the capitol before Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is missing. They had assumed he was traveling with caravan. Up until this year he had walked with women and children, and next year he would take his place among the men. At any rate, panic ensues. We might imagine the parents arguing and accusing one another of inattention. They inwardly question what kind of parents they must be.
Returning to Jerusalem, they reportedly search for three days before discovering Jesus in the Temple. Here Luke provides generous detail: Jesus is “sitting among the teachers, listening and asking them questions.” In contemporary terms, the Christmas season is over, the attendees have all headed home to other things, but Jesus has remained, exploring in real terms what shapes God’s gift will take. He is engaging more deeply, soaking up learning, discerning, asking excellent questions, challenging the instructors and the limits of their lessons. While popular artwork over the centuries has portrayed Jesus doing the instructing, I like Polenov’s “Among the Teachers” (below) , where he is clearly still receiving and growing. The image of him sitting with the teachers indicates a dialogue, and communicates his emerging identity as a teacher as well as a student.
When Mary and Joseph locate him, Mary explodes in anxious relief: “Why have you done this to us? Don’t you know that your father and I have been going crazy searching for you?” Mary’s question communicates the intensity of her experience. Jesus’ response carries the tone of adolescent exasperation: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you now that I must be about my Father’s things?” They do not understand what he is saying. Of course not.
Jesus is growing. In their very experience. Before their eyes, and ours. His behavior challenges their assumptions, not just about age-appropriate issues, but about him. Mary and Joseph have been raising Jesus as their son; he reminds them (in word and in deed) that he belongs ultimately to God. This is the struggle of every parent, isn’t it?
What does it mean when our children venture beyond the direction we have given them? What is our response when our children go places (physically and spiritually) that we have not dared go? What about when they translate the living word at an even deeper level than our most earnest efforts?
The NRSV translation has Jesus asking, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But the text has something more along the lines of, “Don’t you perceive that I must be connected to the things of my Father? (“about my Father’s business” in some translations).” Jesus is not referring to a physical space but rather a way of being. And in this case, the way of being includes a way of listening and asking questions. It is a way of growing. Mary and Joseph, like many of us, are not entirely prepared for all dimensions of our son’s or daughter’s growth, and the ways that their deeper explorations will challenge our plans and force us to to accompany them to places we would rather not go. We are stretched by the ways that God nurtures growth among us. In particular, we teach our children customs and practices that are important, hopefully with an integrity that gives testimony to their value. But the authentic faith journeys of our young people and the ways they embody a Living Word will necessarily break out of the molds we have received and recast ourselves. The Christian Church is experiencing this dynamic on a blessedly massive scale right now.
Confirmands are among my favorite theologians. One year, in the wake of Christmas, the Confirmation Class and I examined this story of twelve year old Jesus among the teachers. We heard Mary’s anguished words, followed by Jesus’ flippant-sounding response. “So Jesus sinned?,” one of the sensitive young people surmised. I wanted to hear more. “Well, he wasn’t obedient to his parents. Didn’t he break the commandment of honoring your father and mother?” Now those are discerning questions, deeply relevant for young and growing people (and their parents!). I could have answered, “Our doctrine say that Jesus is without sin,” which may be true but isn’t a terribly helpful answer for an inquiring confirmand. I’m not sure it’s that much more helpful for a fifty-year-old considering the same “things.”
I listened carefully, and what I thought I heard was an identification with Jesus, an affirmation that here is a Jesus who is really “like us,” in communion with growing people. To be able to assert that “Jesus understands me” is an incredibly hopeful development no matter what your age! We went back and attended to the story again. We read that Jesus’ family went to the festival as “was customary.'” But when the other pilgrims left, Jesus did not. The experience wasn’t over for him. Though Sunday School and worship have been completed, Jesus is hungry to learn more and explore his relationship with “My Father” more deeply. When his parents arrive and his mother berates him, Jesus asks, essentially: “Why did it take you three days to find me? Don’t you know me well enough to know where I’d be?” As a one-time teen and a parent, the story has me smiling. When I ask young people, “How many of you have had the experience of growing and developing in a particular way, and your parents seem clueless?,” all the hands go up.
