A Lost Child? -- A Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1C

Luke 2:41-52 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.


                I was about twelve when my family visited Portland (Oregon) around Christmas. During our visit to Lloyd’s Center—the big shopping center at the time—I got separated from my family (I think I had gone to the toy department at J.C. Penney’s).  Although it wasn’t three days, my parents were none too happy at my disappearance.  Jesus was about the same age (twelve), when he got separated from his parents. At least that’s the story that Luke tells.

According to Luke Jesus and his family traveled to Jerusalem for Passover, as was their custom. While they were in Jerusalem, Jesus seems to have wandered off. About a day into the family’s return home, Jesus’ parents realize that he’s not with the caravan traveling back to Nazareth. You can imagine how panicked they must have been, but then it seems mind-boggling to 21st century Westerners to think that it took a day for them to realize he wasn’t with them. Today, it seems that many parents rarely let their children out of their sight (unless they know they’re under the supervision of another adult). Figuring that he must be back in Jerusalem Mary and Joseph left the caravan, return to Jerusalem to start their search for the lost child.      

Perhaps you’re wondering how we jumped on this first Sunday after Christmas from the story of Jesus’ birth in a Bethlehem stable. What happened to the intervening years between the story of the stable and Jesus at age twelve?  We don’t even get to hear about Anna and Simeon. The so-called “missing years” have long been a puzzle for followers of the Jesus story. It is good to remember that Mark and John begin Jesus’ story with his baptism by John, while Matthew skips from the return to Nazareth from Egypt to the baptism. Only Luke, among the canonical Gospelers, offers a brief snapshot of Jesus’ childhood, and this moment of transition from childhood to adulthood. Age twelve has long been the time when young people go through rites of passage, such as baptism, confirmation, the bar and bath mitzvah. So, the timing is appropriate. As for the missing years themselves, there were many attempts at filling in the gaps, many of which are rather fantastic. Some stories take him to England and others to India. The canonical Gospels are rather temperate in contrast to the other stories. My sense is that he spent his pre-baptism years in Nazareth, growing as Luke summarizes, in wisdom and years. Maybe he even took up the family business as a builder of sorts. Maybe he helped build the Galilean city of Sepphoris (a major city never mentioned by the New Testament, even though it was only a few miles from Nazareth). The next time Jesus appears in the story, it is at his baptism, the event that launches his public ministry.

                I have long been intrigued by this story. Don’t you wonder what kind of child Jesus was? What did he know and when did he know it? Did he think of himself as special or different? The passage raises all kinds of questions about Jesus and his own sense of identity.  From this little piece of the story offered by Luke, at the very least Jesus seems rather precocious, and wise beyond his years. He seems to have been especially sensitive to spiritual things. We’ve all known children like that. Some of them grow up to be clergy, but not all of them. There’s another set of questions the emerge, and those questions have to do with the task of parenting a child like this. It’s possible that he was not the easiest child to raise. Maybe he asked lots of questions, especially religious ones. Again, all we can do is speculate. For those who emphasize the divinity of Jesus, what does it mean for Jesus to grow in wisdom? What was it he needed to learn?   

                Here’s what we do know, from Luke’s perspective:  It took three days for Mary and Joseph to find Jesus—in the Temple—and when they finally found Jesus sitting in the Temple, they discovered him talking theology with the teachers of Israel. Luke says he was both listening and asking questions. What is more intriguing here is that these teachers and their students were amazed at Jesus’ level of knowledge.

                So, when his parents find him in the Temple, they, like most parents, ask for an explanation. Why didn’t he stay with their traveling group? Why did he wander away? When my parents found me in the toy department, I remember being disciplined. In fact, I think my punishment was going to bed without dinner. They were none too happy with me, and I paid for it. I’m assuming something of the same was in store for Jesus. It’s not so much that the parents were angry. They were worried, as parents would be. So they ask him: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Indeed, Jesus had caused his parents a lot of grief. After all, they were from a small town in the north, and losing your child in the big city is definitely anxiety-producing. Most parents would expect their children to answer them by apologizing for causing them so much distress. That would be honoring your parents, wouldn’t it?

                When Jesus answered his parents, he didn’t apologize. He responded to their question with one of his own: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus’ questions for his parents, at least on the surface, sound rather insolent. This isn’t the kind of response that would ingratiate me with my parents. I want to get back to the statement, which I believe stands at the heart of the passage, but it’s important to note two things. First, his parents don’t understand his questions. They’re mystified by what he’s saying.  The second is that he returned home and was obedient to them. That is, from that point on he behaved as was expected of a child in first-century Judaism. He obeyed (honored) his parents, as was required of him by the Torah. Luke says for a second time that Mary “treasured these things in her heart.” Luke notes the same thing earlier, while the Holy Family was in Bethlehem.  Having returned home to Nazareth, Jesus continued his childhood movement toward adult maturity. According to Luke, he continued growing in wisdom and stature. He grew in favor with God and with his neighbors.

                So, back to Jesus’ original response: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” What did he mean by this? He seems confused by his parent’s anxiety and failure to understand where he would be (how different his choice of place to be was from my own—Temple or toy department?).  The King James Version puts it this way: “How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?” Could it be that the KJV rendering is more to the point? It’s not just that Jesus was in his Father’s house, but that he was in the Temple doing his “Father’s business.” In other words, Luke has Jesus identifying himself not with the Temple as a place of learning, but he was doing the work to which his “Father,” that is God, had called him. In making this statement Jesus separates himself from his human father and identifies himself with God (his Father).  As Dennis Smith puts it: “he is, indeed, more than an astute student or precocious child. He is manifesting his status as Son of God. He is teaching the teachers” [Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, 1:61].

In this moment Luke gives us another reminder that Jesus is fully human, but there is more here than meets the eye. From the time of the visitation of the angel to Mary to the birth story and then the encounters at the Temple at the time of his circumcision, all serve as partial revelations of Jesus’ special mission. Here is but one more sign. 

                Luke doesn’t offer us a full-blown Chalcedonian Christology, but he does provide material that can be used to develop a fuller Christology. His understanding of the things of God confounds the wise. How is this possible? For Luke, it is because Jesus is engaged in his “Father’s business.” He’s teaching. He’s revealing God in his own person. The moment of revelation is brief. Then it’s back to normal life as the maturing child of a Galilean family. Next, we meet up with him in Luke, he’s at the Jordan, seeking baptism from John. They do grow up so quickly, don't they?


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