"And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor." (Luke 2:52)
This story of Jesus as a boy of 12, amazing the teachers in the Temple, appears only in the Gospel of Luke within our canonized Bible. Just before this passage, Luke also includes the story about Jesus’ parents taking him to the Temple to be dedicated when he was 8 days old. A prophet named Simeon was at the Temple, guided by the Holy Spirit to be there. When baby Jesus, held by his parents, entered, Simeon knew that he was looking at the Messiah. The prophetess Anna also praised the child as the Savior.
Jesus’ parents were good Jewish disciples, and they raised him within the traditions of the Jewish faith. All male Jews were required to attend the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year, at Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of the Tabernacles. It was not easy to travel to Jerusalem in those days (no cars, planes, or trains), so most men tried to go at least once a year. The text tells us that Joseph and Mary went at Passover, the feast commemorating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 12). At 12, Jesus was still considered a child, but would be preparing to become a full member of the synagogue at age 13.
Since families travelled to such occasions in caravans, it would be easy for his parents to assume Jesus was with other family members as the caravan left the city. After they stopped for the night, Mary and Joseph could not find Jesus. It would take them another day to get back to Jerusalem. Then they began searching for Jesus. On the third day they found him in the Temple, amazing the teachers with his questions and answers. Christian Education in those days consisted mainly of men gathering in such groups, and presenting problems to be solved.
As any parent would after a frantic search for a lost child, Mary questioned Jesus perhaps with a little irritation in the voice. "Why have you treated us, your parents, this way, boy? We have been searching frantically, and here you sit like nothing has happened." And Jesus, not unlike any almost teenager, retorted back at her, "Why were you searching for me at all? Didn’t you know I would be here, in my Father’s house, doing my Father’s business?"
It seems such a simple story – a precocious boy wanders off and irritates his parents, but he cannot understand their irritation. The text tells us that Jesus went home with them and obeyed them. When next we see Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, he is a grown man, around 30, ready to be begin his ministry. For Luke, this seemingly simple story establishes who Jesus really is. Though he was born in a stable, and not in a palace, angels sang of his birth, and shepherds left their fields to worship him. Prophets at the Temple recognized something in the infant Jesus that was different, outstanding. Mary and Joseph treated him as their own child, of course, caring for him, teaching him, loving him. But in this story, Jesus pointed out to them who his Father really was. Though not fully grown, Jesus knew that he had a special relationship with God the Father. And though Mary and Joseph had heard the angels proclaim Jesus as special before his birth, they were still astounded. Mary, a faithful woman, treasured all that happened in her heart.
Surely Luke includes this story to remind us that Jesus is God, yet also human. A typical almost teenager, he is also seen as exceptional in this story. But then, we all think our children are exceptional. Jesus was indeed the most exceptional one ever among us. Luke lets us know that even as a child, Jesus was both human and divine. This truth knocks aside any heresies that claimed Jesus as more divine than human, or more human than divine at least until he was grown. Jesus grew up like any child of his time period. Because he was human, he had to grow, he had to learn. Yet he also was God and had knowledge and power that only God could have. Non-canonical texts (those not included in our Bible) give a picture of the child Jesus struggling to understand and contain the powers given by his divine nature with his human nature. In "The Infancy Gospel of Thomas," the young Jesus fashioned sparrows from mud, clapped his hands, and the now real birds took flight. But the young Jesus in this lost book also responded to other children by misusing his powers, causing one child to wither like an old man, slaying another just because he bumped into Jesus. In this book, the 12 year old Jesus at the Temple "questioned the elders and teachers of the people sharply, explaining the chief points of the Law and the parables to the prophets." This Jesus had powers he clearly did not know how to handle. It is a somewhat disturbing picture for us, as we see a Jesus who needed to mature and to understand who he was as both God and human. But this book was not included in our Bible for good reason. The manner in which Jesus grew into his divine nature is not so much what we need to know as that Jesus was both human and divine at the same time. This is a mystery we cannot fully comprehend because we cannot experience it. We take it on faith.
Luke reminds us of this unique division of human and divine in Jesus with these stories of his childhood as an infant and as a 12 year old, both of which end with statements declaring that Jesus grew in wisdom and in years, with human and divine favor upon him. After this incident in which Jesus worried his parents, the text tells us that Jesus went home and "was obedient to them." Jesus knew the commandment to "Honor your father and mother," and he lived it out.
The young Jesus of Luke’s story was not as pompous or careless with his Godliness as the young Jesus in The Infancy Gospel. Jesus’ parents found him sitting among the teachers in the temple, "listening and asking them questions" (2:46). Even Jesus longed to learn more about his faith. If even Jesus needed to grow in wisdom, as well as in divine and human favor, surely we do too. If Jesus had to work at being obedient to his parents, and to God the Father, surely we do too. "When I was a child," says Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, "I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways" (I Cor. 13:11). " I Peter says of the spiritual life, ""Like newborn infants long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation" (I Peter 2:2). If even Jesus, Son of God, needed to grow and mature before entering the ministry at around age 30, all the more do we need to grow and mature in our faith, throughout our lives.
Growing in favor with God and humans does not happen without work on our part. Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and author, has such a wry way of expressing truths about the faith. He says: "Grow up? For old people, isn’t it a bit too late? For young people, isn’t it a bit too early? I do not think so. Never too late, never too early, to grow up, to be holy….Children that we are, even you and I, who have given up so little, know in our hearts not only that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but that it is also more fun – the kind of fun that wells up like tears in the eyes of saints, the kind of blessed fun in which we lose ourselves and at the same time find ourselves, to grow up into the selves we were created to become." (Buechner, p. 143, 144)
Growing up "to be holy" does not just happen. We have to work at it. We come not just to worship, but also to Bible studies and seminars, as well as to service opportunities. We read our Bibles and other spiritual readings regularly. We bring our children to Sunday School and church activities. We pray for and with others. We walk labyrinths and keep prayer journals. We find the spiritual practices that nourish our souls, and we work at doing them on a regular basis. We work at "being holy" because such an approach to life enables us to better live in the midst of the chaos of life today. Harold Kushner, most famous for his book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?, also wrote a book called How Good Do We Have to Be? In it, he tells us why we need church, or, as he calls it, religion:
"Religion sets high standards for us and urges us to grow morally in our efforts to meet those standards. Religion tells us, ‘You could have done better; you can do better.’ But listen carefully to that message. Those are words of encouragement, not condemnation. They are a compliment to our ability to grow, not a criticism of our tendency to make mistakes. We misunderstand the message of religion if we see or hear it as a message of criticism….Yes, religion can make us feel guilty by setting standards for us, holding up ideals against which we can measure ourselves. But that same religion can then welcome us in our imperfection. It can comfort us with the message that God prefers the broken and contrite heart that knows it failures over the complacent and arrogant one that claims never to have erred." (Kushner, pp. 7, 43-44).
Our task, then, as church members, as Christians, as God’s people – as children in the faith – is to grow in divine favor. When we do, surely we will also grow in human favor. All too often, we seek to grow first in human favor, which can actually be our down-fall with God. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you." Like the young Jesus, we can be obedient, we can sit with our Lord. We can listen and ask questions, and learn. There is still much for us to learn about following God. Let us too be "in our Father’s house and about our Father’s business," every day of our lives.
Thanks be to God! Amen.