So the next week I suggested: “What if we understand “sin” as being outside the will of God? Do you think Jesus was outside the will of God?” This led to the class into further exploration. Is breaking out of routine and custom necessarily sinful, or might it sometimes be a powerful manifestation God’s will? Doesn’t God’s new order constantly disrupt the present order? Is it possible that Jesus, even in his youth, is already moving into an intentional faith life that runs deeper than the one his parents practice? If Jesus is already “lost in the love of God,” might that be good for Mary and Joseph, too? Good stuff. The truth of the gospel is that when any one of us is set free in the gracious love of God, it has implications for all of our lives! “Keep identifying with Jesus,” I told the young people.
In the same spirit, the Apostle Paul wrote these pastoral words to a growing church: “Do not be conformed to his world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and whole (Romans 12:2).” The pastor and prophet Martin Luther King, Jr., preached classic sermons on the same text. Dr. King used to say that God inspires us to “creative maladjustment:” “Everywhere and at all times, the love ethic of Jesus is a radiant light revealing the ugliness of stale conformity. A Christian is called upon not to be a thermometer conforming to the temperature of a society, but they must be like a thermostat serving to transform the temperature of their society.” (Or, I might add, their faith community)
So young Jesus may not have been rigidly obedient to his parents but may yet have been “within the will of God,” even embodying it. His parents were not wrong to give expression to their anxiety-ridden love but they also needed to accompany their child on these growth passages, together, in a way where everyone is touched, and changed.
In quoting Dr.King’s powerful words above I do not mean to suggest that Mary and Joseph have been stuck in a stale conformity; the gospel narratives indicate a far different reality. Both have already made terrifyingly inspired choices in response to God’s startling grace. Mary’s “Here I am” statement came when she was barely older than her son is in this story! But they have been living these lives in a world where the forces of coercion never rest. I’m sure that returning to scandalized Nazareth after Jesus’ birth exacted a steep cost.
So how about this? Let’s assume that Mary not only carries within her the awe of her calling but that she also remembers the blessing she received from Simeon in this very same Temple a dozen years before: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword shall be passing through your soul, too.” Who can blame Mary for not wanting such fulfillment to come too quickly? Even though Simeon’s words are affirmation of Mary’s own song and testimony to God’s new order being realized, the personal consequences, lived out daily, threaten to overwhelm. A parent knows!
When Mary and Joseph had originally brought Jesus to the Temple (Luke 2:21-40), also doing what was “customary” at the time, the humble man had appeared and taken the infant in his arms. It is a remarkable image of entrusting. So wonderfully gifted, Simeon’s voice is liberated to join Mary’s in praise. “My eyes have seen your salvation,” he declares, his own tenderness enfolding God’s mercy. His initial words impact me deeply: “Master, now you release (apolueis) your servant in peace according your word.” Apoluo is one of the two most common verbs in the New Testament meaning “to forgive.” It communicates release, loosing, unbinding. The spirited Simeon, whose devout life has been lived looking toward the “consolation of Israel,” experiences God’s salvation personally, in the flesh, and is set free to declare that this salvation not only claims Israel but stretches far wider and penetrates much more deeply than he or anyone else has prepared for. While traditional interpretation has held that he is now dismissed, prepared for death with a life complete, allow me to suggest that what he is prepared for, gifted for, is new life nourished by God’s radical peace. The divine purpose (“plan”) of Simeon’s life is dynamic and will continue to interrupt the dominant narrative, as will Mary’s, Joseph’s, yours and mine.
While it is true that the conclusion of specific chapters of our lives (like having our child grow up) can feel like dying, let us consider that these are particular gifts of “release,” “loosing,” experienced in manifold ways through the richness of relationship, with God and with each other. Beyond her anxiety, Mary treasures (“carefully keeps”) these divine whispers and breaths in her heart. The two scenes from the Temple are joined together in life, an ever-revealed living word, that cannot be contained by any sanctuary. A mother from our congregation smiled and suggested that “treasures” of this nature are like “snapshots” in parent/child history that are held close and cherished as the years advance. They are not framed individually, but essential “expressions” in an unfolding story of fulfillment.
Luke concludes: ” And Jesus increased in wisdom and years, and in divine and human favor” (v.52). I might translate “favor” ( charis) as “grace.” Even as he grows in knowledge and in his stature, Jesus is growing in grace! Grace saturates his relationship with God and with all people. A story like this one is key to that growing. May it be so for us!