Boy Jesus in the Temple or Home Alone

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 13, 2013

Luke 2:41-52 GNT

On Christmas night, we were with our daughter’s family.  The movie, Home Alone, happened to be on television that night.  Our six-year-old grandson had never seen it.  So we thought it would be a nice family activity to watch it together.  So we did.  Our grandson loved it, and it was nice to hear him laughing hard at the escapades of the boy and the two would-be burglars.

As a refresher, Home Alone is the story of an extended family that is planning to go to France over the Christmas holiday.  There are a total of 15 people in the house, with 11 of them being children.  Because he is deemed unruly, Kevin, who is eight years old, is relegated to the attic the night before they are to leave for the airport.  An ice storm during the night knocks out the power, so the alarms don’t go off.  In a frantic quest to get out of the house and to the airport on time, Kevin is left in the attic.  Home alone.  The mother keeps thinking they have forgotten something, but she just doesn’t know what.  But in the middle of their flight, she realizes they have forgotten Kevin.  So for the next few days, the entire family is trying to get back home to Chicago because they are worried sick about this 8-year-old boy who is home alone.

In the meantime, Kevin is fairing just fine.  He is eating what he wants to eat, watching on television what he wants to watch, playing with his older brother’s toys that he is not supposed to play with, and having a ball with two would-be burglars.  Kevin proves to be quite the ingenious, savvy one.  Being left home alone ends up being a positive, growing experience for him.

Well, I saw a parallel between Kevin in Home Alone and the boy Jesus left in the Jerusalem Temple alone.  Just as Kevin’s parents were worried sick over their son left at home alone, so were Jesus’ parents worried sick over Jesus being left in Jerusalem alone.  Like Kevin who proved to be quite self sufficient, capable of taking care of himself, so did the boy Jesus.

As you may know, this story of boy Jesus in the Temple is the only canonical story we have of Jesus’ childhood.  There are a few other stories about the boy Jesus in some of the Gnostic gospels, but the faithful long ago contended that they are too far-fetched to be considered seriously.  So when it comes to Jesus’ childhood, we are left with this one short story.  But Luke has packed a lot into this story that provides material for theological reflection.

For instance, the story shows us that Jesus was Jewish to the core.  Sometimes we are tempted to forget that Jesus was a Jew—a good, faithful Jew.  “Every year the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.”  We see Jesus at the beginning of his life celebrating the Jewish Passover, and we see him at the very end of his life—the night before his death, even—celebrating the Jewish Passover.  Jesus was thoroughly Jewish.  And it is interesting that this particular story takes place when Jesus was twelve years old.  As you may know, age twelve is the age for Jewish boys to anticipate the commencement of their bar mitzvah.  Now, there was no bar mitzvah per se in Jesus’ day, but I find the age parallel to be interesting.

After the Passover Festival was over, Mary and Joseph started back home.  We wonder how they could have left Jesus there alone in the Temple.  What parent could do that? we wonder.  But anyone who is a parent has harried days when such a thing becomes possible.

The reference to “the third day” is interesting as well.  Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days.  Jesus is said to have been in the tomb—the belly of the earth—for three days.  So the “three-day presence in the temple with the scribes is a sign” of something special.  For Luke, this is symbolic, a pre-figuring of things to come.

There are two primary points in this boy Jesus in the Temple story that I find intriguing.  The first is what I see to be the early Church’s wrestling with the nature of the person of Jesus.  On the one hand we see Jesus portrayed as a typical pre-teen boy with common, everyday earthly parents seeking to assert his independence from his parents.  And we see his frustrated parents responding as any parents might do to a typical pre-teen son.  This comes through clearly when Mary says to Jesus upon finding him, “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been terribly worried trying to find you.” Or as the NRSV puts it, “Child, why have you treated us like this?”  But the way the contemporary version, The Message, puts it is most delightful: “Young man, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.”  What parent has not felt just like Mary and Joseph did? When you did not know where your child was and were worried sick until you found him or her?

Luckily neither of our children gave us any problems growing up.  But there were a couple of times when both of them stayed out much later than they were supposed to be out.  And as a worried father, I was out in the middle of the night trying to find them, thinking they had had car trouble, or worse, had been in a automobile accident. Most parents know times such as these.  But the point is, on one level in this adolescent Jesus story he is presented as just a regular, coming-of-age adolescent.  Gracia Grindal writes in the Christian Century magazine that this is “a coming-of-age story.”1  “Mary and Joseph were facing the adolescent years with a most unusual child. . . .  A young gifted boy is growing up and beginning to assert his independence against his parents.”1

But then on the other level Jesus is presented as not-so-normal.  “All who heard him were amazed at his intelligent answers.  His parents were astonished when they saw him . .  .  Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” Jesus said to them.  “Knew ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (KJV) “But they did not understand his answer.”  As I said, we see two pictures of Jesus in this story: that of a normal, pre-teen boy, who tried the patience of his earthly parents on the one hand, and on the other hand the picture of a not-so-regular child, evidence (to me, anyway) that the early Church was trying to come to grips with the true nature of Jesus.

This leads me to the second primary point that I find intriguing: From the beginning, Jesus is what Marcus Borg refers to as a “Spirit person.”  Even at an early age, Jesus showed signs that he was going to be different.  His deep interest in and understanding of Jewish religious teaching, his intelligent conversing with the learned Jewish rabbis, and his reference to the Temple as “my Father’s house.”  All of this is a prelude to the extraordinary mystic, teacher, and Spirit Person that Jesus would prove to be in his adult years.  In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg states, “The most crucial fact about Jesus was that he was a ‘spirit person,’ a ‘mediator of the sacred,’ one of those persons in human history to whom the Spirit was an experiential reality.”2

One final note is that when Luke wrote his gospel, the early Church was beginning to struggle with the nature of the historical Jesus and the post-Easter Christ of faith.  The boy Jesus in the Temple story is indicative of that, as are other places in the gospel where post-Easter ideas of Jesus were written into historical stories.  From the very beginning, the faithful have struggled with the person of Jesus—who he was, his true nature, how he is to be viewed, the sayings that were authentically his, and so on.  The struggle still goes on today, evidenced by the volumes that continue to be written about him.  And some of us in this United Church still have questions in our own minds about the Person of Jesus and the role that he plays in our lives.  But that is okay.  That is what faith is all about—the studying, the questioning, the struggle.  Amen.

1Gracia M. Grindal, Christian Century, Dec. 26, 2012.

2Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.  Pp. 31-32.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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