Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Jesus was found in the Temple, not found in sin!

January 6th, 2017, Promulgated by Diane Harris


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 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.)   See footnote #4 regarding excommunicable offences from the Council of Trent.  

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.”  Beginning with this event, whenever Jesus speaks of His Father in the Scriptures, He means God the Father.  (Matthew 13:55 does quote discussion by others in the synagogue at Nazareth calling Christ the “carpenter’s son,” but the context is quite different, as well as in Luke 4:22 when the bystanders “…  said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And in John 1:45 it is the prospective disciples who call Him “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  In the Bread of Life discourse the skeptics ask: “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?…” John 6:42.


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 Douay-Rheims: “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” (verses 51-52).

Click “read the rest of this entry” for footnotes.

Footnote #1: Disclaimer: We do not presume to “teach,” because the Epistle of James cautions us against doing so; but we listen, study, share, and of course pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  One of the characteristics of deepening in the study of Holy Scripture is how many different layers of meaning there can be, revealed to us as the Holy Spirit deems us ready. But a key test of any genuine meaning is that no understanding of Sacred Scripture ever contradicts what the Church teaches about any particular text.  I offered an opinion of one possible meaning behind this passage in Luke, and intend only that it be as a sharing around a table in a lay bible study, welcoming correction from the insight of others.

Footnote #2: scholars feel that the association between the age thirteen and mandated religious observance began during the Second Temple period (between 515 BCE and 70 CE). A section of the Babylonian Talmud (the famed collection of Jewish teaching and commentary on Torah law) affirms that ‘until the thirteenth year, it is the father’s duty to raise his son.’ Then, as we are taught in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers,” from the Mishnah, an older text upon which the Talmud is based)  that at age thirteen, a boy is responsible for the mitzvot himself  (Pirke Avot 5:42). In other words, a Jewish boy of thirteen years automatically became a Bar Mitzvah without any public ceremony.”

Footnote #3: From Chapter 5, paragraph 22 in Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) we read:  “Five years is the age for the study of Scripture. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvoth. Fifteen, for the study of Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, to pursue [a livelihood]. Thirty, for strength, Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sagacity. Seventy, for elderliness. Eighty, for power. Ninety, to stoop. A hundred-year-old is as one who has died and passed away and has been negated from the world.” 

Footnote #4:  List of excommunicable offences from Council of Trent regarding Confirmation. 

Confirmation is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, wherein a priest or bishop anoints a person with oil and seals him with the gift of the Holy Spirit. This sacrament was rejected or re-defined by numerous protestant sects. The following canons were enacted to punish people in the church who subscribed to any of the listed ideas.

CANON I.-If any one saith, that the confirmation of those who have been baptized is an idle ceremony, and not rather a true and proper sacrament; or that of old it was nothing more than a kind of catechism, whereby they who were near adolescence gave an account of their faith in the face of the Church; let him be anathema.

  1. CANON II.-If any one saith, that they who ascribe any virtue to the sacred chrism of confirmation, offer an outrage to the Holy Ghost; let him be anathema.
  2. CANON III.-If any one saith, that the ordinary minister of holy confirmation is not the bishop alone, but any simple priest soever; let him be anathema.

6 Responses to “Jesus was found in the Temple, not found in sin!”

  1. raymondfrice says:

    Did this really happen?? Three of the four gospel writers ignored it. Was Luke formulating the idea/scenario so that he could help build a religion or is it really biographical in content??

  2. Diane Harris says:

    You are on a very slippery slope, Raymond. Three of the four Gospel writers also ignored the raising of Lazarus from the dead. I intend this post to be a serious biblical discussion and not hosting speculation that what is in the Gospels never “really” happened. The Holy Spirit doesn’t lie. Period.

  3. snowshoes says:

    Excellent analysis of the passage! I’m old enough to have been taught the correct Catholic teaching of the Hypostatic Union, and the effects in the life of Jesus. He always knew Who He Was (question to those who doubt this: When did you know who you were??) He always knew All that the Father gave Him to know, because He IS one Divine Person of the Blessed Trinity. So I, with you, have to roll my eyes when other interpretations are put on this passage, among others. Thankfully tho, it’s been several years since I’ve heard such drivel. Here’s a good explanation of the “In my Father’s house/my Father’s business” matter from Bill Mounce’s blog: (sorry, I still don’t know how to link…)

    Father’s “house” or “business”? (Luke 2:49)
    Jun 24, 2012 Bill Mounce 1 comments

    When Jesus’ parents finally realized they had left Jesus in Jerusalem, returned, and finally found him, Jesus’ response is surprising to all parents.
    “Why is it that you were looking for me? Did you not know that I would have to be in my Father’s house?”

