Christmas 1: 27 December Luke 2:41-52
This lonely episode from Jesus’ lost years between his birth and ministry must serve to fill a very large gap. Our modern interests want to know about upbringing, family systems, education, life changes, adolescence, sexual development, early employment, leisure - and all we have is one episode and it is likely to be recreated history of the kind that reconstructs how ‘it must have been’.
It is interesting that this is so. Our questions are not invalid. But they may reflect an attitude towards Jesus which the gospel writers would not have shared. The intricacies of personhood matter a good deal to us. Human beings are individuals first and foremost. Had we been writing gospels we could not have helped filling in the gaps, the explanatory gaps. Matthew, Mark and Luke are satisfied concentrating on less than a year’s activity of ministry and its consequences. Their focus is theological. It is about God and only derivatively about Jesus.
There are many ways of forgetting this. Christology was never meant to eclipse theology. Not knowing about the formative years, about three decades of living, was not a problem. It was not a problem because at the heart of the good news was not a personality, but an event in and through a person. The opposite danger is that we assume that this person virtually has no formation, was without the common human experience of facing fallibility, going through adolescence, learning. Then we imply God’s action cannot really have been connected with a real human being, but only a super- or sub-human being.
It is hard to use the episode, as is often attempted, to fill that huge gap. The boy Jesus is human enough. Exasperated parents of teenagers or would-be teenagers ‘doing their thing’ will know Mary and Joseph’s experience. They too might have cried: why are you doing this to us? But they are not the heroes in Luke’s story. Jesus is. He was right to stay behind. He was about his Father’s business. It won’t wash with most parents!
Luke’s story exploits the parental anxiety to heighten the drama. Jesus is being portrayed as the wonder child - as, Luke doubtless thought, he must have been. There he is confounding the professors - a PhD at 12! If that is somewhat overplayed, it reflects where the passage is heading. The story is illustrating the closing verse of the passage: ‘Jesus grew in wisdom and maturity and favour with God and with people’ (2:52). The passage also serves to delineate the place of Jesus’ parents, especially Mary. As she pondered in heart in 2:19, so she continues in the same vein in 2:51. She does not know it all, has just slipped up, and while he is reluctant to use it, Luke knows that the family was not necessarily on side during Jesus’ ministry. They did not understand.
It is also worth noting that Luke gives a central role to temple authorities as teachers, reflecting his view of the centrality of the temple and its importance. Just as 2:39 repeats that Mary and Joseph were obeying biblical Law, so now Jesus engages in learning in the context of biblical Law. Jesus has not come, according to Luke, to demolish the tradition, but to uphold it and expand it.
Preaching from this passage? Maybe it stands for what we do not know but (like Luke) may assume. Jesus would have been a human being as much like us and unlike us as any other human being. He would have known the ups and downs of growth and learning, of working out what it means to be human, to be in relationship. For some people it is not obvious that Jesus was also human just like us and that discovery can be liberating.
Luke’s story is almost perverse enough to allow us to wonder if he might also have been saying: Jesus was a ‘typical’ adolescent. Inconsiderate? Next time, at least tell your mum and dad where you are! The intensity of youth? The story symbolises the rite of passage into the beginnings of adulthood. It offers a framework in which to explore what it means for parents to let go - only if you sit fairly loose to the story. Some people, who are way past the age of bar mizwah, still need to ‘do a boy Jesus’ and when they do, they are bound to have plenty of worriers holding their breath.
It is all happening in the context of pilgrims returning from Passover, a wider group than family. In that context the boy Jesus could disappear for a few days and not be noticed. It is not our world, but many would emphasise the importance of community beyond the family for helping young people make the transition. Perhaps it’s not with temple teachers, but with someone else’s mum and dad. A church community can be a place of such growth.
Jesus ‘was growing up’ (2:52). Luke gives us an ideal picture, but at least in doing so he retains a genuinely human Jesus in a genuinely human context. It is this Jesus (and this kind of Jesus, not one who dropped in complete from outer space) whom God anoints to declare and live out the good news of liberation and salvation.
Epistle: Christmas 1: 27 December Col 3:12-17
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