Jesus in the Temple

  • WordPress and I are having formatting issues. I’ll try to resolve them, but that might take a little time. I apologize for the goofy formatting. 

Sometimes people ask me what my favorite Bible story is. Usually I tell them it is whatever I am currently studying. Recently I have been reading Luke 2:39-52, the story of young Jesus in the Temple. I’m reading it because it is the lectionary passage for the first Sunday in Christmas and I have the opportunity to preach at a local congregation.  At first glance, it didn’t strike me as a very meaty story. But, as happens with the Bible, there is more here than I first thought.

Here is the passage: 

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Here now, is the passage with my comments on the story in italics. Just before this is the story of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the reactions of Simeon and Anna. So far in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is only referred to by name twice. Once when Gabriel tells Mary what to name her child and again when he was circumcised. Every other time he is simply “child”. 

When they [ Mary, Joseph, and Jesus] had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. Luke has been very careful through the entire nativity story to be sure we understand that Joseph and Mary are devout people.  Passover is the festival recalling the Exodus, being freed from slavery in Egypt. It was and is a festival of liberation. Remember that Israel is occupied by the Roman Empire. In those days, an occupied people traveled to their most holy site to celebrate a festival of liberation.

And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. Bar Mitzvah was likely not a ceremony during Jesus time. There doesn’t seem to have been any sort of formal ceremony marking the age of religious responsibility. But at 12 children were considered capable of being observant Jews. Study of Torah probably began at a younger age. While we don’t want to export our ideas about childhood into the text, 12 year olds are 12 year olds- an awkward age, not little kids and yet not fully adults. You know- teenagers.

When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. Often when we think about this story, we blame Mary and Joseph for “losing” Jesus and being inattentive.  I can imagine a group of 12-13 year old boys wanting to travel together as a group and not with their parents. Little kids travel with their parents, not 12 year olds. I can imagine parents saying alright, but to stay with the larger group and don’t wander off. The text tells us “Jesus stayed behind” he didn’t get lost. He stayed behind. He made a decision.

When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; Three days, poor Mary and Joseph. Can you imagine? Where would you look for him? Where would a 12 year old boy go in the big city of Jerusalem? The temple wouldn’t have been the first place I checked either. But when they find him, his parents see their son differently. Sitting in the temple, he is not their little boy from small town Nazareth.  Have you ever gotten a glimpse of your child, or sibling or parent doing something you normally didn’t see them do? Were you surprised at the new insight into their life and personality? Perhaps you were astonished, like Mary and Joseph, seeing them in a new light. 

Notice that Jesus is listening to the teachers and asking questions. He is not doing the teaching, he is a boy and he is asking questions and learning. 

and his mother said to him,”Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? But they did not understand what he said to them. As Christians we believe that Jesus is truly divine and truly human but we often don’t get plain, obvious examples of Jesus’ humanity. But here, Jesus gives such a teenager response to his mother, dismissing her worries. I’m fine. I’m right here. What could go wrong?  These are the first words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel and  Jesus is a classic teenager here.  

Notice that Mary calls him “child”. Did you notice that Mary says “your father and I” and Jesus’ response is “…in my Father’s house”. What’s going on here?  

Why, do you think the writer chose these words to be Jesus’ first words in the gospel? 

Your Bible may say something like, “I must be about my Father’s interests”, or “business” rather than “in my Father’s house”. Interestingly the Greek reads more like “Did you not know that I must be about my father’s”.  The noun is missing. It’s not as odd as it seems. We do similar things. “I was at my Dad’s last weekend.” We know how to fill in the blank from the context. So it is house, business, or interests? In first century Rome these were all sort of the same thing. Households were not simply family homes, a location. And they were not a modern nuclear family, just evoking relationships. To speak of households involved speaking about authority. And there were economic implications as well. Fathers were in charge of households, just as the Emperor was in charge of the Empire. In fact the Emperor was called the Father of the nation. For Jesus to be about his father’s house, business,interests includes relationship, location, and authority. To say”I must be in my Father’s house” is to make a big claim. 

Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. “He went down with them” . Do you think they let him out of their sight?  But notice here it is “he went down with them”. Earlier the text says, “Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. ” It’s a subtle shift. Instead of the family going and Jesus goes along. now “he” Jesus goes with “them”  Something in the family relationships have shifted. Jesus grew up on this trip. 

 Mary must have had a sense that what had happened in the Temple was significant. She might not have known exactly why. But sometimes you just have an experience and think, “This is important, I’m not sure how, but this is something to remember.” And so you remember it, treasure it.  What do you think she is treasuring? That her boy is growing up? A glimpse into who Jesus will be? 

Notice that the story of Jesus in the temple is bracketed by statements about Jesus growing and gaining wisdom and favor. Also notice that in the first instance  he is”The child” and in the second he is “Jesus”. Again, a subtle shift, but significant. What is Luke telling us?

It’s a funny, interesting story.  What’s most interesting or important in this story to you?

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