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Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, May 13

Text: Luke 2:41–52

Anyone who has ever had a child—or been a child—can identify with this story of the twelve-year-old Jesus being separated from his family in the Passover crowd at the Jerusalem Temple. Who among us does not have a story of disobeying our parents in an assertion of adolescent will? And which parent among us does not have a story of being separated—even for a moment —from our child, and the terror that rises in the body when that happens? Whether we’ve just lost sight of them, or a child has wandered off, or not returned home at the appointed time. (Parents of infants—please ignore that last sentence!)

Parents spend a great deal of energy helping our children to navigate the world, stay safe, and develop their independence—a delicate balancing act of protection and permission-giving, holding and letting go. We watch them grow and mature, and we stay close—but not too close—so they can learn for themselves. We look for the golden mean between over-protective “helicopter parenting” and more permissive “free-range parenting,” popularized by Lenore Skenazy. (1)

Wherever you come down philosophically, you’ve doubtless had talks with your children about what to do if you get separated in a public space. When my children were little, we lived in Manhattan. We taught our children what to do if we were separated on the subway, or in the Natural History Museum, places we frequented in the big city. We taught them our street address—3041 Broadway—the main entrance to Union Theological Seminary. That address would have helped them get home. Our mailing address—600 West 122nd Street—would not have. There was no street entrance at all on 122nd between Broadway and Riverside Drive.

I love our reading this morning—Luke’s gospel story of the adolescent Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple, separated from his family and left behind! It’s easy to imagine the fascination Jesus must have felt, hanging out with Torah scholars at the center of the Jewish universe. Equally, we can imagine the fear that must have risen in his parents when they realized he wasn’t with them on the return journey to Nazareth. Here is Jesus, being a normal human teenager, but at the same time, pivoting toward his larger purpose. It is a cosmic coming-of-age story.

We can imagine Mary, Joseph, their extended family and friends, walking up from Nazareth to Jerusalem—a distance of some 70 miles—for the Festival of Passover. They would have travelled caravan-style, in a large group, partly for reasons of safety. The roads leading to Jerusalem from the surrounding hill country were beset by thieves. Along with Mary, Joseph and their family, there may have been hundreds of people on the road, going up for the festival. The crowds may partially explain why Mary and Joseph lost track of their son, and traveling in a large kinship group may explain why they simply assumed he was with them the whole time.

If we look at the details of Luke’s account, it’s clear that Jesus was raised in a particularly observant family that followed Jewish customs and traditions. At that time, adult men were expected to go up to Jerusalem for the Passover, but it was not expected of women and children. Here, not only the men, but also the women and children in Jesus’ family made the journey. A major undertaking, if you think about it—traveling 70 miles each way. The journey would have taken several days, treading rocky, dusty roads in sandaled feet, securing Jerusalem lodgings for the eight days of the festival. And we know from an earlier story that finding a place to spend the night was not Joseph’s forte!

This visit at age twelve is Jesus’ second visit to the Jerusalem Temple. His first visit occurred when he was eight days old and Mary and Joseph brought their son to the Temple for circumcision. This story of the dedication of infant Jesus is found in Luke, immediately prior to our morning gospel reading. You’ll remember that in the infancy story, wise old Simeon and Anna both bless Jesus and proclaim his greatness. In that story, Jesus’ parents are amazed—at this blessing-turned-prophecy.

Luke’s story of Jesus at the Temple is the only account in the canonical gospels of Jesus’ life between his infancy and his thirtieth year. Later traditions (written years after the gospels) created “stories of the young Jesus, many of which are collected in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” These apocryphal stories tell of the boy Jesus, from ages five to twelve, and include a number of miracles and stories of wizardry. (2) They are filled with wondrous acts.

The theme of amazement runs throughout Luke’s gospel, and all the miracle and healing stories. It closely linked with who Jesus is and what Jesus is becoming.

The verbs in this story unlock the power of what is occurring. The first Greek word is thaumazo, which means to wonder, wonder at, or marvel. It’s the same word that’s used in Luke’s birth narrative, when the shepherds tell the good news of Jesus’ birth. “And they all heard it and wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.” (Luke 2:18)

The sense of it is very much like the wondering questions we asked about Bible stories in our Godly Play Church School classes. I wonder what Jesus was doing in the Temple? I wonder what he was learning there? I wonder why he stayed behind? I wonder how his mother felt? I wonder what I would have done?

There’s a similar word that appears in the text today: existemi, which means to throw out of position, displace, to amaze, astonish, throw into wonderment, to be amazed, to be out of one’s mind, or beside oneself. This word appears several places in Luke’s gospel: when Jesus heals the woman with the hemorrhage; when Jairus’s daughter is raised from the dead; when the women find the tomb empty on Easter morning. Wonderment!

Here that same amazement is expressed toward the twelve-year-old Jesus at the Jerusalem Temple. “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished.” (Luke 2:47) The young Jesus shows an intuitive sense of divine wisdom that outstrips that of his peers, and even his parents!

Seen through a Jungian lens, Jesus is individuating, discovering who he is, apart from his parents. One of the things I love about this story is that it seems so much like normal family life. The twelve-year-old son does something that totally freaks out his parents. There’s something perversely pleasing about Jesus acting like a normal kid.

Jesus stays behind in the synagogue—without telling them—because this is where he wants to be. Does Jesus deliberately go behind his parents’ backs? Does he simply lose track of time? Is he so enthralled with the teaching of the rabbis—the great Torah teachers and legal minds—that he can’t tear himself away? What do you think: If he had asked permission to stay at the Temple for a while longer, would there have been a scene?

Yes, Jesus is asserting his own mind. But there is so much more here! Did you notice how harsh Jesus is toward his parents in this story? When, after three days of searching, they find Jesus in the Temple, his mother says, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.”

Jesus responds, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” We wonder, whatever happened to “honor your father and mother?” Jacob Neusner addresses this question in his book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. According to Neusner, in the Israel of Jesus’ time, Torah was understood to take precedence over genealogy, so that “the master of Torah gains a new lineage.” (3) Perhaps this story marks such a moment for Jesus, a turning point when he begins to understand himself primarily in relationship to God and Torah.

Is this visit to the Jerusalem Temple the moment when Jesus comes to understand his larger purpose? That might not excuse his rudeness toward his parents but it would [at least] explain Jesus’ state of mind. This is no ordinary coming-of-age story! But rather, a moment of extraordinary wisdom and insight, when the young Jesus pivots toward the ultimate, moves out from his family of origin, and turns toward a new genealogy. This does seem to be Luke’s point, as he concludes, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

If Jesus’ baptism at age 30 is a moment when God pours out favor on Jesus, and his mission becomes clear, perhaps this visit of the twelve-year-old Jesus to the Jerusalem Temple is a moment of Jesus’ own agency, when he turns intentionally toward a relationship with God.

On this Mother’s Day, when our minds wander from church services to family brunch, to parents far and near, loved or lost, we give thanks for all the nurturing relationships that have sustained us and given us life.

We marvel at our children: they amaze us. We wonder at their ability to surpass us, to find their own way in the world, to become who God intends them to be. We give thanks for families and communities of choice, for a spiritual home where we, too, may find our lineage in the faith and family of Jesus Christ—a new relationship that gives us purpose. Amen.


(1) Lenore Skenazy, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry (2009)

(2) Paul J. Achtemeier, Feasting on the Word, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), p. 167. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is not to be confused with the better-known Gospel of Thomas.

(3) Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), p. 169.


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