In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the Sunday readings do not change from year to year as they do in the three year cycle of the Novus Ordo. As we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, i.e. the Sunday after Epiphany (this year, Jan. 8th), at the Latin Mass we can again expect to hear from Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 2, about finding Jesus in the Temple. (Of course, He wasn’t ‘lost;’ as some commentary indicates; He was exactly where He wanted to be).
Few Gospel homilies annoy me as much as what I have heard in a variety of parishes, and from a diversity of preachers, regarding Luke 2: 42-52. Especially irritating is the preacher who tries to endear himself to parents of teenagers with the line that even Mary and Joseph had trouble with Jesus. Or we may hear that even Jesus failed at times, at least before He was baptized. Or the preacher makes Jesus’ retort to Mary and Joseph seem more like a flippant teenage “whatever” than a holy and special pronouncement. No. No. No. I personally think that this episode is one of the most misunderstood Gospel readings. But there is difficulty in understanding more deeply because comparing to other Gospel authors is not possible, since the event is mentioned only in Luke. Thus, we need to go deeper into what is there, into practices at that time, and back to, for some phrases at least, the original Greek. (A disclaimer* is needed here on any lay bible study. See footnote #1 below.)
Why did Luke put this incident in his Gospel?
So let us look for clues in the text as a way to shed more light on the meaning of Luke 2: 42-52. The first question we might ask is why it was so important for Luke to recount this event, and only this event, from the childhood of Jesus. Perhaps some other authors did not have the same opportunity to learn of the event as Luke who, it has been believed, had access to speak to and learn from the Blessed Mother herself, the one who, in the final line of the passage, kept “all these things in her heart.” (Of course, John the Evangelist would have had opportunity to learn of this event from the Blessed Mother, but his Gospel is not one of the synoptics; his is a different Christologic approach in writing). Secondly, if Luke did have such access, he likely received even more information than he chose to recount. Why did Luke extract this particular material for Chapter 2, and only this material, from whatever he learned of Jesus’ growing up years? Why was this event important enough to be used by Luke, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit? If Jesus had simply been a disobedient teenager, it would hardly merit Luke’s attention. Besides, if it were misbehavior on Christ’s part it would contradict other Scripture which asserts His sinlessness, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Christ’s Age is a Clue
The next clue is that Jesus had completed 12 years and was into beginning His 13th. In some cultures, a person would say “I am 12 years old,” but in others he would say “I am in my 13th year.” It is the same thing. It is during that time frame that a Jewish boy would celebrate what we’d call “bar mitzvah,” at least a symbolic passing from boyhood to life as a young man. Even today, there is at least some cursory examination of the readiness of a young Jewish boy to be “bar mitzvahed,” to become a son of the law. (Mitzvah is a precept or commandment, or a good deed done from religious duty.)
A candidate for a bar mitzvah, depending on the practices of his faith community, often must learn to read from the Hebrew text of Sacred Scripture, and become more participative in the worship. (An analogy in Catholicism might be the preparation and examination of candidates for their readiness for Confirmation.)
Jesus’ age might also explain some of the confusion about which caravan He had joined – the men’s as He stood on the threshold of manhood, or the women’s caravan, being still a child? Such confusion delayed the realization that He was not in either caravan, prompting the return to Jerusalem of Mary and Joseph. And what parent can’t appreciate the heavy hearts and burdensome walking back to Jerusalem? Perhaps even looking for Him injured by the wayside, or worse?
A kind of “Bar Mitzvah”?
Searching for why this event (and only this event of Jesus’ childhood) is worthy of Gospel mention, leads us to perceive the possibility that Christ was participating in a high-level examination, a rite of passage, and doing so in the Temple where He had been presented to God (Luke 2:22 and 27). He was choosing to do so where the skill, knowledge and rhetoric would have perhaps been at a high level of challenge. Jesus not only submitted Himself to questioning by the teachers, but by the third day was “… sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions and all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers” (verses 46-47). The “sitting among” implies some equality or respect by the teachers for His knowledge, as opposed to His “standing before them. (A side point for meditation: Might we not wonder if, 20 years later, any of these ‘teachers’ was in the Sanhedrin, voting to send Christ to the Cross?)
But there is further and special evidence of this event’s being a rite of passage, which Mary and Joseph apparently did not understand at the time. Treating Him as a boy, the Virgin Mother asks: “Son, why have You treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for You anxiously.” This is the last time “father” is used for St. Joseph. (Matthew 13:55 does quote discussion in the synagogue at Nazareth calling Christ the “carpenter’s son,” but the context is quite different.)
My father or My Father?
Then Christ’s response is indeed the defining moment of the text, when He replies not as Joseph’s son, but as the Son of God the Father: “How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). This is a moment recording the rite of passage, from status as boy of Joseph to the eternal Son of God. It is NOT ‘becoming’ or starting-to-be Son, but rather recognizing, acknowledging and asserting the Truth. The main reason we might consider for the importance of Luke’s adding this episode to his Gospel is to record Jesus’ showing the blessed mantle of Sonship, and in the company of what we expect would have been at least 10 Jewish men, a legitimate gathering, and in the Temple! It would seem that just as Jesus yielded His Body to circumcision, so too He is yielding to examination by the teachers in His 13th year, an examination which turns into Jesus’ examining the teachers and teaching the examiners. Moreover, Christ does take the matter into His own Hands, so to speak, as that is perfectly consistent with what a boy in His 13th year is expected to be responsible to do – fulfill his religious obligations.
Although the word in Greek is the same “father” for St. Joseph as for God the Father (pater) the distinction is clear. The Blessed Mother frames the question meaning St. Joseph; Christ answers meaning God the Father. It is not disrespectful to either Mary or Joseph, simply a statement of the Truth, an opportunity to refute those who would claim that Christ had no understanding of Who He was, or of His mission, until after He was baptized. For this very sufficient reason, Luke includes this milestone in the life of the Lord.
St. Joseph, does not question Jesus. One might consider that St. Joseph understood well his own role, and would have been aware of the practice which “affirms that, until the thirteenth year, it is the father’s duty to raise his son.” (See Footnote #2, regarding the 13th year and Bar Mitzvah at the time of Christ. See also Footnote #3 regarding age 13 for the obligation to observe the mitzvoth.)
(An additional side point for consideration: Is there an echo of our own being called to recognize God as our Father, in a special and unique way consistent with but rising above earthly fatherhood, in the words of Matthew 23:9: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.”)
The Things of God
Before leaving this study, one further point deserves clarification. There are basically two biblical translations of Jesus’ reply:
- RSV, NAB: “And He said to them, “How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?”
- NKJV: “And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”
At least in English translation, the words “house” and “business” are quite different; which is it? The answer from the Greek would seem neither. A closer translation would seem to be “Did you not know that I must be about the things of My Father?” The Sacra Pagina commentary uses “about my Father’s affairs.” We have skipped over other relevant but more widely recognized verses, such as the 3 days in the Temple mirroring (or prefiguring) Christ’s 3 days in which the Temple of His Body is in the tomb, and then “missing.”
When viewed from this perspective, the episode in the Temple of Jerusalem is very significant. Jesus answered the call of His Father to the Temple, even at the risk of causing distress to His earthly parents: “And they did not understand the saying which He spoke to them” but Jesus understood very well. This ability to follow God’s call, even when distressing to parents and family is what God asks of all of us, sometimes especially to priests, after righteous discernment. Jesus teaches that lesson well. He then humbly submits Himself, in His manly will, by choice, to the earthly parents the Father has provided, “… and was obedient to them”, increasing “in wisdom and in stature” (verse 51-52).
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