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About His Father’s Business: Luke 2:40-52

Tuesday, 5 December 2017  | Bruce Wearne

In Luke 2:40-52, the writer tells us that in the years of their nurturing of Mary’s first-born - and we only ever hear indirect references to the other children born in that family - Joseph and Jesus’ mother had only a vague glimpse of what Jesus’ coming into their lives meant for them.

Did they understand what Jesus meant by being busy with the ‘things’ of his Father in heaven? What ‘things’ could these be? Were not these ‘things’ also conveyed to him as a child in the home of his faithful parents? How are we to understand the ‘further education’ of a child of Israel within the Temple and its teaching?

Most of all, what can we learn from this about the way in a child is to be nurtured within the family circle?

No doubt the stories of Jesus’ childhood were kept as part of the ‘family treasure’ by his mother, just as it has been with many other mothers and their children. Yet just as we, reading this, might think we are being invited to view the family’s photo-album, we discover that what Luke tells us here is all we will get to know.

Just because this was the childhood of the One who would be resurrected and ascended to God’s right hand does not mean that we have to know the full family history of these years. All we know of his childhood is his conception, his birth, his presentation to the temple and this event in Jerusalem when he was twelve.

Similarly, we do not have any accounts of the childhood of Jesus’ cousin, John, except for his naming when Zacharias confirmed that he would be called ‘John’, as per the angel’s instructions (Luke 1:13). And we can make only indirect inferences about the experience of children from the accounts of Jesus’ ministry years later on in Judaea, Galilee and Samaria. Yes, Jesus instructed his disciples to give their attention to children, but this evidently does not mean that the details of their lives, their particular stories, are to be proclaimed as so much free information for whomever may want to know about such delicate details. This understanding of the delicate nature of domestic life is also conveyed when Jairus and his wife, and with them Peter, James and John, were instructed not to tell the story of the little girl’s raising (Mark 4:43).

Of course, this does not prevent us from wondering how Mary and Joseph nurtured Mary’s first-born. In fact, Luke’s glimpse provides a boundary within which our wise understanding is encouraged. We are prodded to careful reflection about the human calling of nurturing a new generation implied in the Creator’s commission from the outset (Genesis 1:28). And that will bring before us our own responsibility, not just for our own children but also for our children’s generation.

But there is something here for us to attend to. We need to respect the tender plant that is any child’s life, to wait, and to not presume upon a story line before it is formed, to not presume upon its public blossoming. These are facts that are not for public distribution. Celebration and treasuring in one’s heart are always within a context of God-given human responsibility, but such responsibility includes respect for God’s laws, for the boundary lines that are inherent within our social domain.

And we as Christians have to appreciate that the coming of the Saviour of the world did not mean that he left behind a family scrapbook or photo album or diary for us to get off the shelves and leaf through when we don’t have anything else to do. We do have the four Gospels but they are not simply there as a scrapbook. They are truly the Word of the Lord, sufficient for us to find a path as we seek to walk in his ways. Besides, Jesus seems to have assumed that his followers would have their own family traditions and stories to tell, even if his command required them to be prepared to leave all of that behind in order to follow him.

So what were the parents, Mary and Joseph, to do when they could not find their son among their fellow-travellers on their trip home? Did they not, as parents, have responsibilities for which they were accountable to God? What we have here is one little excerpt from what might have been a family scrapbook.

The young Jesus, in his reply to his parents, tells those who were present (and now us, so many years later) that he was taking the initiative in learning more about the teaching of the Law and the Prophets. He was doing so outside the family and extended family network. Was not that the purpose for him of this inaugural yearly trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the deliverance from Egypt? Family life is so important for nurture; but family life is also important for preparing children for life outside the strict limits of family and the household. Young people mature and become adults. Jesus was on the path to adult maturity, even as, Luke tells us here, he was still submissive to his parents. So he went with them to Jerusalem for Passover. And we hear that the nurturing of Jesus had left him confident of what his Father had given him.

Why have you been hunting for me? Did you not know...?

It might well read as:

Mother, dad, where have you been all these years in which you have been so diligently nurturing me about my Father’s will for my life....?

But here Luke tells Theophilus - and he will repeat it later on - that Jesus was actually on his own learning curve. And this learning curve involved coming to an appreciation of the intersection between himself as a child of God on the one hand and his parents on the other, and of himself as a child, conceived as no other child had ever been conceived, a member of a household who had learned the way of life of his parents by being subject to their care and nurture. In other words, Jesus was a child respectful of his parents because his Heavenly Father had given them to him for his nurture, for his benefit.

There is thus the implication that a family ‘outsider’ (like Luke, like Theophilus, like ourselves), when confronting the public record of one or other of that family’s members, is to remain respectful of what is kept ‘within the family’, what is considered the family’s business, and thus of what is beyond the responsibility (and gaze) of ‘outsiders’, no matter how aligned the ‘outsider’, or ourselves, may be with the person’s later public projects – in this case, Jesus’ future ministry.

When Luke says that Joseph and Mary did not really understand what Jesus meant by his reply, he has given us a brief hint, a merest glimpse, of what had to be managed within that household. She said to him:

Your father (πατρ) and I have been searching for you …

And in reply Jesus refers to ‘my father’ (πατρς).

Now keep in mind Luke’s Gospel for us is in Greek; and the household language in which Jesus was raised was Aramaic. So when, in the next part of his narrative, Luke records John speaking to the crowds, we might reflect further upon the linguistic difficulties Luke had in composing his narrative:

And do not think you can say to yourselves, “we [can trace our lineage to show that we] have Abraham as our ancestor [Πατέρα]”, for I am here to tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones here…

Luke tells us that Jesus (presumably in his native Aramaic) understood his own identity derived from his Father (his πατρς), and clearly this conveys Luke’s view of Jesus’ conception in line with what the angel had told Mary (Luke 1:26-38). Luke is affirming that the Lord’s God’s favour to us in His Son now comes to us in our ancestral lines and is not mediated to us through our ancestors, or our parents. When we look at the terms here we are also reminded of Luke’s report (in Greek) of Jesus’ teaching his disciples to pray using πάτερ for ‘Father’ (Luke 11:2).

We have just a glimpse and Luke reassures us that, likewise, Joseph and Mary also had to live with what was for them a mere glimpse of what it all meant. They would have to be patient. The Young Man in their care was growing into an adult and he was being called to perform a ministry that was unlike anything anyone else had ever undertaken.

With the four Gospels at our disposal, we see how much of Jesus’ story became clarified for his mother after his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. And it was only much later, at Pentecost, that the greater significance of the angel’s message, the shepherd’s adoration as well as the prophecies of Simeon and Anna - let alone the Jordan River announcements of John the Baptist - began to take on such world-historical significance.

The Gospel writers tell the story of Jesus’ public disclosure as Israel’s Messiah. They respectfully leave most of the details of Jesus’ boyhood, the story of his submission to his parents, to be told within his earthly family’s remembrances, part of Mary’s heart-stored treasure. This silence reminds us of the God-blessed integrity of marriage and family life, even as the Good News of Jesus Christ encourages us in our story-telling generation to generation.


Bruce C. Wearne is a retired Monash University sociology lecturer. He now spends his time assisting Christian Aid and Development students while continuing research in the foundations of 20th century sociological theory.

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