Luke 2:41-52 / 1 Samuel 2:26
December 27, 2015
William G. Carter
Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people. (1 Samuel 2:26)
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:52)
When I was a child, I loved this story. Jesus was holding his own with the adults. The picture in my third grade Bible portrayed him as a young boy who was lecturing the religious leaders. There he stood in his little tunic, speaking confidently to the old men in their robes. They stroked their beards and looked at him quizzically. How could such a young boy understand so much? Clearly he was the Holy Whiz Kid who needed to be in the Father’s house, and I liked that. I liked that Jesus was a kid.
When I was a teenager, I heard something else in the story: Jesus talked back to his mother! Jesus was twelve years old, just a year or two younger than me. His mother was complaining about how he “treated” them, when all he wanted to do was to talk with the teachers. What was her problem? He wasn’t treating her badly; he was talking about the Bible. He wasn’t wandering the streets, he was in the Temple. Isn’t that a mother would want her child to be, especially the mother of Jesus? So he talks back to her, and the storyteller says she and Joseph didn’t have a clue. When I was a teenager, I liked that.
When I became a parent, the story shifted and took on a new perspective. Suddenly I could imagine what it was like to have one of your kids wander off. It scared me, just like when I would ask one of my kids to get some paper towels at Target and they wouldn’t come back. I trusted them, I gave them some freedom and some responsibility, and I had to hunt them down in the candy aisle. I could imagine Mary and Joseph worrying themselves sick.
They had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover in a great crowd of pilgrims. The holiday was over and the large group from Nazareth traveled back north. Everybody traveled en masse – all the families, all the cousins, all the children. They tell me it was about a hundred twenty miles, and would have taken five days. On the first night, Joseph says, “Where is Jesus?” Mary doesn’t know. They can’t find him in the encampment, so they travel a full day back to Jerusalem, retracing their steps. And on the third day, they find him.
I think scripture gives us an edited conversation. Mary and Joseph probably had a lot more to say than what the Gospel of Luke records. They were upset and they were angry. And there was Jesus, talking about the commandments, one of which declares, “You shall honor your father and mother, so that your days will be long…” (Exodus 20:12). “So kid, you get up and get moving, or else I’m going to make you eat matzah and horseradish for a whole month.”
But now when I hear the story, I hear something more. This story is about more than the Wonder Child, more than the Surly Adolescent, more than the object of his parent’s anxiety. This is about the young man who is schooled in the Torah of Israel. His life is being shaped by the teaching of scripture. It says Jesus sits and listens to the teachers. He asks questions. When they ask questions of him, he offers answers. It never says he miraculously knows it all. No, he is a student of the ways of God. He is studying and he is learning.
Clearly he got this from his parents. It was their custom to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish deliverance from Egyptian slavery. They were Jews, and they lived out their faith. They knew God spoke to them in the words of scripture, and they took responsibility for nurturing the faith of their son. That is what this story is about. A Jewish family has a Jewish son, whose faith is so shaped that he wants to be in the Father’s house.
After all, this is the Gospel of Luke. Luke begins his Gospel in the Jerusalem Temple In chapter one, there is a priest named Zechariah who is serving in the Temple. In chapter twenty-four, the Easter story concludes with the disciples returning to Jerusalem, where they were “continually in the Temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:53)
Luke understands that Jesus doesn’t come out of nowhere. He comes out of somewhere. His life has been shaped by the faith of his family, the faith of his people.
This isn’t a concern for the Gospel of Mark. Mark says John appeared in the wilderness, and voila! Jesus came to be baptized. We don’t know anything about him, except he came from Nazareth (1:9), had a home in Capernaum (2:1), and had some brothers (3:31). In chapter six, Mark tells us he was a carpenter (6:3), but that’s about it.
Luke says that is not good enough. Jesus had a history. He came from a family, he had an ancestry, he had a religious heritage . . . and he grew up. As Luke puts it, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor (2:52).” That sounds like a mere tag line, a summary, but listen to it for what it says: Jesus wasn’t finished when he was born. He continued to grow.
Ever see those Renaissance portraits of Christmas? The baby is in the arms of Mary, and the baby’s face is that of a mature adult. That’s all wrong – it’s making a theological statement about the eternal wisdom of the pre-existent Christ, but that’s not how the scene actually looked. Jesus was a human baby who looked like a baby. When he was twelve years old, he looked and acted like a twelve year old. Sure, he was a little precocious, but he was also well schooled in the Torah.
And then after that, Luke says he continued to grow up. He “increased in wisdom,” and that takes a while. Wisdom doesn’t happen overnight. He “increased in years,” and that takes a while too. Some of you know about that. And then Luke says, “he increased in human favor,” that is, more and more people liked him.
And in a startling phrase, Luke adds, “he increased in divine favor.” Now, before you wonder what that means, let me point out that Luke stole those words from somebody else. He didn’t come up with the phrase all by himself. He lifted it from the scrolls of the scriptures, specifically 1 Samuel 2:26. Speaking of Israel’s first prophet, the Bible says, “The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”
How about that? Luke wants us to know that Jesus was so saturated in the faith of Israel, that he uses the words of Israel’s scripture to talk about the young boy’s growth. People sometimes think that Luke is interested only in extending the Gospel to the Gentiles, to the outsiders out there somewhere. Not true; he tells us that Jesus and his Gospel come from somewhere – they come from the promises of God to the people of Israel.
So Jesus has been instructed, “You shall honor your father and your mother,” so he returns to Nazareth, and is obedient to his parents. When they say the next year, “Let’s go back to Jerusalem again for the Passover,” he goes with them, and I’m sure his mother made sure he didn’t wander off again.
And when the Sabbath comes on Friday night, he takes off his carpenter’s apron, ceases from his weekly work, and says the blessing, “Blessed are you, O God, ruler of the universe, who sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath commandments.”
And Jesus continues to learn how to read, even though the neighbors probably said, “You’re a carpenter, why do you need to learn how to read?” But he insisted on learning how to read the scriptures. It was his custom, says Luke (4:16-17), and he could find his way around the Bible.
And he grew in his understanding of what the Bible actually says. When the Tempter came to him and quoted scripture, as a way of twisting him into self-destruction, Jesus knew the scriptures even better, and he knew that the scriptures teach us to love God more than everything else (4:1-13).
The point is simple: you can’t make your way through the world unless you grow up, unless you continue to grow in your comprehension of God and his ways, unless you learn how to trust, unless somebody instructs you to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). These things don’t come naturally for us. We have to be taught.
So Jesus returned to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents. He grew in wisdom, he advanced in years, and he increased in the favor of God and his neighbors.
And years later, when the time came for God to call him and say, “I have work for you to do,” he was ready.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.