mosaic of ox representing St. Luke

Studying Luke 2 39-52

We are studying Luke 2:39-52 for Sunday, July 12. This is a text often depicted in western art in the scene known as “Christ among the doctors.” This week, it continues our focus on wisdom themes in the gospels. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: As a text from Luke’s gospel, all the things we know about Luke apply. [It’s the first part of the integrated composition Luke-Acts; written in elevated Greek, for an educated, sophisticated, Gentile audience; a characteristic emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s activity; special emphasis on concern for the poor and for reversals of social standing; Luke’s Jesus, who loves everybody, even Gentiles, would never tell the Syro-Phoenician woman she’s a dog, which is probably why that story isn’t in Luke’s gospel, but Luke makes up for that by telling lots of stories that aren’t in the other gospels.]

The story is set, mainly, in “the Temple,” which is the Second Temple, as rebuilt in the 6th century after the exile, and then expanded by the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great. Jesus’s parents are shown going up to Jerusalem as a routine for Passover, which was one of the three “pilgrimage festivals” – the other two being Shavuot/Pentecost and Sukkot/Tabernacles. We might guess that they go up for those, too.

Since they travel from Nazareth, which is a journey south, we would probably think of it as “down” to Jerusalem, but in the Bible Jerusalem is always “up,” presumably because it is in the hills and requires some uphill travel. The text tells us they were with a traveling party, a “caravan,” probably a common practice because of “safety in numbers.”

The text specifies Jesus’s age as twelve years old. If we have had any personal experience with twelve-year-olds (sixth graders, these days) this will probably make the whole story make psychological and child developmental sense to us. Jesus acts, in a way, like a typical twelve-year-old boy. He isn’t a typical twelve-year-old, of course – although, in fact, his precocious wisdom and intelligence is also a typical characteristic of ancient heroes.

What the specification of Jesus’s age probably doesn’t signify is anything to do with a status as bar mitzvah, which was first used as a term in the middle ages. The idea of religious obligation from a particular age is in the Mishnah, which dates from the second century CE, but how much Jewish life in Jesus’s day, 100 years earlier, conformed to what’s in the Mishnah is open to discussion. Specifying Jesus’s age as twelve might have a more literary motive, tied to the number’s “perfect number” and “completion” significance.

This story is the only one about Jesus’s childhood in the canonical gospels. In Luke, it follows the pre-birth narrative about John the Baptist, the stories about Jesus’s mother Mary (annunciation, visitation), and Jesus’s own nativity, which is really completed with the story of Jesus’s presentation in the Temple. After this text, Luke will pick up in chapter three with John’s baptismal ministry and Jesus’s baptism, and then follow the synoptic plot through to Christ’s passion, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Luke 2:41-52 is in the lectionary as the gospel reading for the first Sunday after Christmas in year C. It is paired with 1 Samuel 2:26, which seems to be Luke’s source for his concluding sentence in v52, “growing in human and divine favor.”

CLOSER READING: Verses 39-40, a transition between the narrative of the presentation and our text, establish a pattern – requirements completed, a return to Nazareth, Jesus growing in wisdom and favor – that will be interrupted in the next narrative, our text, by Jesus’s agonizing disappearance and reappearance after three days.

In other words, this story foreshadows the climax of the gospel in Jesus’s death and resurrection. The motif of searching, and in particular of searching for Jesus in the wrong place(s), which in our text is articulated by Jesus (v49), will be repeated by the angel at the empty tomb: “Why are you searching for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5)

The verb Luke uses for searching in this story, anazēteō is an intensive form of the more common word for search, zēteō. Only Luke uses it in the Bible; two of the three occasions are in this text, the other is in Acts. Searching or seeking, on the other hand, comes up frequently: it’s what women do with lost coins (Luke 15:8), what Jesus says people should do with the kingdom of God (Luke 12:31), and what Zacchaeus will do to see “who Jesus is” (Luke 19:3), along with what the women will do on Easter morning.

We can probably imagine the human side of this story unfolding as Luke tells it in verses 43-46: some series of messages given and not received, assumptions made, the parental exchange of “I thought he was with you”’s, the progressive and increasingly anxious search of first relatives and then more distant acquaintances until it’s clear Jesus isn’t with the caravan which can only mean … surely … he MUST still be in Jerusalem …

[Because as a parent, I think to myself, I would be HOPING that was what had happened.]

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, Jesus may have been taking advantage of a custom that members of the Sanhedrin, which didn’t meet on sabbaths or feast days, would assemble for teaching in a relatively publicly accessible area of the Temple complex. There is reportedly a Talmudic source that is the basis for this idea. Mostly Jesus is listening and asking questions (v45), and this activity indicated his understanding – from this I think we get to infer that his questions were perspicacious and profound – though he evidently also has answers that amaze people (v46).

The three days in v46 allows Jesus’s parents’ one day of travel away from Jerusalem, a second day of travel back to Jerusalem, and then finding Jesus on the third day. [Foreshadowing, remember.]

The “great anxiety” Mary reports in v48 is the same agony that the rich man suffers in Hades (Luke 16:24), which paints a vivid picture of how it feels to lose Jesus.

Jesus’s reply in v49 doesn’t actually include the word “house,” but rather a vague, general term, a kind of gestural term; in our day, it might be more like “Didn’t you know I’d have to be in the – you know – my Father’s – you know?”

But no, they didn’t know, and Jesus’s parents’ lack of understanding in v50 is a pointed contrast to Jesus’s own understanding in v47.

[In Jesus’s case, we’re probably willing to think the teenager’s sense of knowing more than his parents is accurate, rather than something he’ll grow out of.]

So Jesus goes back down to Nazareth with his parents and is obedient (or, “subject”) to them (the way Christians are told to be subject to one another in Ephesians 5:21). And he grows up, getting wiser and taller year by year.

This is how it usually works with regular people, though we often don’t think of Jesus that way.

mosaic image of St Luke as winged ox

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