I suspect that many of you will remember the 1990 movie classic, “Home Alone,” in which a frantic family jets off to Paris for Christmas only to discover that they have left their youngest child behind. The movie’s plot is, admittedly, a little difficult to swallow.How does a family leave their house, ride all the way to the airport, hang out in the waiting area, board the plane, and only then, midway over the Atlantic Ocean, realize that one of their children is missing? If you can get past that question, you still have to believe that this very clever eight year-old boy, entirely on his own,is capable of successfully defending his home against two adult burglars, using a series of ingenious traps and gimmicks;and all without losing his composure, even for a moment. Extraordinary child, to say the least.
The gospel story today may also stretch your imagination a bit. How did Mary and Joseph travel an entire day before discovering that their son wasn’t with the group? And how did a 12-year-old Jesus survive three days in the city on his own, apparently without any sign of anxiety or stress, all the while successfully matching wits with Temple scholars, most of whom had likely spent their whole lives studying the Torah?
To understand this story, we will have to ask: (1) Where did this story come from and what is its purpose? (2) What does it reveal to us about Jesus? and (3) What implications does it have for our own lives of discipleship?
Scholars suggest that this story may have originated independently of the stories of Jesus’ birth that precede it,[i] and that Luke may have inserted it into his gospel to provide a transition from his birth narratives to his description of Jesus’ ministry as an adult. Luke is the only gospel writer who includes the story, and therefore the only evangelist who gives us even a glimpse into Jesus’ hidden life, that period between his birth in Bethlehem and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.
Luke’s reason for including it in his gospel may have something to do with its uniqueness: it is the earliest acknowledgement by Jesus himself that he is God’s Son. Before this, all signs of his special nature or mission have been given to or through others – the angels, Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna – but now he claims it for himself.[ii]
The story belongs to a particular genre of boyhood stories of men who later became famous or successful. These stories are meant to illustrate that their unique gifts were manifest already in their childhoods. We find examples of this genre in the Hebrew Scriptures (in the stories of Moses, Samuel, and Daniel, for instance) as well as in a number of other religious traditions (for example, in the stories of the Buddha in India, Osiris in Egypt, Cyrus the Great in Persia, Alexander the Great in Greece, Augustus in Rome, and Josephus in Israel.)[iii] The underlying principle of such stories is that the child must already have been what the man was later revealed to be – in the case of Jesus, it reveals him to be God’s Son, speaking and acting with divine power.
Scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown informs us that these boyhood stories customarily stress three features drawn from what is known of the person’s later career: namely, his piety, his wisdom, and some distinctive aspect of his life work. We see all three of these aspect in Luke’s story:
First, Luke calls attention to the piety of Jesus and his family. Jesus’ parents go to Bethlehem in response to Caesar Augustus’ decree (2:1); they name the child ‘Jesus’ in obedience to the angel (2:21); they go to the Temple in obedience to the Law of Moses about purification and presentation (2:22-24); and here, they travel to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover (2:41). Jesus accompanies them, respectful of his religious duty as prescribed by the Law. The point is: He is a true Israelite, who was raised by faithful and devout parents.
Second, Luke calls attention to the wisdom of Jesus. He tells us that Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (2:40) and later that he “increased in wisdom” and “in divine and human favor” (2:52).[iv] This wisdom is on display in the Temple: “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers,” Luke tells us (2:47). We will see similar responses to Jesus as an adult: we read that in his hometown of Nazareth, for instance, the people “wondered at the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth” (4:22). Jesus is already showing signs of being a wise spiritual teacher, and people are reacting in the same way they will react during his ministry.[v]
The third feature of these boyhood stories is that they reveal some distinctive aspect of the person’s later life or work. The feature that Luke reveals here has to do with Jesus’ relationship to his family and his relationship to God. Already at this young age it is clear that Jesus’ priorities are with God rather than with his earthly family. When his parents express their worry over his absence, he seems surprised that they did not know that he would be in the Temple. “Why are you searching for me?” he asks. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49)
Similar accounts reflecting tension between his duty to God and his loyalty to his family are found elsewhere in the gospels. Mark tells us that “when his family heard (about his ministry), they went out to restrain him…” (Mk 3:21). Later in Mark, when Jesus is told that his family is calling for him, he asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then, “looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mk 3:33-34). In John’s gospel, his mother lays on Jesus a type of family claim when she informs him that her friends are out of wine (Jn 2:3). Jesus replies, somewhat abruptly, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4). Here again, the claim of his earthly family is trumped by the claim of his Father in heaven, who alone will determine when his hour has come.
Jesus’ parents don’t understand (2:50), but their lack of understanding is not centered on his identity, but on the priority that he gives to the claims of his vocation over the claims of his parents. Not understanding, “his mother treasured all these things in her heart” (2:51).
So what does this story tell us about Jesus? It tells us, first of all, that Jesus at this early age is aware of his unique relationship to the Father. It tells us that he is a faithful and pious Jew who was formed in the Jewish tradition by devout parents. It tells us that he possessed wisdom, even as a youth, and that he understood his calling from God to have priority over his relationship to his earthly relatives. And it tells us that he was humble, because after this incident “he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (2:51). He humbles himself, like a servant, to be obedient to Joseph and Mary, and to embrace a hidden life until God would call him to ministry.
And what can the story say to us? The boy Jesus can be a model for us: to teach us to be faithful in our practice of the faith, to immerse ourselves in the community and its sacred scriptures, to give ourselves to prayer and study so that we might grow in wisdom and in “the full stature of the children of God.” He can teach us also to reverence those who have authority over us and whose role it is to form us, and to humble ourselves as servants of the will of God. He can teach us that “family loyalties have their place and (that they) flourish under the higher love and loyalty to God.”[vi]
In this story, we see in Jesus “the vague stirrings of his own identity, if not vocation,” writes biblical commentator Fred Craddock. “The circle of his awareness and the sense of a larger duty begin to widen and deepen beyond the home in Nazareth.”[vii] The story does not mean to imply that Jesus had a full understanding of what he was to be and to do – his mission was yet to be fully revealed, even to him – but it does show an early awareness of his intimate relationship with his heavenly Father and of his vocation to give himself wholeheartedly to God.
We might make use of this story to ask ourselves where we are in our own growing and changing sense of our identity and of our mission in the world. Who are you? On what do you base your identity? What is your “vocation,” your “purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God”?[viii] What do you know about yourself and your mission that you did not know when you were younger? How is that sense of identity and purpose evolving within you day by day, week by week, and year by year?
Jesus must have been an incredible child; an extraordinary child of God. But so are you. Why not claim your unique identity and mission in the world?
[i] Brown, Raymond E.; An Adult Christ at Christmas; (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1978), p. 37ff.
[ii] Craddock, Fred B.; Luke (Interpretation Commentary); (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 49.
[iii] Brown, p. 40-41.
[iv] Brown suggests that Luke has patterned his story after the Old Testamentstory of Samuel, which describes his growth in wisdom in a similar way (see I Samuel 2:21 and 2:26). Brown, p. 44-45.
[v] Brown, p. 45.
[vi] Craddock, p.43.
[viii] Walter Brueggemann’s definition of “vocation.” (source unknown)
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