Luke 2:41-52 is the only story of Jesus as an older child in any of the four canonical gospels. Neither Mark nor John tell us anything of Jesus’ life prior to his public ministry. After the birth narrative and the visit from the Magi, Matthew skips from the flight to and return from
to the ministry of John the Baptist. In Luke, only a brief summary statement
about Jesus’ growth and this story of Jesus at the age of 12 intervene between Jesus’
infancy and his ministry as an adult.
It seems that in telling this story of Jesus in the temple at a young age, Luke is giving us an indication of the greatness that is to come in the story of Jesus’ life. It was a common tactic in Greco-Roman literature of the first century to narrate some remarkable story from a hero’s early life that was an indication of the great things they would later accomplish. To some degree, this is not uncommon in the biographies of our own day as well. If we are going to hear the stories of successful people, we often want to know about their “roots”. Where did they come from? What made them who they are? Were there signs of their success early on?
This episode serves a similar function in Luke’s gospel. We learn that Jesus comes from a pious and devout family for they journey to
Jerusalem for the
Passover festival every year. But we also learn that Jesus is not merely the
typical product of a devout family. At only 12 years old, Jesus is found
sitting among the teachers in the temple, listening to them and asking
questions that cause all those who hear him to be amazed at his understanding. Clearly,
Luke wishes us to see that Jesus is maturing into one who can fulfill the
remarkable promises that surrounded his birth.
What may be just as remarkable, however, is the restraint with which Luke accomplishes this. Although this is the only story of Jesus’ childhood in the canonical gospels, there are a number of stories about Jesus’ childhood in the many writings about his life not included in our Scripture. These other writings were deemed to not be faithful witnesses to Jesus and so were not included in the Christian canon of Scripture. Nevertheless, they make for an interesting comparison since most of them include stories which are almost comical in their miraculous content. In one a young Jesus molds doves from the mud he is playing in and then breathes on them to bring them to life. In another a childhood playmate stomps through the puddles in which Jesus is playing with the result that Jesus strikes him dead but will later raise him back to life after being reprimanded by Joseph. In yet another it is not Jesus’ power but his superior intellect which is on display when he lectures the tutor Joseph has hired for me him about how little he knows.
Compare those stories with the one Luke tells. This story from Luke’s gospel contains no miracles or signs. And while the people do marvel at Jesus’ wisdom, Luke says that he was listening and asking questions, not lecturing anyone. Although Jesus is presented as remarkable, the story ends with his submissive obedience to his parents. In contrast to the overly dramatic childhood stories of the non-canonical gospels, Luke’s presentation of 12 year old Jesus is almost mundane.
But there is power in this more subtle presentation of Jesus for it communicates what is most remarkable about him. When Mary finally finds Jesus, she asks “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” Jesus responds by saying “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The word translated as “must” is the Greek word dei; a word that communicates necessity. There is a driving necessity in Jesus’ life to be about his father’s work and it is this necessity; this commitment to his Father’s will, more so than even his miracles or his wisdom, which makes him remarkable. This overwhelming necessity in Jesus’ life to do his Father’s will is the one thing we must not miss about Jesus in this passage of Scripture.
But there is something else we might notice here as well. Often we think of faith and family as two things that go hand in hand; one reinforcing the other. In fact, “family values” are sometimes spoken of in our culture as if they were completely interchangeable with Christian faith. In this passage, we certainly see that Jesus’ family is instrumental in shaping his own obedience to God. But we also see that Jesus’ obedience puts a strain on his family. Mary is clearly upset with Jesus when she finally finds him and Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph fail to understand what Jesus said to them about being in his Father’s house. Later in the gospels, Jesus speaks of his kingdom dividing families and in another place he declares his disciples to be his brothers and sisters over and above his actual mother and siblings. As important as family is, even as important as it is in the formation of faith, Jesus refuses to allow it to detract from the one overwhelming necessity of his life.
In our lives today, family continues to be important. For many people, it is the primary means of discipleship in their life. Godly parents and grandparents can often do much more to disciple children than a pastor or Sunday School teacher ever could in the one or two hours we get each week. But family values are not faith and having a happy and healthy family is not the same thing as being about our Father’s work in this world. The kingdom that Jesus proclaims relativizes every other allegiance in our lives; including our allegiance to our family. When we are baptized, we become a part of the family of God first and our biological family second. When we are plunged beneath those waters, we become a part of a people whose life consists of a driving necessity to be about our Father’s work and it is that necessity which defines us as a people.