JESUS, THE NA’AR
Here we are, one day after the Christ Mass. In Britain and some other Commonwealth countries, it is Boxing Day; in some Central European countries, today is actively celebrated as the Feast of St. Stephen (“Good king Wenceslas went out on the Feast of Stephen”). My point in mentioning this is that, in our survey of Jesus’ life and ministry between now and Holy Week, we must, of necessity, move at much greater speed than we would wish. Perhaps it is better to say we are compelled to make great leaps from one period, one event in his earthly life, to another, skipping past many persons, places, events, and teachings we would like to reflect upon at length.
Today we skip from angels and shepherds, from Simeon and Anna, to a Passover celebration in Jerusalem the year Jesus was a twelve-year-old – still a na’ar, to give him a Hebrew designation with which, knowing the Scriptures as he did, he would have been familiar. Our Gospel reading shows him as an astonishingly precocious na’ar, but he returned to Nazareth with his parents, maintaining his status and role as a na’ar for yet a few more years. (In our discussion of today’s first reading from 1 Samuel 2, we defined na’ar in the Hebrew Bible as referring to anyone, from infant to young adult, who had not yet entered fully into the status, roles, responsibilities, and privileges of adulthood in Israelite society.)
In these years of writing about the Bible for a general Wesleyan/Christian audience, I have learned the value of one practice, in particular. Before beginning, and continually while writing on a given text, I reread it multiple times. When I take a break, I usually reread it before beginning to write again. Just now, I reread Luke’s account in his Greek, then in the NRSV. Reading it this time through the lens of Jesus-as-na’ar – which had never occurred to me before beginning this reflection – a new and startling question riveted my attention. What must have been the level of Joseph and Mary’s consternation, angst, even horror, when they realized, a day out on their return journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth, they had mislaid the young Son of God? Gabriel had visited Mary (Luke 1:26-27), and “an angel,” Joseph (Matt. 1:20; 2:13, 19, 22), entrusting Jesus to their care for the few years he was a na’ar, not yet mature, not yet equipped to function as he would need to – not yet an adult within the first-century Judaism of the broader Greco-Roman world.
How could it happen that Jesus did not start back to Nazareth with their group of pilgrims, and Joseph and Mary not know that? While searching for him, did they berate themselves (or even each other) for not having checked more carefully before leaving Jerusalem? We cannot know.
Why did it take Joseph and Mary three days to find their Son? Jerusalem was not that large a town in those days; today, we would classify it as a small town. Why did they not think to return to the Temple their first day looking for him? Did no one mention to them the youngster who was amazing everyone by his comments andhis questions, in dialogue with the Temple experts on all matters of Jewish faith? We can only speculate on these, as well.
Apparently, neither Joseph nor Mary realized immediately the significance of Jesus’ company and conversation when they found him after three agonizing days of searching. We should be at least mildly surprised that Mary was the one to speak – publicly, in the holiest place she could enter, and for both of them (v. 48). We may take it as certain that most “proper” first-century Jewish wives in that context would have deferred to their husbands. We should not be at all surprised, on the other hand, that Luke was the Gospel writer to record this detail. Recent Lukan scholarship recognizes Luke as the most conscientious of the Evangelists in emphasizing Jesus’ recognition and championing of women across the years of his earthly ministry. Why would Luke not mention this example from the life of Jesus’ own mother – the more impactful because of Luke’s low-key, matter-of-fact reporting?
Mary had stored in her heart already significant events and conversations around the birth of her Son (e.g., Luke 2:19); when this episode was over, Luke says, she did that again (v. 51). Mary had begun to understand better Whom she had “mislaid.”
Had Luke written in Hebrew, I think he would have designated Jesus a na’ar. He experienced temptation as we do, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). Certainly, being in the social position of na’ar for much of his earthly life was a big part of that. His going back to Nazareth and living subject to his parents’ authority is evidence that he knows our situation(s), and empathizes. All this, and more, is reflected in Luke’s echo of the Deuteronomist’s evaluation of Samuel, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years [or ‘in stature’], and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52). Taking it a step further, Jesus also “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). In some senses, with respect to his heavenly Father, Jesus was a na’ar until God raised him from death and seated him at his right hand on high, awaiting the moment God the Father shall call “time” on Time, and send God the Son to gather his people to himself forever.
A final thought, in light of all we have said (and the threads of thought that will follow for you): To live and learn as a na’ar or na’arah, on the way to fully realized manhood or womanhood in this life, could be one more helpful way, among many, to characterize our journey as disciples of Jesus.