Read the text here: Luke 2:41-52
We do not have much information about Jesus’ childhood. In fact the Gospel lesson for the 1st Sunday after Christmas – Luke 2:41-52 – is about all. Of course we would be curious about what Jesus was like and what kinds of experiences he might have had when he was a child. This natural curiosity prompted the creation of a book called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas in the 3rd or 4th centuries. The book pretends to have been written by the disciple Thomas, but is a rather fantastic set of stories that make Jesus sound more like the pre-Hogwarts Harry Potter who didn’t know how to use his power and ended up causing all kinds of havoc as a result. As fun as this book is to read, we can glean nothing about Jesus from it. So we really only know two things about Jesus’ childhood for certain. The first is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth that at that time was a small village. Nearby, within sight, since Nazareth is on a hill, you can see the city of Sepphoris. Between the time of Jesus’ birth and age 5 to 8, Sepphoris was involved in a rebellion against Rome. As was usual, the Romans swept into the city, leveled it and crucified thousands. All of this would have been visible from Nazareth. It is interesting to wonder how the young and impressionable Jesus and his family reacted to the sight of the formerly prosperous city burning, men being crucified and refugees pouring into Nazareth being pursued by the Romans.
The other event we know of from Jesus’ childhood would be the story from Luke that is our Gospel text for today. Jesus goes with his extended family to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Jesus gets separated from the family and ends up in the temple listening to and questioning the teachers of the law (scribes and Pharisees). Eventually, after three days, Mary and Joseph discover that Jesus is not with the family and, like any parent, they are scared and frantic. They rush back to Jerusalem and look all over until they finally find him sitting with the elders, who are kind of amazed at how sharp this child is. Mary chides Jesus for not staying with the family and Jesus responds with a statement wondering why his parents had such a hard time finding him, after all, where else would he be, but in the temple!
There are three important points to be made about this story. First, it is important to make note of the parallels with the Passion narrative. Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the temple – the same temple from which he will chase out the money-changers in 20 or so years. He is in discussion with scribes and Pharisees about the Law of Moses; just like during the Passion week where Jesus spends most of the week in bitter discussions about the meaning of the law with scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is in Jerusalem at the age of 12 for the celebration of the Passover; 20 years later he will be back again to celebrate the Passover. And Mary and Joseph search for him for three days before he is found; ultimately the resurrection of Jesus will take place on the third day. All of this points to the importance of the Temple, not only in the life of the people of Israel, but also to Jesus and his family. Jesus has been coming to Jerusalem with Joseph and family since he was a child. This is not a strange place for him. He knows it inside and out. The idea that the Temple in Jerusalem is not important to Jesus is called into question with this story. Read this then next to the story about Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem for the Passion and recall how at one point Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and the temple (Luke 19:41ff – pew bibles NT p. 63). This story puts that later incident in clearer focus.
A second issue that this story raises is the question of Jesus’ authority as a teacher of the Law of Moses. Throughout all of the Gospels Jesus is constantly being challenged and criticized regarding the issue of his authority. The church has always proclaimed that we believe that Jesus was without sin. But the scribes and Pharisees would not have agreed. To them Jesus was the worst of sinners as he did not seem to take seriously parts of the law regarding keeping the Sabbath and taking God’s name in vain – as they defined and understood those commandments. By placing this story at the conclusion of the birth accounts and right before Jesus begins his ministry, Jesus’ authority as a teacher of the law is established even before he formally begins his ministry. Jesus knows the law inside and out, even better than the official teachers of the law and Jesus honors the Temple.
The third and last important point to be made about this story is that it calls into question exactly who makes up Jesus’ family. Jesus’ extended family – probably uncles, aunts, cousins and so forth – all travel together to Jerusalem. But Jesus doesn’t stay with them. Mary and Joseph try to bring Jesus back into the small family circle when they find him, but Jesus rejects this: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.” Mary and Joseph don’t understand this comment, but we recognize that the Temple is not just Joseph’s house, it belongs to Jesus’ heavenly Father, who is also Father of the people of Israel. Jesus is enlarging the boundaries of his own family here at the age of 12. This he will continue to do not only throughout the Gospel, but even into the book of Acts when the Apostle Paul begins to reach out to those outside of Judaism and bring Gentiles into God’s family as well.
We humans tend to be very selective and exclusive. But even here in this pre-ministry story Jesus has started to redefine what it means to be a part of God’s family and the answer is an all-inclusive embrace. And when you set that side by side with Mary’s song – “…lifting up the lowly… filling the hungry with good things…” we begin to get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as being a place where God brings all of creation together in peace/shalom/well-being – which takes us right back to the song of the angels (“… and on earth peace/shalom/well-being among those whom God favors.”) This is the promise which accompanies Jesus’ birth and which is already being fulfilled in amazing ways that we did not expect. And this is only the beginning – so stay tuned!
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1319) - "Christ Among the Doctors"