Kids can really try your patience! The boy Jesus' relationship with his parents undergoes considerable strain in this story. Caught up in something he loves, he forgets about everything else! A little less endearing, he’s “fully human” all right. To anyone who has been around teens, this Jesus must be all too familiar. Our savior is beginning the life-long process of becoming his own person, separating from his parents, and figuring out for himself who he’s going to be when he grows up. And his attitude toward his parents appears downright insensitive.
Yet, this is all we have to go on. Luke is the only gospel writer to tell us anything about Jesus as a boy. In a sort of Biblical Home Alone, Jesus decides to stay in Jerusalem at the end of a family visit, and an entire day passes before his parents realize. It then takes them three days to find Jesus in the temple – three days has a certain significance, of course – but the family went to Jerusalem for the primary purpose of visiting the temple. Wouldn’t they search there first? And when they do find their child, he’s not frightened or apologetic. He certainly doesn’t behave the way a well-brought-up boy should behave, especially one who is the Son of God!
But what young person would not welcome the word that their parents “don't know everything”? Jesus, our example, certainly seems to be saying as much to his parents. But parents may also find comfort in knowing that there are others in their community of faith to look after their children when they seem lost.
Finally, there is what seems to be a happy ending. A child who once was lost and now is found. Who promises to obey his parents in the future. A child who strays, and who ends up in church of all places! When his parents find him, he reassures them – “didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” Perhaps this is a moment that any good pastor or children’s minister would be proud of! And for parents to think that our children might end up "lost" in church, again great comfort.
But all this leaves us wondering. Jesus is Jesus, right? We know who Jesus is. Why doesn’t Jesus know who he is? Mary and Joseph know who Jesus is. So why are they so surprised? Is this just a not so sweet story about a bratty kid or does it have some significance for us now?
This story is about identity, about Jesus beginning to figure out who he is and who he is called to be. And, like Jesus, we also have a call, or a purpose. As we journey through life, we ask, “what does God want me to do?” In this story, Jesus catches what might be the first glimpse of what God wants him to do, and it sets the stage for everything that is to follow.
We can imagine how this could have transpired. Picture Jesus accompanying his parents and their extended family to the big city for Passover, where they would worship in the main temple, just as they did every year. Jesus would have already studied the Torah, and as a 12-year-old, he’s fast approaching manhood and the opportunity to participate in more formal lessons. If he is one of the most promising students, he might even be chosen to study as a rabbi!
After the festivities, the women and young children begin to make their way slowly home, and when the men (who leave later because they travel faster) join them to camp at night, Mary and Joseph discover that their oldest son is not a part of either caravan. Frantic with worry, they search for three days. But far from being lost, Jesus is just starting to find himself.
Here he is, the carpenter’s son, the target of cruel jokes as neighbors whisper about his father marrying a visibly pregnant Mary. This boy from rural Nazareth on the cusp of manhood stands in THE temple. He peers inside and sees students not much older than himself seated at the feet of the rabbis. Perhaps he stops to listen. He overhears a rabbi’s question and thinks to himself, “I know the answer!” And his hand goes up, anxiously hoping that the teacher will call on him.
Soon, Jesus is in his element! He asks questions that amaze the esteemed teachers. His responses demonstrate an understanding well beyond his years.
In Luke's telling, the temple and it's resulting representation of the “faith” is central in Jesus' life. He is taken there as an infant to be presented. Simeoon and Anna both recognize and proclaim his destiny. Again in this story, the temple is a place where others recognize something in him that might be missed. Later the scribes and Pharisees will recognize the same thing even if their response is severely misdirected.
And, we might add, he is completely oblivious to his impact on Mom and Dad. Did he have a nagging sense that he should have told Mary where he was going? Maybe. Or maybe being in the temple just felt so right. Instead of being the boy who – in his hometown – felt just little bit out-of-place, Jesus was at home.
So when Mary and Joseph find their son, his response is not meant to imply “you’re not the boss of me” or to disrespect his parents at all. He simply states the obvious. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
“I must be in my Father’s house.”
It sounds like Jesus is simply telling his parents “you know where to find me.” There’s more to it than that. “In my Father’s house” is a curious translation from the Greek. More literally, the words mean “the things of the Father.” Others translate this as, “in my Father’s interests.” So Jesus is realizing, and articulating to his parents, “I must do God’s work.”
Must is already a strong word, but it is a translation of the Greek word dei, which more clearly means “it is necessary.” This is the first time that Jesus uses this word, and he will use it repeatedly to refer to an important actions.
“It is necessary that I be about my Father’s affairs.”
“It is necessary that I preach” (4:43)
“It is necessary that I go to Jerusalem” (13:33) he will say, shortly before his death.
“It is necessary that everything written about me must be fulfilled” (24:44) he will say, after his resurrection.
