This is NOT just a story of the precocious wisdom of Jesus as a boy – although these were standard in ancient stories of great men. These stories assume that a great person would have shown signs of their greatness in their youth – like George Washington and the cherry tree. There is actually a whole gospel that never made it into the Bible about Jesus’ early years: The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. In that version of this story it says that “Everyone paid attention to him and all were amazed how, though a child, he was able to silence the elders and teachers of the people, interpreting the main points of the Law and the enigmatic sayings of the prophets.” (19.4-5)[i] In that version, the scribes and Pharisees respond, “For such glory and such excellence and wisdom we have never seen or heard.” [ii]
Perhaps, we would like that version of the story better – it helps us see Jesus as extraordinary, and with less claim on our own lives. This story doesn’t say anything about us – it just tells us how special Jesus was.
But Luke’s version of the story is different than the custom of early abilities for heroic characters. What we have here is something else entirely.
At the start of the story, Jesus and his family had travelled from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover, as was the custom. This trip would have taken four or five days if they travelled fifteen miles a day. They would likely have travelled with a group of people from Nazareth, and it would be likely that the children and youth would move freely within the group – making it understandable that Jesus’ parents might not have noticed right away that he was missing. When they discover that he isn’t with them, they return to Jerusalem in search of him.
The idea of seeking and finding is an important theme in the Gospel of Luke: seeing coins, sheep, prodigals…and here, a search for Jesus. Any of us who have temporarily misplaced a child can relate to this fear. It doesn’t have to be as major as a “Home Alone” disaster of a child left behind while the family goes on an overseas vacation to bring about this panic – a simple wandering off in a department store would do it.
The suspense doesn’t last long: his parents find him in the Temple. Mary immediately asks him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” A normal parental response: “Why did you run off? We were worried about you!”
And apparently Jesus has also been seeking. It is normal for children and youth to question who they are and what they should do with their lives. Even as young as kindergarten, children are thinking about these things. Even if they aren’t realistic ideas: president of the US, astronaut, paleontologist, find the cure for cancer – these ideas do give clues to the personality of the child. Jesus is apparently on a similar quest: to discover who he is and what might be his place in the world – and for him, his family and his faith identity were key pieces. So Jesus is seeking to understand who he is – his family is seeking him because they realize that he has become separated, even if not lost as they had feared.
Imagine, for a moment, a different thread of the story. Imagine that Jesus went home with the group from Nazareth and never had this time in the Temple. Imagine that he lived his life as a carpenter’s son – always feeling that there was something else he was supposed to do, but never quite finding the way. Not likely – God is extraordinarily persistent in calling – as several of us here can testify and I don’t just mean the clergy. But there are some of us who have our dreams buried in our hearts. It’s a tragedy.
Composer Marvin Hamlish expressed this well. “You gotta go with your gut; and you gotta go with your beliefs; and you gotta go with what you feel. Because to me, truthfully, to live a life where you might at the end of it say, “If only I had, if only I could’ve – is not living a life. You gotta do it – and it falls where it falls.”[iii]
In this story, expectations, fears and cultural patterns don’t prevent Jesus from going where he “MUST” go and exploring what he “MUST” consider.
The story ends with Jesus returning home with his parents and being obedient. It began with travelling – it ends with travelling. Scene closed.
Jesus’ answer is in the form of a pronouncement – in a pronouncement story, a saying of Jesus is the focus for a story and the most important part of the story. [iv]What is suggestive for us in this story is the wording of Jesus’ answer, Jesus’ response here is different than the norm for a child re-united with parents. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” It is a pronouncement about his life overall, not just this incident. Within the story, Jesus seems genuinely puzzled that they wouldn’t know where he was. The time and space issues seem completely irrelevant to him. He was in the Temple – of course he was. Why would he be anywhere else?
The original Greek is literally, “Did you not know that I must be in the things of my Father?” The “things” Jesus refers to might be “my Father’s house” but could also mean “my Father’s concerns” or even “my Father’s associates.” However we translate this phrase, Jesus is saying that he must be in the same places where God is, doing the things that God is doing.
Perhaps this is the equivalent for Jesus’ parents of our losing a child in a museum and finding that they were in the train section or with the dinosaurs… of course they were in their favorite area. Of course they were oblivious of time and separation. They had found their passion. They were too focused on that. “I must be…” “I must be in my Father’s house.” “This is my place; this is where I belong,” he says.
