“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Luke 2:41
There were many thoughts that arose in the junior class at primary school that never got put into words. Perhaps the problem was a lack of words to ask the question, perhaps there was a fear that a question might be asked which brought an instant sense of regret for asking it.
The story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem was a troubling one. “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” he asks, in Seventeenth Century English. This raised many questions in the mind of a child in a small rural primary school.
How did his parents not even notice he was missing? Many of the people of the village were part of large, extended families and to have gone off for the day would have not been unusual, but parents would always have known with which member of the family they would have found their children. It was worrying that Mary and Joseph hadn’t been paying more attention!
Not only is Jesus missing for a day before his absence is noticed, it then takes three days for them to find him. This was disturbing. There would have been children in the class who had got lost at the fair or on a trip to the seaside, but it wouldn’t have taken their parents three days to find them. It was baffling to sit there in class and ponder Mary and Joseph spending three days wandering around Jerusalem searching for the twelve year old Jesus.
Being honest, Mary and Joseph didn’t seem very good parents. If someone had lost their child for four days in a Somerset village, the welfare officer would have been out to find out what was going on. The thought of a welfare officer struck fear into the heart. No-one knew anyone who had been “taken into care,” but the mention of it conjured up images of the big grey building that was the remand home in the local town.
Then, when they finally, find Jesus, he doesn’t even say sorry for wandering off. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” he says.
There was no doubt about it, anyone saying that to his mother after being missing for so long would have got a slap around the head and told not to be cheeky before being unceremoniously being dragged out of the place and being subjected to a lengthy telling off about all the trouble they had caused.
The story was one that caused problems because it ran directly contrary to childhood experience of life and what pupils in the school had been taught was acceptable behaviour. Had any of the class disappeared for four days, it would have been the talk of our village. For years afterwards, people would have given the miscreant strange looks, “That’s the one who went off and caused the parents so much upset.”
It’s hard to believe that the First Century readers who would have read Saint Luke’s Gospel would not have seen the story in a way similar to that of traditional people down through the ages. Modern parenting was still twenty centuries off; children did what they were told. Wouldn’t they have seen Jesus as precocious and unmindful of the pain he had caused his parents?
Why does Luke include an episode that is not exactly flattering in its presentation of Jesus?
It is Luke’s stated purpose at the outset of the Gospel that he will set down in order all that he has learned, he writes in Luke Chapter 1 Verse 3, “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you”. It would not be consistent with his purpose for him to have discovered a story of Jesus at the age of twelve and not to have included it in his “orderly account.”
Perhaps there is more to it than that though.
The story of Jesus is the story of God taking on human flesh. Perhaps Luke’s purpose in including the story is to make the point that God taking on our flesh and blood was more than just fine words; that God embraces humanity to the point that he is prepared to become an unthinking adolescent.
The reaction to the child prodigy at the Temple in Jerusalem is that “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers”. Even “when his parents saw him, they were astonished.” Yet astonishment does not mean that Mary did not feel considerable hurt, she said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
Jesus demonstrates no awareness of the upheaval and the distress he has caused, “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Saint Luke does not attempt to excuse Jesus’ behaviour, he simply notes, “But they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
Luke realizes that this is part of the process of God’s assumption of fully human identity. Being adolescent can mean being preoccupied with oneself; it can mean not being as mindful of others as one might have been. It is not about wrongdoing or being inherently bad, it is just being human.
Perhaps the story of Jesus being left behind in Jerusalem might have been taught differently in the classroom all those years ago. Perhaps it might have been explained that this story showed that Christians believed that God really did become like one of his people, but perhaps even the teacher would have feared such a step, feared suggesting that the twelve year old Jesus was not as mature as an adult. Yet, if he had been, God would not have been fully human.
Saint Luke’s postscript to the story makes the point that the boy Jesus was not as wise at twelve as he would be later, “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.”
The Gospel story is about a God who shared human life in every way; even in doing thoughtless things. The story of the child Jesus points to God’s presence in every part of human lives, in the daft things as well as in the wise.