Anticipating the total dedication to the mission with which his Father has entrusted him, Jesus must! This temple story portrays the resulting necessities under which Jesus fulfills that mission from this early announcement of the necessity of being in his Father's house to the subsequent necessities of his ministry: preaching the kingdom of God, casting out demons and performing cures, and finally suffering may things, being killed, and being raised from the dead.
Jesus is saying nothing less than, “It is necessary that I do God’s work.”
For us, this isn’t a surprise. Of course it is necessary that Jesus do God’s work! We, like Mary and Joseph, know that Jesus is not an ordinary kid. Yet Mary and Joseph are astonished by these glimpses into Jesus’ abilities and knowledge. Why is this? His birth was foretold hundreds of years in advance. If that message was too subtle, what about the angel Gabriel? The shepherds? Mary listened to their amazing words, and she heard them call her son the Messiah, the Lord. Did Mary lose faith? Did she forget these promises? Dismiss them as youthful visions?
I don’t know, but everything in this story indicates that Jesus was treated like any other child. Although we know it was plausible that Jesus could get lost among the extended family of travelers, I can’t help but think that the mother of the Lord would be a little over-protective. Maybe Mary and Joseph began to feel in these moments that they really had lost control. “Is God going with you today or am I responsible for God?”
It is possible that when we ask, “Mary, did you know?” the answer is NO… She didn’t. She heard that her child would be the Son of the Most High, but what did that mean? Could she have joyfully nursed him and changed his diapers if she knew where his call to God’s work would lead?
We read that Mary treasured in her heart everything that was said. Did she keep them to herself, or did she pull those memories out as we would a baby book, leafing through prophecies and promises, and revealing them to Jesus? It seems like the answer, again, is no.
While it is anti-climatic that Jesus has to figure out his purpose in life just like everyone else, it’s part of being human. If God wanted a divine superhero, God would have dropped Jesus down from heaven as an adult, pre-programmed to do exactly what God needed. But that wasn’t God’s plan. God wanted Jesus to experience everything about being human, and so Jesus, like us, had to discern his call in life.
When I read this story, I think about the things that I must do. And how hard it is to feel this compulsion to do and be. The ways in which we each learned that it was necessary for us to do God’s work. It wasn’t until we looked back, that seemingly unimportant incidents were revealed as moments of truth. For some, teaching school is that type of must, a call to discipleship.
I think about my own parents and how they must have sense some call to teaching. It couldn't be that they showed up every day at those schools by accident. God-life just doesn't work that way!
God rarely communicates in a Mission Impossible Style message – a mysteriously delivered recording that announces, “your purpose in life, should you choose to accept it…” And demands that we make a choice before our mission self-destructs. No, God offers us glimpses of our purpose. Reveals as much as we are able to accept. Then, we figure it the rest along the journey. God asks us to choose to be a part of God’s work throughout our entire lives, even as they twist and turn and we grow and change. Perhaps we choose not to accept our call…at least right away…but it is still out there. Our purpose in life never self-destructs.
And how do we know when our work is God’s work? Jesus wasn’t a smarty pants kid in the temple, feeding his own ego – he was relishing his understanding of God because it confirmed his call to do God’s work. When he realized that his actions hurt his parents, he knew that, for the time being, he needed to return home, and obey them. His hour had not yet come.
Even after Jesus embraced his call to teach, heal and publicly do God’s work, he often withdrew from the crowds to be alone with God. To ask, “what next? What is necessary for me now? How can I best do your work?” In the wilderness, on the mountaintop, and in the garden, Jesus prayed. He asked God for guidance. He came to fully understand what was necessary, and to accept it. And we can do no less. Wherever we are, we pray. We ask God for guidance. We say, “How can I best do God’s work.” What is necessary for us?
Discipleship is hard work, as Jesus shows us in this story. This conflict between faith and family will continue for him. Jesus enlarges the family boundaries (he will do this again and again) but not without some stretch marks. He speaks sharply to his mother here, denies family connection elsewhere, and even suggests that the disciple must hate their father and mother! What happened to the 4th commandment? Honor your father and mother. But perhaps Torah takes precedent over family.
When I think about discipleship, I remember a few years ago when my sons decided to surprise for my birthday. I had planned to sleep in and take it easy but they crashed into our bedroom early that morning, demanding that I get up and go with them. It was necessary, or so they said, that that we go hiking. So we left and headed for the Smokies. As we entered the park, I noticed that there was a lot of traffic. But after all, it was a beautiful late spring day, the sun was shining and the temperature was about perfect. When we arrived at the parking area, I noticed that there were still several cars but with some searching we found a parking spot. As we hit the trailhead, I noticed that there were a few less people, not crowded by any stretch but still we had some companions. As we hiked I noticed that there were less and less people, until finally several miles in to the hike, we were all alone.
Discipleship is a hard must and often times we look around and wonder if we're the only ones. Some people like to drive by churches, still others park in the parking lot, but how many are willing to do the hard work of discipleship? Following the example of Jesus, we must be willing to make our following the priority of our lives. It is necessary. In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.