Jesus: The Missing Years
The gospels aren’t very helpful when it comes to learning about who and what influenced Jesus growing up. We get a picture of a mother who sings out a song of resistance and justice just after she becomes pregnant, but that story is only found in Luke’s gospel.
The Scripture choices of the Revised Common Lectionary don’t help either. If your parish is observing the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, the RCL gives you THREE options for the gospel this year. When I first started using the RCL with a group, one of the attendees caustically remarked that the indecisiveness of the RCL kind of defeats the whole point of a lectionary. And I think she had a good point.
But one story that gets short shrift is one of the choices for this coming Sunday—the story of Jesus getting separated from his parents at age 12 because he lingers in the Temple in Jerusalem as they head back home. You might go for years without hearing this gospel—too many preachers are tempted to use the reading from Matthew, the one that anticipates the Epiphany visitation of the Magi.
It is only natural to wonder how Jesus grew up. Oh, there’s the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of St. Thomas, which presents stories about Jesus from ages 5-12. There’s an Arthurian legend that Jesus visited Great Britain as a 12-year-old with Joseph of Arimathea, mentioned by the poet William Blake in the poem, “And did those feet in ancient time,” also mentioned by Van Morrison in his song “Summertime in England.” One tradition has Jesus visiting India. The late songwriting legend John Prine wrote a song in 1991 called “Jesus: The Missing Years.” Folk singing sister the Roches covered a song imagining Jesus married and working as a welder in the song “Jesus Shaves.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints holds that Jesus visited America after his resurrection. Some of these stories are quite fanciful—but they endure because they feed a hunger for us to understand Jesus as a developing human being.
Yet, only this story of Jesus in Jerusalem appears in one of the four canonical gospels—one some people have no idea exists at all. I think it is important to sit with the story for a while. It presents a chance to see Jesus on the cusp of responsibility. Suddenly, we see Jesus as a 12-year-old—an age when children throughout most of history were on the verge of being considered adult in a world that had no concept of adolescence until the 20th century. This Sunday we get a chance to not only learn about “Jesus: The Missing Years.” We also get a story of “Jesus: The Missing.”
We also learn that Jesus was taken to Jerusalem for the Passover every year as a child, and that Joseph and Mary did not realize Jesus was not with them on the return road home until they had traveled a day’s journey. We learn that after returning to Jerusalem, they spent three days to find him. We also hear Jesus’s first words in Luke’s gospel—and they are in the form of answering a question with a question, as Jesus is going to do repeatedly in all the accounts of his earthly ministry of teaching.
When Joseph and Mary DO find him, sitting among the scholars and learning by questioning, Mary rebukes him for having driven his parents to worry and panic. Jesus answers in a nonplused way that they should have KNOWN he would be in God’s temple doing God’s business. Luke does not record how this answer went down with Mary—whether she subsided, or whether she further upbraided him for cheek. But it does say he returned home with them and was obedient—and that she “treasured these things in her heart”—exactly the reaction she had to the story of the shepherds when they visited the newborn child in Bethlehem. I can’t say that when I have lost a kid of mine for even fifteen minutes, I have “treasured” their explanations, to be honest.
At a deeper level, this story, much like the story of Jesus weeping over Lazarus after his death, places Jesus’s human and divine natures as close together as they can possibly be. If you’ve ever spent time around 12-year-olds—I spent 15 years teaching 7th grade—it’s completely believable that a 12-year-old can get swept up into an activity and forget about any other obligations he or she may have. Especially the precocious ones.
I also think we see a relatable, human side of Mary, who too often is depicted as either a bloodless doll or who too often becomes nameless, selfless, only viewed through the prism of whose mother she is. She is relieved, and she is frustrated—and rightly so. But in the end, relief wins out, and Jesus apparently determines to be more mindful from thenceforth.
But here is where we too can meet Mary and Joseph in our own lives. No matter how much devotion we may have as disciples, many of us have also had times when Jesus has seemed distant or lost to us—even Mother Teresa and St. John of the Cross spoke of searching for God without success, and they were in the “God business.” I am comforted by the fact that Jesus’s parents found him in the last place they expected—and yet, on retrospect, that place seems so obvious. When we feel distant from the comfort of Christ, we, like Mary and Joseph, can go to where he is out and about doing the work of God his Father. Teaching. Meeting people where they are. Healing. Welcoming. Loving. As an adult, Jesus himself reminded his followers in Matthew 25 that whenever we care for the prisoner, the sick, the hungry, we care for Jesus himself. That is when we BECOME like Jesus himself, which is of course the goal of all disciples who sit at the feet of their teachers. And that itself is the call that Jesus is ever making to us.
As the hymnist Cecil F. Alexander imagined in his hymn “Once in Royal David’s City:”
Jesus is our childhood’s pattern,
Day by day like us he grew.
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
Thus he feels for all our sadness,
And he shares in all our gladness.
Many of us when growing-up gave our parents a fright, and many of us have struggled as adults establishing our own identity independent of our families. This story encourages us to claim our own mission as God’s children and disciples of Jesus, to actually take up the call to do God’s work in the world around us. At the same time, we are all looking for Jesus, just like Mary and Joseph. Look for the helpers, the healers, the teachers, the reconcilers—and there you will find Jesus. And then like Mary, you may spend a lifetime wondering what it all means… which may be the surest path to wisdom, grace, and true discipleship.
Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.