August 16, 2015
Some of you know that my mom likes to tell stories about things I did when I was little: the time I cried when my cloud picture blew apart, the time I didn’t come home from Kindergarten and she found me halfway between home and school reading a book under a tree. The stories are not particularly interesting as far as stories go, but if you know me, as an adult, you might find it interesting to know a little bit about what I was like as a child.
It’s a natural curiosity, I think. People were certainly curious about what Jesus was like as a child. There were some interesting stories in circulation during the first and second centuries. Several of these stories made their way into the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the gnostic Gospel of Thomas). There we read about a young Jesus bringing his clay bird sculptures to life; we see him curse—and subsequently kill—two other children who offend him. When their parents come to complain to Mary and Joseph, Jesus blinds the parents. . . . But don’t worry, Jesus eventually sees the error of his ways and undoes all the curses. He also revives a friend’s father who had fallen off the roof and died, heals someone who sliced himself with an ax, and miraculously makes a board longer to help Joseph make a bed.
You may be starting to see why the Infancy Gospel of Thomas didn’t make it into the official biblical canon. It is not likely that little Jesus actually did all of these things. But still, it is fascinating to think about what Jesus would have been like as a child.
The only story we have from Jesus’ childhood in the four canonical Gospels is this story of the 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem from the Gospel of Luke. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a lot of the same material, it is only in Luke that we hear about this family trip to Jerusalem.
The question we’ve been asking all summer is: Who is Jesus?. And I think that this one Biblical story of Jesus’ childhood gives an interesting perspective on that question.
From this story we know that Jesus was part of a family—of what appears to be a functional family. They are on a family trip together. Both parents notice Jesus is missing and go back to look for him. When, after three days of searching the city, they finally find him, Mary says, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
Or, “Jesus Joseph Carpenter! What in the world do you think you are doing?! Your father and I have been worried sick!”
Like I said, a fairly normal, functional family.
And we also know that Jesus was part of an extended community. When Mary and Joseph first noticed that Jesus was missing, “they began looking for him among their relatives and friends.” It’s what you do when a child is missing—particularly a 12-year-old child; a child old enough to get himself to a friend’s house but not necessarily mature enough to check in with Mom and Dad before supper time—you call the best friend, call the grandparents, check in with the aunts and uncles: “Hey, have you seen Jesus lately?”
Jesus didn’t grow up in a vacuum; he had a broad network of relationships.
This story also makes it clear that Jesus’ family took their Jewish faith very seriously. We are told that Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of Passover. Jerusalem is about 63 miles from Nazareth–that’s a 5-day walk. (Ten if you have to turn around one day in and then spend three days looking for your crazy son in the city.) Mary and Joseph had to pack supplies for the journey; they had to arrange for a place to stay while they were in Jerusalem; Joseph had to give up about two weeks worth of carpentry work. . . . They did this every year. That is what I call dedication to the faith.
I will grant that Jesus may have had some special spiritual knowledge due to, you know, being God and all, but the home in which he was raised surely provided him with a deep religious education.
We also know that Jesus was curious—which I’ve always found to be an essential quality in a teacher. Jesus had questions for the religious scholars. He wanted to learn about the faith. A lot of artwork and sermons about this Bible story portray Jesus sitting in the center of a group of elders, holding forth in a wise and professorial manner.
But Luke says that Jesus’ parents “found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them.” Jesus is not an arrogant know-it-all; he is a curious child, mature for his years, and, yes, oblivious to the more practical matters like schedules and parents.
When his frantic parents do finally catch up with him, this is how it goes down:
Mary says, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” (Or, “Jesus Joseph Carpenter! What in the world do you think you are doing?! Your father and I have been worried sick!”)
Jesus says,“Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
But Mary and Joseph did not understand what he was saying to them. They had no idea what he was talking about.
Now, what this little part of the story tells me is that Jesus did not understand his parents. And his parents did not understand him. Which about sums up the relationship between most 12-year-old children and their parents.
Rich Mullins wrote a song called “Boy like Me, Man like You” in which he wonders about Jesus’ childhood:
Did You grow up hungry?
Did You grow up fast?
Did the little girls giggle when You walked past?
Did You wonder what it was that made them laugh?
Did You wrestle with a dog and lick his nose?
Did You play beneath the spray of a water hose?
Did You ever make angels in the winter snow?
Did You ever get scared playing hide and seek?
Did You try not to cry when You scraped Your knee?
Did You ever skip a rock across a quiet creek?
We can’t know the answers to these questions. But this small glimpse Luke provides into Jesus’ childhood lets us know that Jesus was, in many respects, a normal kid. Going on family vacations, living within a community of friends and family, a bit preoccupied with his own agenda and interests.
And Luke’s story lets us know that Jesus was, in some respects, an astonishing, confounding kid. Learning from grown-ups in the temple. Referring to the Almighty God as “Abba” (“Father”).
Who was Jesus? A normal, astonishing, confounding kid who learned the faith and practiced the faith and followed the God of his faith; one who grew—as we all hope to grow—in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and other people.