In this Christmas season family is the source of our great joy, our great sorrow, hurt or anger, or both at the same time.
There is a belief, not without justification that if we do right by family, or if family does right by us then life will go better.
Human beings are not hatched or spawned in the middle of a stream. Everyone is born with a biological father and mother. There is design in this. The optimal situation for a child’s welfare is to be raised by two good biological parents in a home full of love and security. Unfortunately fallen planet earth seldom comes through with “optimal”.
Jesus: Wonder Boy and Luke
Only Luke completes Jesus’ birth narrative with this story of the 12 year old Jesus.
In the 2nd century AD as Christianity grew there was a demand for more stories of boy Jesus. You can read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas on the web. Stories of boy Jesus doing miracles like making clay birds alive and raising little playmates from the dead.
Early church fathers had these books but the church rejected them as canonical. Only Luke provides us with a childhood story of Jesus and if you read them both you can get a sense of the difference between canonical stories and the ones created to satisfy the religious market for more Jesus as “wonder boy” stories.
Luke’s Greco-Roman audience expected some sign in his early life of the man he would become. Luke’s story of Jesus staying behind in the temple complete’s Luke’s “Infancy” narratives in important ways.
A Good Home
Luke 2:40–42 (NET)
40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him. 41 Now Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover.42 When he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom.
Verse 40 echoes Old Testament stories of the likes of Samuel and Samson where God is preparing someone for service and the signs are there already in the person in their youth.
In verse 41 and 42 we are told that Jesus is brought up right by Mary and Joseph. They are law observing, promising keeping good parents who are not only faithful in their private lives but faithful in their public devotion to God and their people. They travel down from Nazareth to Jerusalem every year for the Passover, as the Law demands and they take their son Jesus with them.
Here the emphasis is Jesus as a boy, good home, raised right, everything looks like all will be done.
This Disruptive God
Before we get further into the story we should remember that this new temple story completes the stories started in Luke chapter 1 of the angel Gabriel coming to Zechariah in the temple to announce the pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth. Gabriel will also announce to Mary her pregnancy which will lead to the Visitation and then to Mary’s Song.
This idyllic vision of family life for Jesus sets us up to experience the intrusive, disruptive advent of God into our world. Our God and the breaking in of his kingdom is one if diverse and sometimes to us, discordant and disruptive excellencies. What must appear as conflict to us is not conflict to God. This is why Jesus will later say. On one hand Jesus says things like “Do not think that I cam to bring peace on earth…” (Matthew 10:34-36, Luke 12:51-52) but then he also seems to say the opposite. “Peace I leave with you…” (John 14:27, John 16:33).
When we see the picture of righteous Mary and Joseph, good parents doing right by Jesus our idolatrous hearts quickly leap in to create a formula by which we can, with our own efforts, moralities and righteousness secure for ourselves the excellencies we desire. If we do right by our kids, if we teach them right, if we take them to church, if we are loving, kind, compassionate… THEN we can make sure they are happy, productive, prosperous, secure. Then they shall have “shalom” which is peace, well-being, the life we all instinctively want.
This is not a bad dream but it easily becomes an idolatrous one. We imagine we can secure the universe without God. All we need is “the law”, or a formula, or a psychology (science as to how people work), etc. Life in the world, life under God, life can be secured without God. In such a case WE become God and the universe a grand machine that produces the widget of a “perfect life” by virtue of our goodness, power and kindness.
Luke’s story is both ready to declare the goodness of good parents, a good child, all doing good things, but will not assert that this new “law” can secure for us what we need. That law can be idolatrous and Luke won’t go there.
Jesus is not reduced to a validation of Mary and Joseph’s Goodness
All seems to be going nicely when this “son of God” steps out of the script of “the good son”.
Luke 2:43–47 (NET)
43 But when the feast was over, as they were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but (because they assumed that he was in their group of travelers) they went a day’s journey. Then they began to look for him among their relatives and acquaintances.45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard Jesus were astonished at his understanding and his answers.
Then this thing happens.
