This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on December 27, 2015.
Luke offers some of the most interesting material about Jesus that is unique to his gospel. The Good Samaritan and Lost Son come to mind immediately, but this text from the infancy narrative is equally intriguing if not as important. We can’t be sure that the other synoptic writers were aware of this story, but it’s reasonable to guess that they may have been. We have evidence for its prolific presence. It turns out Luke’s version is tame when compared to a version of the story that appears in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas in which Jesus makes fools of the elders and teachers with his budding rabbinical “A game.” For this reason, I think it’s interesting to look at this story in its redacted form. Why did Luke include this version of the story?
During these twelve days of Christmas the lectionary has gifted us with a window into Jesus’ twelve-year-old life. Just a year shy of the deepened sense of responsibility that comes with turning thirteen in the Jewish world that he grew up in, Jesus is likely using this opportunity to prepare for adulthood. This is an exclusive look preparing for divine adolescence. We are well aware of the fact that Jesus wore diapers and was wrapped in swaddling clothes like the rest of us, but Luke heightens our sense of Jesus’ own development with this story. Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. It’s sometimes difficult to think of Jesus having to increase in anything. The early church solved the anthropological problem for us, Jesus is God and man, but Luke reminds us that he grew into those divine and human roles.
Because this text inevitably raises questions about Christology, preachers may find themselves tempted to navigate tensions in the kenotic vs. classical positions. While intriguing, this discussion will likely produce homilies that leave lay folks confused. In place of these heady concepts, I suggest preachers take Paul for a partner: the Christ hymn from Philippians 2 and Paul’s discussion of sanctification towards the end of 2 Corinthians 3. In both these texts Paul speaks of movement. In the former a downward mobility embraced by Jesus and in the latter an upward mobility accomplished by the Spirit. These texts offer images and theological languages to help us understand Jesus’ own status and it’s implication for ours.
Perhaps the most important development in this text though, is not what Luke says about Jesus, it is what Jesus says about himself. Unlike Mark’s gospel in which Jesus’ identity remains ambiguous to even the insiders, Luke gives us a cast of characters who understand Jesus’ magnitude if not his mission. Mary, Elizabeth, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna and even John the Baptist with the hurdles presented by epistemic infant brain development, all recognize that Jesus is something special. But unlike the other synoptic authors and John, we have a story from an infancy narrative in which Jesus recognizes Jesus’ own uniqueness in terms of his relationship with God. The Lucan canticles have left no room for doubt about who Jesus is, but now we see Jesus’ moving into his own self-understanding very early in his life.
Jesus’ response to his parents is a question, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In addition to his self-identity, Jesus’ statement has implications for his and ultimately God’s relationship to the temple. It is “his Father’s house.” Attentive readers will have noticed the prominence of the temple in chapter two. Jesus was presented for circumcision in the temple and we find him in the temple again on the annual trip to Jerusalem for Passover. In the two stories that Jesus has been an incarnate participant, he’s found in the temple. His reply to his parents then, prefigures a complex relationship in which Jesus will redefine the meaning of the temple.
There’s another feature of this story that I find interesting. It took his parents three days to find him. AT&T sends me Amber alerts frequently. There are literally millions of eyes looking for a lost child in a matter of hours. This is not the world that Jesus grew up in. Three days seems to me not just to be an astonishingly long time to be missing your child, but also a time frame filled with potent theological suggestion. Though Luke is often framed as writing to a Gentile audience, I read it as a Jewish nod to both typology and foreshadow. Left to himself for an extended weekend, Jesus does something “amazing” leaving witnesses “astonished.” This pattern of absence and astonishment will appear again at the conclusion of the gospel raising the possibility that Luke intended to use these moments as bookends.
I’ll conclude with this observation. When Mary finally finds Jesus after her terrifying three-day search, she asks a question that carries the weight of her frustration, relief and anger. “Why have you treated us this way?” Jesus does seem careless in this moment. Twelve year olds know enough to understand that this unannounced absence would have made for the kind of emotional trauma that his parents experience. Why then, does the conclusion of the pericope report that Mary treasured these things in her heart? My family has had our fair share of difficult moments that we retrospectively look back on with humor, but we don’t treasure those episodes. Perhaps Mary treasured Jesus’ performance in the temple. Perhaps she treasured the cultural cache he developed in astonishing listeners. I’m not entirely sure what Mary treasured, but I’m open to the suggestions that her encounter and response is paradigmatic for our own discipleship. Searching for Jesus can feel scary, perhaps at times even suffocating, but in the end you will find that you treasure these experiences in your heart.
University Baptist Church, Waco, TX
Tags: temple, Christology, infancy narratives, two natures, identity