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What Child (Youth) Is This, Indeed?

Jesus’s first sermon in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52)

By Jean McCurdy Meade

The shepherds have returned to the fields and their flocks. When the child is eight days old, his parents bring him to be circumcised, according to the Torah, and the when the time comes for Mary’s “purification” after childbirth, they bring him to the Temple in Jerusalem where Simeon and then Anna recognize him as the Messiah. After Simeon’s blessing the child he adds, speaking to Mary,

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against
(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.

It is important to note how Mary and Joseph do everything “according to the law,” even though they know who this child really is, before returning to Nazareth. “And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

To add the details of Jesus’s infancy from Matthew’s Gospel, The Magi arrive in Bethlehem, bringing their strange gifts to the child “who is born King of the Jews,” and depart to their own country by another way to avoid King Herod in Jerusalem. Then Joseph takes his family to safety in Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre, and brings them back to Nazareth after Herod’s death, all at the angel’s direction.

We would like to know what happens then to the Word made Flesh, Emmanuel, God with us, this Jesus who will save his people from their sins. Several extra-canonical “Gospels” have stories of Jesus’ miracles as a boy, as do medieval legends and modern novels such as the late Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Mark and John, though, begin their Gospels with Jesus’s baptism and ministry as a grown man, while Matthew goes from the return to Nazareth straight to his baptism by John.

The only account in the New Testament of Jesus as a youth is this passage in Luke, which seems to be, like the stories of the Annunciation, Visitation, and birth, from his special source, Mary of Nazareth.

It is a rather strange story as well, for in it he seemingly callously disregards the feelings and expectations of his parents and sneaks off to “do his own thing” in the Temple for three days, enjoying himself with the scholars and elders while they travel back with their entourage to Nazareth.

41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; 43 and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; 47 and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” 49 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?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.

Anyone who has ever lost track of a child knows how Mary and Joseph feel. A boy his age could be expected to be “hanging out” with friends in another part of the caravan of pilgrims on the first day’s journey. When evening comes, however, they cannot find him. None of their friends has seen him, so they return to Jerusalem and spend the next two days anxiously and hopefully against hope looking for him before they find him, calm and happy in the Temple discussing matters of the Scriptures among the elders. I believe any parent would agree that Jesus deserved her stern rebuke when she and Joseph finally find him, “Son why have you treated us so?”

His reply, “Why were you searching for me? Of course I had to be in the Temple, my Father’s house,” does not sound respectful, nor does it make up for his failure to tell them what he intended to do, or his wondering why they were anxious about his going missing! But it does show his awareness of God as his Father, the teaching he emphasizes throughout his ministry, a teaching rarely found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

We remember that Mary pondered all the extraordinary things surrounding Jesus’s birth in her heart, and no doubt she wondered just what Simeon meant when he foretold that a sword would pierce her soul. Now she also keeps Jesus’s actions and words about the Temple and his words to them, his loving parents, in her heart. What does she think of her miraculous Son now? He is obedient to his parents thereafter, but surely, in her anxious searching for her missing child, she was starting to understand just what Simeon meant.

However callous or insensitive his reply to his parents may sound to us, it is clear that Jesus, at the age of 12, close to the time of coming of age for a Jewish boy, knows himself to be God’s Son, although he is growing up in a human family. And he has remarkable understanding of the Scriptures and traditions of his people. He listens and he asks questions of the teachers — a fine preparation for his method of teaching through asking questions and telling parables as answers. And the learned elders are astonished.

Jesus knows already that the Temple is his home, and, as a man, he will teach there openly to the consternation of the priests who carefully observe the rituals prescribed there in the Law of Moses, and the Pharisees, who carefully seek to fulfill all the requirements of the ancient Law in their daily life. He nevertheless foretells the destruction of the Temple, in all the Gospels.,

But in John’s account of this prediction, there is an interesting addition to this prophecy:

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”
But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken. (John 2: 19-22)

Three days from destruction to rebuilding — the very amount of time he was lost to his parents in the Temple — would be the time he was lost to his grieving family and friends before his resurrection, reconciling humanity to God, defeating death, and forever ending the necessity of a temple in which to offer sacrifice.

Some of those teachers who praised Jesus as an amazing youth were surely alive 20 years later during his public ministry to listen to his questions and answers again. Perhaps some of them were among the Pharisees who constantly tried to catch him in a trap between the Law of Moses and that of the hated Romans, or perhaps some were also members of the Sanhedrin, the Council that condemned him as a blasphemer. But perhaps some them, like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, realized just who this wonderful boy really was — God with us, the Messiah and Savior of the world, just as Gabriel, Zechariah, and Simeon had prophesied.

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