24 January 2016

Jesus of Nazareth, child prodigy.

Luke 2.41-52

Growing up, I’ve usually heard this story taught this way: Jesus, now that he’s old enough to go to temple, went there with the folks for Passover. Afterwards, he stuck around and got into an interesting chat with the rabbis, and lost utter track of time. Extending into days, if you can believe he never noticed the need to sleep, eat, pee, etc.

Meanwhile his unwitting parents got halfway back to Nazareth before finally noticing their son was absent. They turned back, finally found him talking shop in temple, and Mary rebuked him: “Your father and I were worried!” But Jesus came back with, “I was doing the work of my real Father.”

But, in order to maintain appearances—in order to look like an ordinary human boy, instead of exposing the fact he was secretly a God-boy—Jesus went back to Nazareth with them. Back to their confining, non-intellectual existence. Behaving himself, quietly waiting for another 18 years for his time to come.

Yeah, that interpretation’s got problems.

First let’s look at the actual story.

Luke 2.41-42 KWL
41Jesus’s parents went to temple every year to the Passover festival.
42When Jesus was 12 years old
they took him to the festival as customary.

As devout Jews, Joseph and Mary would’ve gone to temple three times a year, as the Law commanded. Ex 23.17, 34.23, Dt 16.16 It wasn’t an option; it’s what they did. It was katá to éthos/“by the custom,” or customary. They, and everyone in Nazareth who also followed the Law, would caravan to Jerusalem for Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkot. Probably stayed with family in Bethlehem, and went to Jerusalem during the day.

And of course Jesus went with them. Passover was a family thing. This wasn’t Jesus’s first Passover in Jerusalem. It was his 11th or 12th. (’Cause y’know, he missed that one when Herod Archelaus had gone nuts and killed a bunch of people.) The whole point of this feast, and every feast, was to celebrate what the LORD had done in the past, and pass the history down to your kids.

Deuteronomy 6.21-25 KWL
21Tell your child, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,
and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
22The LORD gave prophetic signs and miracles, mighty—and bad—
to Egypt, Pharaoh, and all his house, right before our eyes.
23He brought us out of there, because he came to us
to give us the land he promised our ancestors.
24The LORD ordered us to do these duties, to live like today,
to fear our LORD God, who’s good to us every day.
25It’s only right of us that we keep doing this command
before our LORD God, like he charged us to.”

How they passed it down was the custom during the Passover dinner where they’d tell the story of the Exodus. (Nowadays it’s called the Haggadah, which means “parable” and can refer to any bible story, but during Passover it’s the Exodus.) The youngest child at the table would ask the Four Questions:

  1. Why do we eat only matzo tonight, instead of bread and matzo?
  2. Why do we eat only bitter herbs tonight, instead of all kinds of vegetables?
  3. Why do we eat only roasted meat, instead of meat cooked all sorts of ways?
  4. Why do we dip our food twice, instead of only once?

(Jews nowadays have various Haggadahs with various questions, but these questions are derived from the Mishnah, Pesakh 10.4 traditions which date back to Jesus’s day.)

The host would answer the questions, and in so doing teach the kids about the Exodus. You needed a little kid for this; older kids and adults already knew the story. Possibly Jesus, unless there was another kid slightly younger than he, had been the little kid who asked the questions. The rest of the time, he simply heard the story again. Same as every year.

So no, this was hardly Jesus’s first Passover in Jerusalem. It’s simply the first time he went missing.

Throwing the parents into utter panic.

There was no highway patrol in the Roman Empire. There were highwaymen. They’d mug you and murder you if you weren’t traveling in a group. So you caravaned. Every devout Jew in the Galilee had to go to Jerusalem anyway, so they traveled together. Load the tent into the wagon, hitch up the donkey, and off you go.

Same as now, there were likely lots of kids saying, “Can I ride with my friends?” and swapping seats. So it’s totally understandable how a parent might lose track of their boy in the crowd.

But by evening, Jesus’s parents had to figure they’d see him at some point, and when they discovered he wasn’t there, it must’ve thrown them into sheer terror. They had one job, y’know: Raise God’s Messiah. Get him to adulthood so he could rule the world. And now they lost him. You realize how much trouble you’d be in with the LORD for losing his Messiah? Yeah, he’d forgive you, but he’d put you in the bible so people would mock you as a bonehead for the rest of human history. Remember Jonah? You don’t wanna be Jonah.

All joking aside: Put aside the fact he’s Messiah; Jesus was their son. And if you’ve ever lost a child, even just for a moment, you’re reduced to crazy, desperate fear. Loads of worst-case scenarios come to your brain. Even when the kid’s totally fine—even right where he ought to be, just as Jesus was in a place which totally makes sense, considering who he is—you don’t know that, and for all you know he’s in somebody’s makeshift dungeon, or dead. Like I said, worst-case scenarios.

Nowadays we have police and FBI and amber alerts to help find missing kids. Back then there was nothing. It was Joseph and Mary, and maybe a few relatives and friends, looking for Jesus anywhere they could think of. Took ’em three days to find him. Three days of crying and praying—but being too wound up to hear the Holy Spirit’s rather simple answer, “Didya look in my temple?”

Luke 2.43-46 KWL
43When it was over and time for them to return,
the boy Jesus stayed in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know.
44Thinking Jesus to be with the group, they were a day on the road,
looking for him among relatives and friends.
45Not finding Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
46After three days they came to find Jesus in temple,
sitting in the middle of the teachers,
listening to and questioning them.