We may envy Jesus that certitude about the place where he belongs. So how do we know where we belong? Sometimes we have a kind of instinct about places. Perhaps we have experienced that, “Yes, this! Yes, here!” feeling when we walked into some significant places in our lives. When we looked at houses and found “the right one,” or when we visited a church and knew that we had found our church home. We do look for – and hopefully find – “right spaces” where we go when life is challenging.
This story may suggest that God is such a right place – a necessary part of our lives. (Bill) There is something appealing – perhaps even compelling in the idea that God can be a place/person of safety for us. Bill was in his mid-sixties and a leader in his congregation. Bill was the guy you called in the night if the plumbing was leaking, and usually the first one to sign up to be a youth chaperone or go on a mission trip. He would buy lunch for anyone who told them he was hungry, and even volunteered to teach the primary Sunday school class on a regular basis. He had a servant’s heart. His story was different. He was a Vietnam Vet and he talked about some of the things he had done in his younger years with a sense of regret. One Sunday after worship he approached the pastor and said, “It’s true what they say about there not being any atheists in foxholes. But I know a lot more about God now than I did then. When I was young, no matter what anyone said, I didn’t think God could really love me – you know, with the things I had done. I never really felt close to God. After my mother died, I felt pretty lost and dove into a bottle for a few years. I wouldn’t have blamed my wife if she had given up on me. But she never did – and I guess God didn’t either. Pastor, I’m trying to tell you that now I know God loves me – even me – and I guess always will. And that means something to me. So could I tell my story some Sunday – just so someone as thick-headed as I was might get it?” The Sunday that Bill shared his story, He told the congregation that he hadn’t paid much attention to God unless he was asking for something for most of his life. But what he learned was that God’s love was a shelter for him – and a place where he found a greater sense of purpose for his life. He ended by saying that he didn’t figure that he had many more years left of his life, and he wished he’d learned earlier what he knew then – but he got up every morning to spend time with God, to get his heart right before he started the day and ask God to help him see people he could help through the day. He gave thanks at every meal, and found someone to share it with if he could. And he turned back to God at the end of the day to say “Thanks,” for another day of life and serving. At the end of that service, the altar was open for prayer and eight people came up to pray who had never come before. They had never really understood God’s love for them before until they heard Bill share his own experience.
For many of us, God can be limited to Sunday mornings or on the margins of our lives. We come to church – we read The Upper Room – and we don’t really feel close to God. God isn’t really vital in how we live our lives every day. We may not even realize that we can have a much more vital relationship with God. The boy Jesus in this story already knows at age 12 that he wants more than just the ritual, more than just a surface faith. At age 12 he has found that searching for God – finding a closeness with God – is as necessary to him as breathing. And so he says, “I MUST BE…” here learning about God. I MUST BE asking questions, reading scripture, and praying. I MUST BE focused on God who is my life.
Stephen Covey famously said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Of course, it isn’t easy to do. The “to do” lists, demands of other people and interruptions try hard to push the main thing out of the “main thing” place. But if we can focus on what is as necessary to us as breathing, there is more life in our life. And if we make seeking God our “Main Thing,” make God our “Necessary,” we just might end up being one of God’s heroes.
At age 12, Jesus could be a hero because he listened to God’s whispers in his heart. We sometimes see that in our own children – when they express a wisdom and insight about what God wants for the world, for our lives, that is beyond their years. They can be our heroes too – and we can listen to them. Perhaps we can listen for those whispers too.
Seeking and finding – focusing on the things of God even at the expense of other good things, like family. This story is a foretaste of what Jesus’ life will be. But not just his – while his sense of God’s call upon his life shapes his life differently, it also shapes the lives of those who would follow him. He leaves his family behind to form a new community focused on “our Father’s affairs.” He challenges the social, political and religious structures of his day in order to heal and teach, to bring good news to the poor, to preach about God’s kingdom.
The question remains: Will we join Jesus to refocus our lives on what are the THINGS OF GOD? Will we attend first to God’s concerns?
[i] Infancy Gospel of Thomas 19:4-5, Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1992, 371.
[ii] New Interpreters Bible, Luke, 76.
[iii] Interview with Marvin Hamlish on “A Chorus Line.” Found on the DVD as an extra feature.
[iv] In Greek, the chreia, the pronouncement was a way of preserving the oral tradition in written form. Verse 49 is the pronouncement – and could actually have come from any period of his ministry.