Readings 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 and Luke 2:41-51
We live in the age of prequels. We’ve seen a proliferation of stories set before a beloved film that purport to tell the unknown story of how our favourite characters came to be the way they are, but tend to just fill in details no one asked for.
There has long been a fascination with Jesus’ early life. Even from the first few centuries following Christ’s life, various infancy gospels emerged and gained popularity. Ultimately all are rejected from the process of canon, but the interest remains – and, indeed it can be fun or engaging to speculate about Jesus’ life before his ministry begins following his baptism (for example: did Jesus perform miracles as a child or during his early adulthood, did Jesus know everything as a youth or did he have to learn what was safe to eat or touch, was he a good carpenter… the parameters of speculation for what Jesus’ childhood, teen years, and early adulthood are limitless).
Luke is the only gospel in the Bible to give us a scene between birth and adulthood, and given its sparseness when it comes to details that same curious speculation can lead us into all sorts of wondering about what is going on between the lines here: What did Jesus learn about God and Torah? Did Jesus need to learn? What did Jesus say or teach – was it material he would say again later, was it more limited to the interpretation of holy writ without necessarily pointing to himself as an agent of God’s redemption?
The desire to fill in these details is not – in and of itself – a problem. Where it can be a problem, which is where many of the gospels that were not included in Scripture cause problems, is if we start insisting that there is – hidden within the words of Scripture or in later church teaching – a “hidden” or “secret” or “privileged” wisdom that one needs in order to better understand Jesus, or – more nefariously – needed in order to secure one’s salvation. A dangerous insistence that there is some religious knowledge reserved for certain elect representatives, or for those of certain status or means. This idea of hidden, esoteric, privileged knowledge flies in the face of the way Jesus taught, what Jesus taught, and who he taught and commissioned to teach in his name. It is also a direct affront on what Paul lays out so passionately in his letter to the Corinthians:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
The good news, the saving proclamation of who Christ is and what Christ has done, is for everyone. The freedom of Jesus and the calling into his priesthood is made to all. If the Christian faith and proclamation ever becomes something that is reserved for the elite, or presented in such a way that creates hierarchies of believers, or scorns those the world considers weak, or foolish, or powerless then it has lost its way. This is where so many of those accounts of Jesus (then and now) that seek to set themselves up alongside scripture are so dangerous, they insist that the holder of the story holds some knowledge of Jesus that is not already freely and graciously given to all!
So what purpose then, does this story in Luke’s gospel serve? Why is it here, when there’s a general ambivalence in Scripture to the years between Jesus’ birth and baptism (I mean, two of our gospels don’t even spend a word on Jesus’ birth or childhood)? What do we draw out from this story?
We read that: “Jesus listened and asked questions…” – Jesus is part of (and thus formed by) a people and a tradition. He learns from the elders in that community, but also – displaying the usual precociousness of a 12 year old asserts some independence from his parents, and is bold in sharing his own thoughts on God, scripture, interpretation, etc. In this we see affirmed the “fully human” aspect of Jesus’s identity, and that the wisdom and teaching and identity of Jesus is steeped in and unable to be detached from his Jewish identity, community, and tradition. A lesson here is that, if we want a fuller picture of Jesus and his significance, search in the tradition and scriptures of his people (primarily preserved in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament).
We read that Jesus’s parents searched for him for three days – For those of us acquainted with the gospels, any time we hear “three days” little lights start flashing. For it is three days that Jesus lies in that tomb, between crucifixion and resurrection. The emphasis here on the three days that Mary and Joseph looked for Jesus before finding him in the evokes the three days that the disciples will spend not knowing where Jesus is before he appears to them, resurrected. For his parents, like the disciples, and like for all of us, a lesson is: if you want to find Jesus, search for him in the presence of (or doing the work of) the one who sent him.
We read: “Mary treasured in her heart” – the story ends with an echo of the nativity, where Mary treasured in her heart the Angels heralding of Jesus’ birth shared with her by the shepherds. Here Mary treasured in her heart all that Jesus said about being in his Father’s house, all he had offered in the conversation with the elders of his community. Luke’s repeating of this phrase emphasises a growing mystery and marvel of Jesus, a growing anticipation and significance of this one called Emmanuel. The emphasis is far less on who he is – and what he does – in this stage of his life, but about the way the stories of his birth, infancy, and childhood set the stage for what is to come when Jesus comes to proclaim the kingdom of God. A lesson for us all, the parts of the Jesus story – the scenes from his life – are understood as part of a whole, everything is read through the lens of the completed story whereby Jesus is fully revealed as the crucified and risen one offering life to the world.
Luke’s story, like Paul’s appeal to humility and topsy-turvy values, reminds us what to seek, what to value, what to laud, and where to look for Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. It is not in secret or privileged knowledge, but in that which has been freely gifted to us all. It is a reminder that the good news of the gospel is not locked away in hidden tomes but joyfully proclaimed by all who have been touched by grace. It is a reminder that Christianity is not for the elected few, but the many – those without worldly power or noble birth, those without societal status and privilege. The message of Jesus is not something we wield to make ourselves more important, but something that compels us into service. Like the 12-year-old Jesus may we have the humility to listen to the elders in our community, the boldness to share our experience of God and interpretation of Scripture, and the wisdom to know that we are most at home in the presence of our heavenly Father. Amen.
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