Don’t Give Up! Luke 2.41–52
Jesus’ parents used to go to Jerusalem every year for the Passover festival. 42When he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the feast days were over, they began the journey back, but the boy Jesus remained in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know; 44they thought he was in the travelling party, and went a day’s journey before look- ing for him among their relatives and friends.
When they didn’t find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46And so it happened that after three days they found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47Everyone who heard him was astonished at his understanding and his answers. When they saw him they were quite overwhelmed.
‘Child,’ said his mother, ‘why did you do this to us? Look – your father and I have been in a terrible state looking for you!’
‘Why were you looking for me?’ he replied. ‘Didn’t you know that I would have to be getting involved with my father’s work?’ They didn’t understand what he had said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and lived in obedience to them. And his mother kept all these things in her heart.
So Jesus became wiser and taller, and gained favour both with God and with the people.
When I was a child, I walked a mile to the bus stop every morning, by myself or with my sister. At the other end of the trip, I walked by myself to school. In the evening, I came back the same way. I never felt unsafe, even in the dark winter days. Now, in many places, children are often taken to school by car. Parents are worried about all kinds of dangers that might be waiting for them.
Perhaps the first remarkable thing about this story is that Mary and Joseph were happy to set off with their large group from Galilee without checking that Jesus was with them. That tells us a lot about the kind of world they lived in, where extended families of kinsfolk and friends lived together in close-knit mutual trust. But, by the same token, once they had left Jerusalem, and when they returned to it by themselves, without the rest of the party, the city was a large and potentially dangerous place, full of dark alleys and strange people, soldiers and traders, not a place where one would be happy to leave one’s son for a few days.
The agony of Mary and Joseph, searching for three days, contrasts sharply with the calm response of Jesus when they found him. Mary blurts out an accusation, perhaps tinged with that mixture of guilt and relief that most par- ents will recognize. Instead of saying, as she might have, ‘How could I have done this to you, leaving you behind like that?’, she says, ‘How could you do this to us?’ Jesus accepts no blame, and indeed issues a gentle rebuke that speaks volumes, in Luke’s portrait, for his own developing self-awareness. ‘Your father and I’, says Mary, ‘have been looking for you.’ ‘No,’ replies Jesus, ‘I have been busying myself in my father’s work.’ Some families today keep notebooks of the striking things their children come out with. Mary kept her notebook in her heart, and this remark in particular will have gone straight there with a stab.
The way Luke has told the story may strike a careful reader of his gospel as part of a large-scale framework around the main story, which is just about to begin. One of the best loved moments in his gospel is the story of the road to Emmaus (24.13–35), in which two disciples are sharing their anguish over the three days that have elapsed since Jesus’ death. Jesus meets them, and explains how ‘it was necessary that these things had to happen’. Here is another couple, coming back to Jerusalem, finding after three days the Jesus they thought they had lost, and having him explain that ‘it was necessary’ (the word is the same in Greek) ‘that I had to be busy at my father’s work’.
You might call the pair of stories something like, ‘On Finding the Jesus You Thought You’d Lost’. And if that is the message of these two passages, maybe Luke is wanting to tell us something about his gospel as a whole: maybe he is writing, at one level at least, for people who may have some idea of Jesus but find he is more elusive than they had imagined.
Finding him, of course, will normally involve a surprise. Jesus doesn’t do or say what Mary and Joseph, or the two on the road, were expecting. It will be like that with us, too. Every time we relax and think we’ve really understood him, he will be up ahead, or perhaps staying behind while we go on without thinking. Discipleship always involves the unexpected.
At the heart of the picture, though, is Jesus in the Temple – a theme full of meaning for Luke. The gospel will end with the disciples in the Temple praising God. But, in between this beginning and this end, the Temple, and the holy city which surrounds it, are the subject of some of Jesus’ sternest warnings. From now on Jesus will be challenging his contemporaries to make real the promises that go with the Temple. If they don’t, the Temple itself will be destroyed.
As we read this story prayerfully, then, we can probably identify quite easily with Mary and Joseph – and perhaps with Jesus, too, quietly asserting an independence of mind and vocation, while still returning home and living in obedience to Mary and Joseph. We may want to remember times when we thought we’d lost someone or something very precious. We may want to reflect on whether we have taken Jesus himself for granted; if Mary and Joseph could do it, there is every reason to suppose that we can too.
We mustn’t assume he is accompanying us as we go off on our own business. But if and when we sense the lack of his presence, we must be prepared to hunt for him, to search for him in prayer, in the scriptures, in the sacraments, and not to give up until we find him again.
We must expect, too, that when we do meet him again he will not say or do what we expect. He must be busy with his father’s work. So must we.