I learned pretty early on to adopt the model of a village partnering with me to raise my children. We have never lived close enough to parents or siblings who could take our children for the afternoon or in an emergency. Instead, we learned to lean on babysitters, friends, and parishioners. And because both my husband and I found fulfillment working, we relied on teachers and daycare workers to support us during working hours. Though we are our children’s parents, there is an entire village who is helping us to raise our children.
Though not all parents subscribe to that model of parenting, that is certainly the model in Jesus’ day. Families stick together – but “family” has a much broader definition. Your extended family and your family’s friends are your village – so you have a lot of moms, pops, grandmas, and aunties watching over you. That village is the reason Mary and Joseph can travel for a day’s journey without noticing their missing twelve-year old.[i] In the village, much like at Coffee Hour or a Pancake Breakfast at St. Margaret’s, the watching of children happens in community. Mary and Joseph have no worry about Jesus because they know that the other moms, pops, grandmas, and aunties will keep him in line and safe. And Jesus knows his role too – to follow instructions and to stay with the village.
Much like we should not be surprised that Mary and Joseph do not notice missing Jesus for a full day, we should also not be surprised that they are angry with Jesus when they find him. They have journeyed a full day out of Jerusalem, rushed the day-long journey back to Jerusalem, and have scoured the City for three more days to find their missing child. When they finally find Jesus, Mary lets Jesus have it. “Child, why have you treated us like this?!?” she scolds. But as exasperated as Mary and Joseph must be, I imagine they are furious with Jesus’ response. I can hear the preteen annoyance and flippancy in Jesus’ words[ii], “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” I am sure Luke edited out Mary’s response, “Excuse me?!? Who do you think you are to talk to me like that?!?”
The interaction between Mary, Joseph, and Jesus is the story of every family experiencing the transition from childhood into adolescence. I am convinced that the commandment to honor one’s father and mother is rooted in the adolescent-prescribed struggle between family and independence. In fact, that transition from preteen to teenage years is probably the most difficult of parent-child transitions. This is the time when parents transition out of being the primary teachers and forces of influence on their child’s life. Meanwhile, peers transition into being the primary teachers and forces of influence in a child’s life. That time is a liminal time when the child is no longer solely dependent upon the parent but also is not yet totally independent. So although the child may want to shed his or her old way of life, he or she is not fully prepared to live parent-free. The child struggles, but so do the parents. I remember one of the pieces of advice I received early on as a parent. The seasoned parent told me that my number one goal was to help my child become self-sufficient. But the parent warned me: the preparation was the easy part – the teaching, the modeling, the cheering on of each successive milestone. The hard part is when self-sufficiency is actually attained. Feeling no longer needed or an active part in the child’s life can leave a parent feeling bereft or abandoned – whether that happens at twelve or twenty-one or forty.
That is where Mary and Joseph struggle today. They have been preparing Jesus his whole childhood to be self-sufficient. They have cared for him, protected him, and taught him. But they have yet to let go of Jesus. They are surprised by Jesus’ defensive response – partially because Jesus’ response is a bit rude, but partially because they have boxed Jesus into a role. Jesus is their child who is to follow their rules. Not only have Mary and Joseph forgotten that Jesus is growing up, they have also forgotten that Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah for God’s people.[iii] What is probably the most annoying about Jesus’ response to his parents is that Jesus’ response is also partially true. No one likes to be reprimanded by their twelve-year old.
What the encounter today between Jesus and his parents reminds us of is that we too can put Jesus in a box. With a lifetime of hearing and learning about Jesus, we feel like we have a pretty strong grasp of who Jesus is and what Jesus is about. But the danger in that kind of comfort with Jesus is that we put Jesus in a category as a known, unchangeable entity. But if we remember, Jesus was not particularly known for doing the predictable. Jesus was always surprising those closest to him. He would even sometimes say one thing and do another. Clearly Jesus’ parents thought they had him figured out. The disciples fell into the same practice too. They were constantly suggesting a plan of action they thought was in line with Jesus’ way of doing things, only to be shut down by Jesus himself.
We fall into the same trap. Being followers of Christ, we sometimes think we can speak for Christ. I have heard people argue that Jesus would have been a democrat or a republican – an argument that clearly is setup to satisfy a need for self-affirmation. Our question, “What would Jesus do?” is also a dangerous one, as the question tempts us to put words into Jesus mouth that have never been there. The conundrum is easy enough to see – how can we make a two-thousand-year-old Middle Eastern Jesus relevant to a twenty-first century American? Truthfully, as a preacher, I am the most at risk because my whole job is to make Jesus relevant to our lives.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled on a quote from Steve Maraboli. He said, “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.”[iv] In many ways, we have all we need to know about Jesus. He taught and showed us how to live. Our questions about what Jesus would do or what party affiliation he would have are distractions. We know how he lived his life. We also know that he was constantly surprising those around him. Our antidote to falling into the same trap of keeping Jesus in a box is to live the life he called us to live, but also to always expect to be surprised. I imagine when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love our enemies, and do unto others as we would have done unto us, we will find that Jesus shows up in all sorts of surprising ways. And like Mary and Joseph, we may find sharp, annoyed responses from Jesus to our questions. His response is the same to us today, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Did you not know that I would be with the hungry, the guilty, the unwanted, the ill, and the enemy? Jesus sounds like an impetuous teenager at times. But he also sounds like a wise a teenager at times. Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 167.
[ii] William J. Danaher, Jr. “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 164.
[iii] Danaher, 164.
[iv] Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience. Quote found at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/476284-want-to-keep-christ-in-christmas-feed-the-hungry-clothe on January 2, 2016.