This is the only anecdote we have from Jesus’ childhood. In the Bible, it’s an informational vacuum. Other than a boatload of kooky non-canonical Gnostic texts, we have nothing about Jesus’ life between the ages of 12 and 30. When you have a descriptive black hole, especially one about an important historical figure, people tend to make things up. That’s what happened with the Gnostic Gospels (books which weren’t included in Bible). Out in the Egyptian deserts, some two to three hundred years after Jesus died, a few monks decided to make up stories about Jesus as a kid. They are entertaining but utterly ridiculous. One story has Jesus making clay pigeons come to life, killing them, and then bringing them back to life. You see why pigeon killing Jesus didn’t make it into the Bible.
This makes the second half of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel extremely important in the history of Christianity. Yes, we go from talking about his coming, birth, to Jesus’ adolescence in one week. Such is the nature of the liturgical beast. However, what we learn about Jesus and how the early church perceived his identity is more precious than any gold, frankincense, or myrrh. We are privileged to gain insight on how a young Jesus saw himself. These are questions and debates that scholars and believers wrestle with today. Was Jesus always aware that he was “Jesus” the Son of God? Or, did a switch flip one day and he simply understood his mission? Was it always there or was it gradual? People in the first century wrestled with these questions, ordinary people, not just theologians. How did he become the guy who died on the cross? People wanted to know. We have the same questions. This portion of Luke 2 seeks to give us some insight.
There are so many ideas embedded within this passage; the actions and reactions of his parents, the symbolism of time and delay, or the journey to Jerusalem itself. For me, it’s one phrase, Jesus’ response to his mother that I can’t quite seem to shake. Jesus says he’s, “about my father’s business”. Oh how I would love to get Luke, Jesus to unpack those words. How did Jesus understand the term, “his father’s business” especially at age 13? (I’m certain it doesn’t involve dead birds.)
The people, who do know, aren’t talking. At least I think they know. The rabbis he was rapping with, they’re too dumbstruck to speak. But I don’t need to talk with them. The text says, in verse 47, “and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and answers.” Did you catch that? Everyone who heard him was amazed? Amazed is their response. It’s time for a little Greek. Amazed makes it sound like they’ve seen a really cool magic trick. That’s not what the Greek word is trying to convey. It’s much stronger. They are amazed as if they’ve seen a 12 year old Mozart perform his first opera or Bobby Fischer become an International Grand Master of Chess at 15. It’s this kind of amazed. Astonished is a much better translation. The Greek is “existemi”. Literally, it means to stand beside one’s self. It’s translated as amazed, astonished, or insane. Richard’s modern translation: their minds were blown, they were tripping out.
If that’s their reaction, “his father’s business” must be pretty amazing to hear and see. If that’s their reaction (they being the international grand masters, the court composers, the best and brightest of the religious world), there must be something incredibly grand, exquisite, precise, elegant, beautiful, imaginative, and new about “his father’s business”. Run of the mill Bible study doesn’t trip people out, blow minds, and redefine the nature of how people think about their relationship with God. From my perspective, looking at the “my father’s business” encounter, this looks to be like what happened.
There is another clue hidden in plain sight. It’s easy to miss. His father’s business includes listening and asking questions. Go back to verse 46, “after three days, they found him sitting in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.” The art, pictures, and Sunday School drawings of this event usually show Jesus lecturing the teachers of the law. This may be true but I kind of doubt it. Their amazement at Jesus comes from the interactions, dialogue, and conversations. I don’t believe anyone was lecturing anyone. I think it was a three day long conversation. The passage seems to indicate that Jesus did as much listening and asking. They were amazed that he asked good questions. He listened well and responded appropriately. I’m starting to think his father’s business is about listening and responding the right way. When we start reading ahead and looking at the older Jesus, doesn’t that paradigm sound familiar? Jesus’ entire ministry is a daily exercise in listening and responding to people in ways that fit who they are and where they are in life.
The only thing I’ve left out of this story is the “must”. Jesus tells his mother he “must” be about his father’s business (or in his house). What do we do with the must? What do we do with our musts? While we aren’t able to answer the questions about “when Jesus knew he was Jesus”, there seems to be a sense of inevitability in this passage. Jesus is who he is, he will do what he does, and will eventually end up in confrontation with the temple itself. His parents (and family) will be heartbroken by his decision to confront the temple. In this sense, I believe the “must” draws the first point of line connecting Jesus, Mary, and the Temple with Jesus, Mary, and the Cross. The history Jesus and Mary’s lives creates begins with the “must” of Luke 2:49. In some ways, this is place, with that one word, that his identity becomes real. In other words, it’s like when Clark Kent takes off his glasses and puts on the cape for the first time. This is that kind of “must” moment.
We have a responsibility to be about our father’s business. The excitement and astonishment are ours. We can embrace boredom or be blown away by what we’re encountering. We can be speechless and witness the amazement played before us on God’s chess board and harpsichord. As important, we can listen to others and respond with context and care. This is truly our father’s business. That’s what Jesus was up to! Listening, paying attention, being involved, growing in faith, and being plugged into the life of the faith community around him. Let this action shape our musts. What are our musts? What are the musts we “might not” have to be doing? What musts can restore us to listening and asking? Go and be about your Father’s business.