    This is certainly the traditional understanding of the passage (cf. ESV, NRSV, NIV, NET, HCSB, NLT). But what is interesting is that the NASB puts “house” in italics (indicating that the word is not explicitly there), and the KJV reads, “I must be about my Father’s business.”
    The Greek word for word reads, “in the (en tois) of my father (tou patros mou) it is necessary for me to be (dei einai me).

    The use of preposition + article + modifier + noun is a normal construction. What makes it a little challenging is when the final noun is omitted, being assumed in the context. So the traditional understanding is that the missing word is oikos, “house” (in which case tois is masculine). This certainly makes sense contextually, since v 46 identifies Jesus as being “in the temple.”

    But what is the problem with this? (The answer is simple, first year grammar stuff, so don’t think too hard.)

    Right. tois is plural, and you wouldn’t have the plural of oikos for “my father’s houses.”
    Apparently, this is a different construction in which the article is functioning as a noun, and you still have to fill in a noun idea. See, for example, 1 Cor 7:33; “But a married man is concerned about the things of the world (ta tou cosmou), how to please his wife.” According to this argument, tois is neuter and refers to the “things” (i.e., “business”) of his father. (But note: this requires a difficult use of en to mean something like “in reference to.”)

    Now, I don’t want to overstate the argument since Prof. Marshall says that the translation “house” is “perfectly possible linguistically and was accepted by the early church fathers.” But the plural tois nags me, and suggests it is the ”things” of the father that was motivating Jesus to stay behind.
    Either way, all translations have to be interpretive.

  4. Diane Harris says:

    @snowshoes — Great commentary. Thanks. I think I understood what you meant. The need (or perceived need) to insert a word for smoother English can run into some problems. One that jars me is Christ’s reply in John 18:6, to which translators append the “he” to Christ’s reply to those who are arresting Him: “I am [he].” Apparently this is to make for better English but it greatly detracts from the real meaning. When Christ says “Ego eimi” He is using the name of God: “I AM.” The soldiers’ falling to the ground illustrates a reaction to the Holy Name, and gives important context. Reducing the reply from “I AM” to “I am he” does (IMO) a real disservice to the scripture. So I was delighted when I found the NAB had retained the original meaning. Thanks for pointing out the error with the add-on of the plural “houses” as well. I think the case also hints a bit (genitive in 1 Cor “of the world” vs dative re ‘in’ my Fathers business/ things/ matters/ affairs etc.?

  5. snowshoes says:

    Diane – You are right about John 18:6. How powerful that Our Lord said, “Ego eimi”, I AM. The passage indeed loses much of its meaning without an accurate translation. Yes, the Holy Name is powerful.

    Today’s Gospel also has an oft misunderstood passage, IMO, the John 1:31, and 1:33 repeated phrase: “Kago ouk adein auton,” translated “I myself did not know him,” The misunderstanding I’ve heard stated in various homilies is that this means that St. John the Baptist was not acquainted with Jesus. The Greek word for “to be acquainted with” is completely different. (Of course, St. John and Jesus knew eachother. And John would have known the history of the Annunciation and the Visitation from his mother and father!)

    The repetition of the phrase underlines that the declaration did not come from St. John’s personal authority, he was not “kingmaking”. He intended to emphasize to his disciples (this is before the Baptism of Jesus by John), that he received this inspiration from God the Father, and he, St. John, is prophesying what all will see next when the Holy Spirit comes down upon Jesus in the form as of a dove after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John.

    Another reason this is necessary is because his hearers would probably also have known that St. John and Jesus are related, and that they were acquainted with one another, so this would clearly emphasize to them that John was not just “picking kinfolk” for the job. Did John know that Jesus was the Messiah from his earliest youth? I believe so. John was born without sin, and the mantle of prophecy was on him from his youth. But there is the mystery of the timing of the inauguration of the Public Ministry of Jesus, and that timing may have been unknown to John.

  6. snowshoes says:

    Regarding my previous post, here is an excellent explanation of what St. John knew and did not know about Jesus Christ by the priest writer of the New Theological Movement:

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