On one hand we can compare it to a Gospel of Thomas child miracle story. It isn’t like those. Jesus is fully here a boy, not a “godling” or a pagan demigod. He’s growing, naturally as a boy grows, but he is also “something special” as they say in the sports world of a prodigy. He isn’t making clay birds fly or raising accident stricken playmates to life, but he’s engaging the teachers of the law in a way that begins to open their minds and scratch their heads and wondering.
Remember this section of Luke began in the temple with priest Zechariah stumbling on what Gabriel had to say to him. Now we have Jesus in the temple. He’s praised and marveled at, but there is a subtle disruption in this too. Should a 12 year old boy have so much wisdom? We find this both encouraging “ah, wisdom has not left us”, and discouraging “why don’t I, a teacher of the law have such wisdom?”
The Greek word here is not uncommon. At it’s root sense the word is “displaced” used as kind of a metaphor often translated “amazed” or later used of Jesus as “out of his mind”. It can joyous or disturbing or both.
The wisdom of this 12 year old displaces the learned men of the temple as the words of Gabriel displace Zechariah.
Layers of Conflicting Obligations and Excellencies
In these verses Luke is beginning to open up why God’s disruptive kingdom brings in conflicting obligations and discordant excellencies.
Jesus as a boy has a duty to be obedient and considerate of his parent’s wishes and desires. Nothing we’ve seen so far would lead us to believe that Jesus is rebellious or obstinate. He is a good boy.
But Jesus is not simply the son of Joseph and Mary. While Jesus has a role to play in that layer of his life, he has other layers and roles too that are increasingly emerging as he grows. He is not a demigod, he is a boy. He is developing and in that development new roles are emerging as God’s plan unfolds in his life. Those roles will disrupt other obligations and excellencies.
Luke 2:48–50 (NET)
48 When his parents saw him, they were overwhelmed. His mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.”49 But he replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”50 Yet his parents did not understand the remark he made to them.
Jesus disrupted the temple in a way that was both happy and disturbing. Now he does so to the happy, healthy home of Mary and Joseph.
Luke uses a different word which gets translated as “amazed” or here in the NET “overwhelmed”. I like the NET’s word choice because it factors in the anger, hurt, perhaps even a sense of betrayal that Mary and Joseph feel at what Jesus has done. Most parents will note that he was missing for 3 DAYS! If you’ve ever lost your child even for just a few minutes, or a few hours you know what that feels like. He was missing for 3 days! Was he sleeping in the temple? Who did he eat? Who did he stay with? Was he cold? Was he safe? “Amazed” is too tame, “Overwhelmed” is better.
Jesus response to them is unsettling. He offers no apology yet he isn’t defensive. He, at 12, reminds them of what Mary shouldn’t have forgotten, that she doesn’t “own” him.
Now parents never “own” their children. Their children don’t belong to them. With Jesus there’s another level though. Joseph is Jesus’ adoptive father, his “real” father has a home and Jesus increasingly needs to be there. This is disturbing, disruptive, overwhelming.
Critique of “Family Values”
There is a critique in Luke of the “family values” assumptions on our culture. In a secular context as the divine recedes other claimants emerge to demand supremacy. The “family” is one of those. You will find both church folk and secular voices that say “family is everything” or “family is all you’ve got”. You’ll hear it in sermons and Hollywood movies.
Here Jesus gives a hard and difficult lesson to Mary and Joseph that the demands of the kingdom take priority over family. Jesus isn’t dismissing family. Jesus has been obedient to it. Jesus, however, won’t let family become an idol. God made family for humanity, not humanity for family.
Critique of the Priority of “Nice” or the Golden Rule
There is another layer of idolatry in our culture, it is the priority of “nice”. You might imagine that I’m talking about the superficial or false “nice” but I’m not. That layer is easily seen through. It is another layer of “nice” that turns the golden rule into dysfunctional tyranny.
Let’s imagine Mary dropped the golden rule onto 12 year old Jesus at this moment. Now you might argue that Jesus hadn’t given it yet but the “golden rule” has been around a long longer before Jesus. You can find it in different forms in the Old Testament and in nearly every other religious tradition. Mary could say “Jesus, it is your job to treat us as you would like to be treated so you should not have caused us anxiety by disappearing from us for three days without telling us what you were doing!”