Teaching the teachers.

The fact Luke describes Jesus “sitting in the middle of the teachers” means he was teaching the class. In the first century, only the teacher sat, and the students stood round him. Then they’d engage in the Socratic method: The teacher would pitch a question, the students would attempt an answer, the teacher would challenge their answers with further questions, and they’d work their way towards the truth.

Some folks claim the Jews used a different method: Their teachers took questions, not asked them. And yes, this happened too: Rabbis were regularly asked about how they interpreted the scriptures, or were asked to give rulings, like a judge, about various matters. This was not part of the lesson—but a good teacher would turn it into a lesson, as Jesus did many times. But read Jesus’s lessons in the gospels: Lots of questions. And Jesus’s answers, ’cause the authors of the gospels usually skipped the students’ answers. (Not always, as we’ll see.)

So here we see Jesus already working in his future career: Teaching. And astounding the teachers, who recognized this kid was bright. Here was a 12-year-old boy who was smarter than all of them put together.

Luke 2.46-47 KWL
46After three days they came to find Jesus in temple,
sitting in the middle of the teachers,
listening to and questioning them.
47All who heard Jesus were out of their minds
over his intelligence and responses.

Exístanto/“standing outside oneself” can be either a good thing or bad. Out of your mind with joy; out of your mind with rage. Luke doesn’t say what emotion the teachers were feeling at this point. Preachers like to speculate. I’ve heard sermons describe them as thrilled—a child prodigy!—and others describe them as outraged, ’cause they reckon Jesus irritated them then like he irritated them later. I suppose it all depends on the optimism or cynicism of the interpreter.

My guess, which I admit is probably colored by my own optimism, is they were thrilled. If some bright kid shows up in my class and starts spouting unpopular theories—stuff I’d dismiss from anyone of any age, as the ravings of a crackpot—it’s really easy to use his young age as an excuse to ignore him. He’s a kid; what does he know? So if Jesus had said stuff which irritated the teachers, their response would be more along the lines of “Go away kid; you bother me.” Not let him take the chair and lecture them.

Instead, if you find a really bright child—and he’s not a know-it-all jerk about his intelligence, as way too many child prodigies tend to become, but instead exhibits an astounding level of love, graciousness, joy, patience, kindness, and other fruit of the Spirit—you’d definitely cede him the floor. Kid’s inspired by God. Anyone with half a brain would recognize they might learn something. And call over others—“You gotta hear this kid!”

Okay, back to the scared parents.

Y’know, it’s always possible Joseph and Mary checked the temple. Several times. But they weren’t expecting to find Jesus where he was—and when they finally realized the rabbi in the middle of all those other rabbis was their kid, their minds were blown.

But enough speculating. Back to the actual text.

Luke 2.48-50 KWL
48Seeing Jesus, they were astonished.
His mother told him, “Boy, why did you do this to us?
Look, your father and I were suffering as we looked for you.”
49Jesus told her, “So why did you look for me?
Hadn’t you known I have to be in the business of my Father?”
50They didn’t understand the word he told them.

No, Jesus wasn’t talking back to his mom. He was pointing out she should have known where he was. Weren’t his mom and dad familiar with what he was like, what he was about, by now? Didn’t they know he had a passion for this stuff? When you misplace your kid at the department store, and you know your kid’s a video games nut, isn’t that the first part of the store you search? So why didn’t they check the temple first?

Of course, if you’re a bit emotional, you’re not gonna be all that receptive to as logical a statement as Jesus’s. Especially when you’re the parent, he’s the kid, you’ve been worried sick, and he’s to blame. Except is he to blame? Well, you’re not gonna ask that question. Of course he is. Hence “they didn’t understand the word he told them.” Messiah or not, Jesus was still their kid.

Different translations have it Jesus at his Father’s business (KJV), or his Father’s house (NLT). But there’s no noun there; literally it’s “in the   of my Father.” I went with “business” like the KJV because Jesus was into his Father’s stuff—but this stuff wasn’t objects or possessions, but people and salvation. Business.

Going home.

Luke 2.51-52 KWL
51Jesus went down with them.
He came to Nazareth and submitted to them.
His mother kept every word in her heart.
52 Jesus grew in wisdom, height, and grace,
with God and people.

The usual ways preachers tell this story, they tend to insert a little drama where there is none, assume a few ignorant things, and overlay an arrogance upon Jesus which is completely inappropriate to who he is. He wasn’t thoughtlessly ditching his parents in order to take an early, impatient grab at his destiny. His parents should’ve known who he was, and what he’s about. But they forgot who he was, and didn’t deal at all well with it.

We, too, are only surprised or confused by that which we don’t understand. When we know Jesus’s character, his behavior neither startles nor scares us. It might be unexpected, but we can deal with unexpected. ’Cause we trust him. If we trust him.

Jesus had to be patient with his parents. They weren’t ready for him to start proclaiming his kingdom in his childhood. They weren’t ready for him to shoot past them in ability and maturity. They still needed him to be a kid, for the time being. So he went back to Nazareth, submitted to them, and went back to being a really awesome kid.

And now there’s a gap in Jesus’s biography for about two decades. A lot of us are hugely curious about what Jesus did between the ages of 12 and 30. Where’d he go to school? Who were his rabbis? Friends? Business associates? Mentors? Early followers? What became of Joseph? But the authors of the gospels don’t bother with it because it doesn’t proclaim the kingdom. So Jesus gets a little privacy for those years, and we’ll pick his story back up once they’re done.