By Sharon Nelsen
Luke sees importance in this story about the Boy Jesus and gives us the viewpoint of three different sets of characters to ponder: 1) Those in the Temple who heard him and were “astounded at his understanding and his answers;” 2) His parents who were astonished, and who said to him. “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety;” and 3) That of the Boy Jesus who asks, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
When I reflect on those learned men in the Temple who were astounded, I find it astounding in the first place that any group of adults were giving up their time to listen to a boy barely into manhood, much less reflecting on what he had to say. It’s like a group of university professors intently listening to a high school freshman explaining topics in their field of expertise. And yet, apparently, the learned men were captivated by this budding rabbi.
As I reflect on the words that another astonished person, the Boy Jesus’ Mother, says to him I think about the expectations we parents have that our children will continue doing what we have taught them to do and our initial disappointment when they take the initiative in modifying any of our traditions. Mary’s question certainly reveals her parental viewpoint: You were not where you supposed to be, and this action on your part has caused your Father and I “great anxiety.” But Mary and Joseph’s “great anxiety” needs to be regarded in their culture—a young Jewish male apparently on his own in a Roman ruled society.
They realize the implications of a boy his age being anywhere alone in Jerusalem. What probably was very fresh in their memory of what it was like to live under Roman occupation was a major incident that occurred when Jesus was about ten years old. A band of Zealots, objecting to a census ordered by the Roman emperor, broke into the armory at Sepphoris, about two miles from Nazareth, and started a revolt. The Roman’s Twelfth legion, led by the Governor of Antioch, in the north, defeated the rebels. They crucified 2,000 of these Jewish revolutionaries on crosses lined from Sepphoris to the Sea of Galilee. There is no doubt that Jesus, perhaps with some of his younger cousins, saw these men dying on crosses less than five miles from their village of Nazareth. Certainly, the adults knew the situation and all of its implications. After his Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish boy was considered a man of Israel and he could be recruited by the rebel army of Zealots at that age. And, by himself in Jerusalem, without his father, if he had been caught, he could have been arrested by the Roman soldiers for wandering away from his caravan under suspicion that he was a revolutionary.
The great question of the Boy Jesus, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” is not a sarcastic, “smart mouth adolescent” response, but more of an inquiry. His parents know he is of age and as a man of Israel could go alone into the Temple Court of the Israelites, where Jewish men would come and recite the great Shema, Israel—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.” That they know. But, as young Jesus learns, they don’t fully understand His mission. Jesus experiences that integral part of growing up-- the realization that your parents not only do not know everything, but that you might be beyond them in knowledge and understanding in a particular area.
Here are a few of the many revelations I grasp in this story: 1) For the Temple personnel, unable to negate the wisdom and understanding coming from this young teacher, they see contrast in their own perceptions of the Deity; 2) For Mary, “who kept all these things in her heart,” there is the same realization of waiting for full understanding of who her Son is, that came upon her with Elizabeth’s greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1. 40) and again from Simeon in the same Temple when he told Mary that “this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted…” (Luke 2.34); and 3) for the Boy Jesus, he experiences a confirmation of his teaching ability in the fact that he is able to astound a gathering of learned adults in their own “classroom.”
In the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, we reflect on the joy every parent separated from their child experiences upon reunion. That is one level, but in this story, the dialogue would suggest that the “finding” is second to the “revelation” that Mary and Joseph experience as to the particularity of the gift of this son, Jesus. And, they are challenged to adjust this discovery with their parental role.
The text reveals to us a mutual understanding on the part of Jesus and his parents: No matter how gifted he is, no matter how much he has astounded his parents and others, he is not yet prepared to encounter and deal with the adult world. The peasant parents understand that being astounded can be a long way from acceptance.
Apparently, Jesus respects his parents wisdom above all else –popularity, audience, even his own recognized ability to teach adults—for ”He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”
Luke concludes his brief story: “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”
I tell this story frequently at Boys Town’s Dowd Chapel in front of the Tableau of the Boy Jesus Teaching in the Temple. When we have seventh and eighth grade students on a Father Flanagan pilgrimage, I ask them as they gaze upon the Boy Jesus teaching astounded adults, “How many of you know more than your parents do?” The usual response is a group of lowered heads and shuffling feet. Then I say, “Well, Jesus did too. And what do the scriptures tell us? That he knew he was not ready to engage the adult world; he needed more guidance, experience and formation from his parents. And so He went back home and learned from them. And that is why, as brilliant as you may be in your studies, on the computer, or in sports or musical accomplishment, you need the guidance, love and expertise of your parents and teachers so that you, too, are prepared to fully enter the adult world.”
And Father Flanagan always says, “Amen!”