Sunday, December 30, 2012

When Jesus Talked Back to His Parents

Luke 2:41-52
Christmas 1
December 30, 2012
William G. Carter

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 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. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 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.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. 

             It is the only story that we have from Jesus’ childhood. At age twelve, around the time of his Bar Mitzvah, Jesus goes to the Temple. His parents are returning to Nazareth, at least a three day walk to the north. They have been in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Luke says they were a pious Jewish family; they went every year. As they return home in a great throng of pilgrims, neighbors, and extended family, Jesus slips away.

And on the third day, they find him. Here is how poet Thomas John Carlisle speaks on behalf of Mary:

I am your mother and I have a right
To be upset about your disappearance.
How could we guess that you weren’t with the neighbors
Or with our relatives if not with us?
The Nazareth caravan was big enough
To keep you safe without our close surveillance.
How could you do this stupid, thoughtless thing
And leave me limp with frenzied desperation,
A trauma I will carry to my grave?
The city isn’t safe for one young boy.
The Temple itself hides its own depths of dangers.
A sword has pierced my heart, as Simeon said.
Yes, I am shaken – and relieved – and angry.
I have no oath or pledge as Hannah had
When she left Samuel to serve old Eli
And traveled home without him. You did wrong
To scare me so – and I forgive you for it –
But never again go traipsing off like this
Without informing me of your intention.
I don’t want anything to happen to you –
Not now or ever. Are you listening?[1]

            I think we can understand her concern. We don’t have to be parents to understand her concern. When a child slips away, it is frightening. You wait for the security guards to report it over the loudspeaker. Or you buy cell phones to the kids when they are much too young to need them. The parent calls, and even before she says, “How are you?” she asks, “Where are you? What are you doing?” Because there is nothing so terrifying as losing a child.

            Mary says to her son, “I don’t want anything to happen to you - not now or ever.”

            Luke tells us this story as a way of looking forward. The day will come in another twenty years when Mary will lose her son. It will be a terrible day. The emotional sword will pierce her, just as the old man predicted so long ago. Luke understands this as a consequence of the incarnation. Jesus is born into a family, and one day he will leave the family behind.

            This is a wrenching thing, a terrible thing. Those of you who have seen the brilliant film on “Lincoln” were introduced to the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. She was well acquainted with grief. She lost two young sons to illness. Then her husband died. Six years later, her son Tadd also died. She never got over those losses. Who could?

            Luke puts a shadow over the story of young Jesus. He tells us that the twelve year old boy went to study with the teachers, to ask them questions, to listen to their answers. He had an impressive grasp of the Jewish scriptures at such a young age. But his mother was terribly afraid that something evil had happened to him. She worried about him because she loved him – and this is what good mothers do.

Even so, when Jesus explained himself, he gave his declaration of independence: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

            Joseph just stood there, as always, mute and awkward. Neither he nor Mary had a clue what their boy was talking about. Luke goes on to pretty-up the tale, declaring Jesus to be perpetually obedient to his parents, stating that Mary locked this away as a treasured memory in her heart. Yet the fact remains that Jesus had pushed away from his family to study the commandments of God. It’s a glimpse of what would later unfold in his life. The day would come when he hung up his carpenter’s apron on a nail, sneaked up behind his mother to kiss her on the cheek, and whispered “goodbye.”

            One of God’s commandments goes like this: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long.” (Deuteronomy 5:16). Jesus honored his parents, says Luke – although his days were cut short. The same kind of teachers with whom he studied that day in the Temple would later turn against him and shorten his life. But there is no question that Jesus honored Mary and Joseph. No question at all.

            Yet as Jesus grew, he developed an ever more clear dependence on God. A family can love you, but a family cannot do everything for you. A family can teach you values, and it can distract you from a higher allegiance to God. One day, Jesus turned to the large, indiscriminate crowds that were nipping at his heels. He said, “Have you counted the cost of putting God first, before all else? Are you willing to carry the cross?” Then he spelled it out: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, cannot be my disciple…” (Luke 14:25-28, paraphrased)

            It is one of those things we wish he had not said. It would have been so much easier for him to say that families are always good for us, that parents are always right, that human relationships are always healthy and intact. But Jesus was a grown-up when he said it. He knew that children must be protected when they are vulnerable, but when they grow up, they have to make hard decisions about their priorities. He knew that children must be cared for, nurtured by love and good instruction. But the day also comes when a child leaves father and mother, and cleaves to a new commitment. The family teaches value. The family can teach what is most important in our lives. They can model self-giving love, so that the children can go on to love others. Most of all, a family can teach the central, life-giving importance of God as the One who is worthy to worship and serve.

            All of this is signaled in this brief story that Luke recounts about the twelve-year old Jesus. He knew that he had to be about the interests of God. He knew that every one of us exists to know God, to love God, to serve God. His family taught him this.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] “I Am Your Mother” – Beginning with Mary: Women of the Gospels in Portrait (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986) 8.

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