Of the Passover festival in Jerusalem, St. Luke concisely reports, “When the festival was ended, Jesus stayed behind but his parents did not know it” (2:43). Of course they didn’t know it. They are parents. What makes anyone think they knew anything at all?
The twelve-year-old Jesus decided to hang around the Temple and chat it up with the teachers and rabbis. In which case you wonder why one of those guys did not ask, “Shouldn’t you be getting back to your folks about now?” To which every sensible twelve-year-old boy would reply, “Naw, they won’t mind.”
I figure, if the twelve-year-old knew where he was and was happy enough being there, bothering his parents with the information wouldn’t be of any help.
Mary and Joseph head back to Nazareth with the other pilgrims. Joseph walks with the men, thinking Jesus is with Mary. Mary walks with the women, thinking Jesus is with Joseph. They travel the entire day like this and stop for the night.
The conversation at this point, according to some scribal interpolations awaiting discovery, goes like: “What do you mean, you haven’t seen him? I left him with you.” “Whoa, buddy, what do you mean you left him with me?” So they turn back to Jerusalem—another day of travel—to undertake what becomes a three-day search. The boy, in short, is five days missing.
Where would you begin a search for a twelve-year-old boy? I might start at the mall. Maybe they did too, prowling the Jerusalem bazaars. Now, after looking everywhere else they could think of, they give the Temple a try.
Yes. There he is in the Temple, talking to the teachers and religious leaders, “listening to them and putting questions,” reports St. Luke, and “all who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and the answers he gave.” This, I suspect, is St. Luke’s version of Bible Code for something like, “Pity that kid’s rabbi.”
Mary, upon whom generations of Christians have lavished all manner of exalted titles except Typical Mother, becomes Typical Mother. “Why,” she says confronting her son, “did you do this to us?”
Parents tend to take things altogether too personally where their children are involved. When a kid does something, parents always feel it was done deliberately to them, because they are the parents. There’s hardly any other reason. Kids, by parental thinking, do things to parents to demoralize them, worry them, test them, and cost them extra money, embarrassment, peace of mind, sleep at night, laundry, gas in the car, or tread off the tires. Naturally, every parent has the right to ask, “Why did you do this to me?”
The twelve-year-old Jesus responds as Typical Pre-Teen. “Mom, Dad. Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know where I’d be?” To twelve-year-old minds, all parents possess GPS location devices for all lost items, including themselves. No worry, no problem. Cool. But then the boy adds a coy hook, a guilt-inducing condescending jab to the spiritual solar plexus. “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?” Well, no, they didn’t know that. That’s why they spent five days looking for him.
That remark hits me like my second son when he was twelve, telling me once in all seriousness, “You know, I only tell you these things so you’ll be a better parent to the other children.” Uh huh. While I was appreciative I did say, “Talk to me like that again and I’ll knock the wheels off your skateboard.”
St. Luke reports a milder outcome. He reports simply that Mary and Joseph “didn’t understand what he was saying.” I do not doubt it. The boy is missing five days and when they find him, he nonchalantly dismisses their worry and casually questions their intelligence. And that’s the end of the story, sort of.
I have never been able to read this story, except as a parent. I am glad, even heartened, to find out that Jesus was a normal kid, perfectly normal, pretty much more or less like my kids growing up. “He was made like his brothers in every respect” is the point made by the Letter to the Hebrews.
This story tells me that even the best of parents can end up worrying about their children, even if the child happens to be the best of children. So, just as God used that little Holy Family in Nazareth to sanctify the whole world, let us hope that our holy families might sanctify our small corner of the world. Because, God knows, this world needs it.
Oh, this is the story’s real ending—St. Luke’s small post-script after the episode in the Temple. “[Jesus] went down to Nazareth with them . . . and grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
That is a fair wish for all our children. May they each grow in stature, find favor with God and neighbor, and maybe even, please, pick up a little wisdom along the way.
Russell E. Saltzman, who writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous First Things contributions are here.