As a boy who grew up in the church, I still recall texts, with some precision, with the childlike perspective with which I first encountered the scripture. Luke 2:41-52 is one of those texts I can recall from my childhood with incredible clarity. Particularly, I recall Jesus being antithetical to what I was instructed a good, Christian boy should be. Jesus embodies that which I was told not to be as a child: (1) independent, (2) reckless, (3) and a touch mouthy.
How could this expressing of divine childhood – leaving your parents, debating with adults, telling your mother that she is wrong, actually – be nice Christian behavior? I was told by well meaning Sunday School teachers and my own dear parents that an outburst such as this episode, in this text, was not in any way shape or form, Christlike. And, yet, here we are, Jesus behaving anything like the a nice little boy the church was attempting to cultivate within me and my peers.
So, what is Jesus doing in this text? What is the point of the sole story we are given about the life of Jesus between birth and baptism in any gospel?
For one, Jesus is presented as incredibly Jewish. Let us not miss this point. He is on pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his family, as a typical Jewish boy or girl would do in Second Temple Judaism, in order to celebrate the Passover – the quintessential Jewish story of God’s liberation. Such a moment did not escape Jesus. For Luke (as opposed to Mark, which seems to allude to the baptism of Jesus as ordination of his Messiahship), Jesus was born the Messiah. As a child, Luke’s Jesus was acutely aware of the anointing as Christ on his life. As such, his allegiance is to God the Father, even more so than Mary and Joseph. Debating with the rabbis/teachers of the Temple would mark Jesus’ adulthood vocation, but it’s seeds were sown even in his childhood. This story is ripe with foreshadowing, but also awakens us to the fact that jesus was the messiah, Israel’s anointed one, even through his childhood.
But, the fullness of this vocational work of teaching Israel would wait. Upon his frantically worried parents – remember Mary is aware that she is caring for God’s own son, and she has lost him – arriving back in Jerusalem to find him, Jesus gives a famously poignant line, which is not immediately understood, that it should not be surprising to Mary and Joseph that he was in his Father’s house. Yet, Jesus leaves the situation at that, and returns to the work of growing up. He returns to Nazareth; the back woods, the minor leagues. It is in this small, forgettable town that Jesus would continue to grow in wisdom and stature, which is saying something for a boy who had already flexed his intellectual and spiritual muscles in Jerusalem. Mary treasured these days in her heart.
This story winds the juxtaposition of the divine and human in Jesus. He is growing up as Jewish boy, celebrating Jewish holidays, living in a Jewish family, with Jewish norms, in a Jewish town. And, yet, he is foreshadowing the work of he would take as Messiah as an adult: arguing theology and law with the powers that be, speaking in confounding sentences that would be revealed later, and finding meaning and purpose in his Father’s house.
As this text is found during Christmastide in the lectionary, it is an excellent text to take a closer look at what God has done in sending his Son into the world to live as a human. When we ask what does Jesus know of the human experience, much of what happens in this text is identifiable to our people, which makes us identifiable to God. This is a delightful text about the awkwardness of incarnation. Jesus is balancing the authority of his Sonship, with the submission necessary of his sonship.
As Jesus is both God and man, we see something special of each role shining through. He is wise and challenging. He is also submissive and full of potential, slowly realizing itself within him. But, what is to come is in full display in this text. The foreshadowing is pregnant with what is to come in his life, just as Christmastide foreshadows what is to come in the lectionary over the coming months as we gaze upon the person of Christ between now and Easter.