The gospels say very little about Jesus’ childhood. The story each of the four gospels share is centered on his adult ministry leading to the passion narrative. Only Matthew and Luke have birth stories, though John frames who Jesus is in cosmic terms. Mark introduces Jesus as an adult ready to bring good news. In each of these four stories, John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry as an adult to begin, and once Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, the story takes off. Only Luke inserts this story about Jesus as a boy between his birth and baptism.
What is this story about?
Mary and Joseph are portrayed as practicing Jews who make the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Jesus is anchored in a community and in the traditions of faith of his parents. That they don’t know where he is during their return trip back home says more about the trust and relationships within the wider group they are travelling with, than any neglect on their part. Jesus grows up as an average Jewish kid from a small town, connected to the wider community of friends, faith and relatives.
Yet the story Luke is telling is that Jesus is anything but ordinary. His birth in a manger “is a sign for you” (Luke 2:12). The unique personhood of Jesus is highlighted as Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple as an eight-day old and they encounter Simeon and Anna who know Jesus is the Messiah (Luke 2:20-39). Luke highlights here that Jesus is smart and inquisitive, engaged in the scripture and the religious teachers were amazed at his understanding (Luke 2:46-47). He is no ordinary kid.
His parents are both astounded and angry with him. They had both been entrusted with caring and protecting this child and had lost him for three days. They scoured everywhere looking for him. One can feel their anxiety and shame as they blame him, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” (Luke 2:48).
Jesus remains unfazed by their question. Where else would he be but the Temple? What else would he be doing other than discussing the scripture with the elders? Why wouldn’t he be astounding them with his understanding and answers? Isn’t that the kind of preparation he is going to need for the mission he is on? Shouldn’t Mary and Joseph know that?
They had looked with fear and uncertainty. They must have felt like failures. If you have children or have ever been entrusted with their care; there is no greater responsibility.
If you were Mary or Joseph, how might it have felt to hear, “I must be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)? Was that supposed to reassuring of their role in this divine story unfolding around them or was it an accusation of their disconnected human parenting? In either case – Jesus submits to them, bringing the divine and human together for the long road that is ahead. It may be only one story of Jesus’ upbringing, but in it we see all that we need to understand. This extraordinary boy grew up in an ordinary way to bring together what we often separate, dismiss, neglect and take for granted. When his ministry begins, we will see Jesus approach each of his encounters with others Luke reports to us in the same way – bringing together what is often divided by human means in the divine mission to include all. The lost are found. Where else would Jesus be?
I wonder if Mary and Joseph realized this profound and extraordinary presence of God among them as they continued to raise Jesus and ponder these things in their hearts. In the midst of that seeking and finding – they loved him. Jesus loved them too.
Where do you go looking for Jesus?
Where has he shown up where you least expect?
What things do you ponder and keep close to your heart?