A Provocation: 1st Sunday After Christmas Day: December 30, 2018: Luke 2:41-52

41 His family was going
    into Jerusalem
        for the feast of Passover.
42 When he was twelve years old,
        they were going up

  in accord with the custom of the feast.
43 When the days were completed,
        when they were returning,
            he remained behind,
                   the child,
            remained in Jerusalem.
    His parents did not know.
44 Because they supposed him to be in the travel group,
         they went a day’s journey.
         They were looking and looking for him
              among their relatives
              and acquaintances.
45 Because they did not find him,
        they returned into Jerusalem,
            looking and looking for him.
46 It happened,
        after three days,
    they found him:
        in the Temple,
            sitting in the midst of the teachers,
            listening to them,
            questioning them.
47 They were stunned,
         all who listened to him,
     by his understanding
     and his judgments.
48 When they saw him,
     they were driven out of their minds.
         She said to him,
             his mother did:
                     why did you do thus to us?
                              your father
                                  and I,
                          we suffered pain.
                          We looked for you.
49       He said to them:
               Why is it that you were looking for me?
                    You didn’t know that
                         in the things of my father
                         it is fitting that I be?
50 They did not understand the word
         that he spoke to them.
51 He went down with them.
    He came into Nazareth.
        He was obedient to them.
    His mother preserved
     all the words
        in her heart.
52 Joshua advanced in wisdom
        and in height
        and in favor with Elohim
         and people.

A Question or Two:

  • If Jesus’ family goes up to Jerusalem every year for the Passover, how many times will he have been in Jerusalem by the time he goes there at the end of Luke’s story? This is a math problem.
  • Since the family is portrayed as being warmly observant and faithful, and since there were actually three pilgrimage festivals every year, how many times might Jesus ACTUALLY have been in Jerusalem by the end of the story?
  • List the places that you have been that many times. What does this suggest about Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem? This is NOT a math problem.

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus is 12 years old. That means he is on the verge of his bar mitzvah. How does a person prepare for their bar/bat mitzvah? A friend of mine works with students to help them master the Hebrew passages they will chant as part of the service. She has told me some things about the preparation process: reading Hebrew, and reading it some more, and learning to make the cantillation as natural as regular speaking. Another friend told me about his daughters and their preparation process: questions and questions, answers that lead to more questions. The process involves diligent practice and repeated exploration. The Torah portion that will be chanted must also be understood. And understanding the portion requires burrowing deep into the language of the text.

I do not know what ancient practices might have been, particularly for common people like Jesus and his parents. It was surely much different from current practice, which appears to have its roots in medieval times. The thing that mattered is that he was at an age to be preparing to assume the responsibilities of a Jewish adult.

Which would explain why the storyteller has Jesus sitting with teachers, questioning and questioning, answering, and then questioning. It may explain his strange response to his mother: How could I NOT be preparing for my bar mitzvah?

It is worth noting that the elapsed time was three days. That is the time that must pass before a dead person is officially and permanently dead. I am guessing that this will have occurred to Mary. And to Joseph.

Some years ago I was studying the gospel of Luke with the students in a course that I teach. We were trying to make sense of Luke’s story as a whole, so we were reading the story and then gathering and analyzing our reactions.

Several students noticed that Luke’s storyteller doesn’t always tell you where you are, or when the events in individual scenes take place. In Mark’s story, you almost always know where you are and how long it took to get there. Luke begins scenes with phrases like “as he was going through some villages,” and “after some days.” Which villages?! How many days?! We are not told. We were puzzling over this storytelling technique, trying to understand its effect.

A young woman said, “It’s almost like, if you’re not in Jerusalem, you can’t know where you are.”

She was right. In Luke’s story, the center of the universe is Jerusalem, or more exactly, the Temple. The story begins in the Temple, with Zechariah burning incense. The story ends in the Temple, as well, with the disciples who have seen the crucifixion, experienced the resurrection, and watched the ascension. After all of this, we are told that they are continually in the Temple. It is the stable center of a dangerously chaotic world.

In the scene for this Sunday, Jesus is in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and then showing them the respect that a teacher truly values: he also asked questions. My guess is that no one in that circle was aware of the passage of time. “Three days?” I think they all would have said, “It’s been three days? I had no idea it had been that long.”

Luke’s storyteller introduces us to Jesus in the midst of study. The messiah loves Jewish tradition and sits with the teachers in the Temple, immersed with them in a love for Torah. Jesus is not correcting their errors (as some interpreters like to imagine). The teachers are doing what real teachers always do: they are not stuffing information into Jesus’ little ears, they are drawing him into shared study. They are exploring together.

But that means that the storyteller approves of them as much as of Jesus. They are together portrayed as faithful Jews. This fits into Luke’s overall narrative scheme: everywhere you look, you find observant, faithful Jews. And it seems to me as I read the scene this time, that the storyteller understands Mary’s distress, but understands it as akin to what any parents goes through. As a parent and as a teacher, I wait and watch as my children and my students are caught by the thing they finally cannot stop thinking about. Sometimes it is biology. Sometimes it is theology. Sometimes it is punk music. As a parent and as a teacher, my task then is to help the fascinated student develop strength that corresponds to their fascination. That is how a fascinated student takes the steps that will make her a skilled surgeon, or a pastor who serves a congregation of people without homes, or a musician who might be as at home in front of an orchestra as in front of the patrons at a wine bar.

Mary seems to have noted what the teachers in the Temple noted: Jesus is fascinated by Torah, by Jewish tradition. She preserved this in her heart, thinking about what this meant for how she should raise her son.

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