Now surely this would have been a reasonable request. If Jesus felt the need to stay in the temple it would not have violated anything for him to have informed Mary and Joseph so that they wouldn’t have had this confusion nor this anxiety. Mary and Joseph could have simply stayed in Jerusalem, hanging out in the wings, making sure he had a safe place to stay at night, and when Jesus was done in the temple they could all travel back to Nazareth together. Wouldn’t this have been a better way? Why did Jesus do what he did and then not even apologize for it?
Let’s also look at situations, often family situations, where religious demands strain family ties when family members break religious traditions or moral norms. We see this all the time. It might be traditional sexual norms. Use of substances or foods by a religious tradition. It might behavior in other ways that violate a religious tradition and strain family ties. Our cultural script today demands that the religious always bend to the familial. The familial has the priority.
Why would this be? If we have a conflict between the familial and the medical we assert that the medical take priority over the familial. If a young person is doing something bad for someone’s health in an obvious way the family member has a moral obligation to strain relational ties in order to prioritize the medical.
Why is this? Because religious is seen as private, not public, and something that pursues emotional satisfaction for the holder.
Luke here is declaring a priority here. Mary and Joseph are taught a hard less on by Jesus about who he is and what will have priority in their lives. Mary will run into this again and again in her life when Jesus defies her, when she and her children are concerned for his sanity, when he sets upon a path that will result in his arrest, torture and public execution in the most painful, shameful and political way available to the religious and civil authorities.
The Revealed Jesus Submits
Luke 2:51–52 (NET)
51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. But his mother kept all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and with people.
In this story something changes for the Mary and Joseph family and for Jesus.
The NET says “and was obedient to them”. The Greek word “submitted” is stark.
Jesus has now revealed himself to the religious leaders of the land. He doesn’t submit to the argument of his mother who wanted to assert the priority of her feelings to his behavior in this case, but after he makes his point, this new revealed Jesus submits to them.
We might imagine that this new revealed Jesus should call the shots in the Mary and Joseph household. He doesn’t and he won’t. He’ll accept their parental authority even as the Son of God. He will, as he did in the temple assert other priorities higher than that but now again we see these discordant excellencies.
Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Joseph is not facile. It cannot be reduced in the ways we quickly reduce things. It is layered, complex, as it should be.
As we saw last week “equality” is not really what this is about. It is about “appropriate”. Jesus as 12 year old boy is obedient and submits to his parents, but there are times and spaces where the parental assertions and expectations are disrupted by Jesus nature and authority.
Is there Gospel in this Story?
This story is full of nice lessons and insights but is there Gospel here?
Nice lessons and insights are wonderful but I need a savior that handle my rebellious nature, this broken world and the tyranny of the devil. Do we find that Jesus here?
I think we do.
Jesus is fully human and fully God
Jesus is developing here, subject to our developmental limitations and process. He is growing. We are not quite at Epiphany, but we are leaning there. We can see the outlines of his majesty but the time is not fully come.
God does not despise our humanity but perfects it. We are in process, on the way, not fully revealed. The awareness of the developing Jesus gives hope that the development God will do with us has only begun to awaken. As Paul notes in Philippians he will complete this good work that he has begun in us.
The Submissive King
We are also beginning to see the nature of Jesus. As Matthew will quote, the smoldering wick he will not snuff out and the bruised reed he will not break. This is God with us, slowing down for our speed, working with us, even submitting to us in moments when we need him to.
Yet on the other hand he is disrupting us when we need to be disrupted.
This is the kind of God we need, the kind of God we can love, the kind of God we can trust in.
Most gods come to us demanding only our submission, obedience and loyalty. This God woos us with his love, his humanity, and yet his brilliance truth and power.
This Jesus is far beyond the demigod wonder worker of the Gospel of Thomas. This Jesus shines as fully human and fully God. He is God with Us. He can save us, from ourselves and from our spiritual foes.