Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Have you ever wondered what Jesus was like as a child? Did he laugh and play games like tag with other children, or was he serious and bookish, studying Torah all day? Did he help his mother bake bread in the kitchen, or did he sweat away in Joseph’s carpenter shop? Did he ever get mad when his brothers and sisters hurt him or called him names? And was he his mother’s favorite child?
Curiosity over the question of Jesus’ childhood took plays a role in the Gnostic “Gospel” of Thomas. This forgery (not really written by the apostle, as it appeared at least 200 years after Jesus’ death) pretends that when Jesus was a child, he was a petty child who performed such useless miracles as turning clay pigeons into real, flying birds. (For what it is worth, this miracle is also attributed to Jesus in the Koran, which indicates Muhammed’s influences). Other scenes show Jesus losing his temper after another boy bumped into him on the playground. In anger, Jesus dropped the kid dead—just like that! [Snap fingers.] The outcry by the parents of the other children in Nazareth was so great that Joseph had to hide Jesus to protect his life. But the so-called “Gospel” of Thomas is make-believe and not part of the Bible accepted by the Church. It’s not canon, and so we may disregard it, however imaginative it may be.
But in the Biblical Gospel of Luke, the Evangelist gives us a picture of Jesus as a young boy of twelve-years-old. He is confirmation age, not quite ready for the day of his Bar Mitzvah. Being faithful, pious Jews, the Holy Family journeys to Jerusalem for the annual celebration of the Passover, which commemorated how God’s saved Israel from slavery in Egypt. When the feast ends, Joseph and Mary pack up and join the large caravan headed back to Nazareth. Jesus isn’t with them, but they’re not worried, figuring that he’s hanging out with his cousins somewhere in the caravan.
But after a day’s journey, having not yet seen their son, Joseph and Mary get worried. They inquire among the relatives, but no one has seen him. (Aside: Remember the panic you felt when you lost your kid in the grocery store? Multiply that by 100, and you might begin to feel what they felt. Or think of the Christmas movie, Home Alone, and picture Mrs. McCallister’s panicked look on the airplane in the movie Home Alone, when she realizes they left her son behind in Chicago while they’re en route to Paris. “Kevin!”)
So when Jesus’ parents can’t find him, they go back to Jerusalem to retrace their steps. “He’s got to be somewhere!” (Aside: That’s what Lisa says whenever I lose my keys or wallet, “They have to be somewhere.” Truly, unless there was a break in the time-space continuum, and they disappeared into a worm hole, my keys are most certainly somewhere. But if I knew where that place was, they wouldn’t be lost now, would they?)
In the early first century A.D., Jerusalem was a large city overflowing with recent visitors. With a mixture of panic, guilt, and mostly fear, Joseph and Mary search high and low for Jesus. They check marketplaces, public pools (such as Bethesda), and even dark alleyways. Finally, after three sleepless nights, they visit the temple, and there they find him on the steps engaged in theological debate and conversation with rabbis twice and thrice his age. The boy Jesus astounds and amazes everyone by his understanding of the Scriptures. Truly, he fulfills the prophecy in the Psalms: “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation” (Ps. 119:99, ESV). Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, holds a Bible study with learned men.
But his parents are not impressed by their prodigy son. When Mary surveys the scene, she takes one deep breath before putting her hands on her hips and lambasting Jesus: “Son, how could you do this to us?! Your father and I have been looking for you everywhere, and we nearly died of fright!” (Aside: Notice how Mary is the one always doing the talking. So far as I know, not a single word of Joseph’s is recorded in Scripture. He was definitely the strong, silent type.)
The rabbis gathered around Jesus must have been dumbfounded. What were they thinking? Didn’t they have the commonsense to realize that a 12-year-old kid shouldn’t be alone in the big city? Of course not! They were theologians! They didn’t have any commonsense.
Regardless of what everyone else is thinking or feeling, Jesus keeps his cool. He sets down his Torah scroll, turns to his mother and replies simply, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49). His Father’s house? Wasn’t Joseph his father? No, he wasn’t. Jesus was the Son of God.
When Jesus called God his Father, he reminded his parents whose Child he truly was. Yes, he was born of Mary, but Joseph was only his foster father—not his “real dad,” as I hear kids say of their stepfathers. Even though the neighbors and Jesus’ contemporaries thought of him as the son of Joseph (John 1:45; 6:42), his true Father was God, the heavenly Father, Creator of all things. On some level, Joseph must’ve been cut to the heart. Even the truth hurts when it comes to family.
Yes, Jesus was a real boy, but he was so much more than Mary’s son. He was also the divine Son of God, “God of God, light of light, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made…” (Nicene Creed).
Joseph and Mary needed to be reminded that their parenthood was a kind of stewardship (as is ultimately true for all mothers and fathers). Mary and Joseph were charged with the care of God’s child. Strictly speaking, Jesus did not owe his parents any kind of obedience. More than their son, he was their God and Lord. They should have remembered everything told them by the angel Gabriel and the shepherds and Simeon and Anna. Here was Israel’s true King, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Instead of scolding Jesus, they should have bowed before him in awe and worship. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus had them.
Parents hate being caught in the wrong by their children. I can’t stand it when Benjamin says to me, “Daddy, why are you being mean?” or Michael points out, “Daddy, you said a bad word.” It’s infuriating and humiliating for your kids to call you on the carpet. Yet, as Christian parents, we must have the humility to apologize and confess our sins even to our children. We must be ready to swallow our pride, get down on their eye level, and say, “Yes, son, you’re right. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry, and I hope you will forgive me.”
We’re not told how Mary and Joseph responded to Jesus. I suspect that they learned their lesson—and he also learned his. While Jesus was invested with the full power and authority of God, according to his human nature, he needed to hide his glory and set us all an example of what it means to be a good and godly child. The Fourth Commandment requires us to honor our father and our mother (Ex. 20:12). In order to fulfill the Law and become the perfect sacrifice for us on the cross, Jesus had to obey his parents, no matter how misguided, foolish, or sinful they might be.
The same is true for us. God expects us to honor our parents. In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther suggests that the 4th Commandment shows how much God esteems parents, who reflect his authority to their children on earth. If we were to find ourselves without parents, the commandment itself should be enough to make us setup a stone or block of wood and call them “father” and “mother” just so that we could keep God’s command (LC I, 125)! As such, no matter how crude or ungodly your parents may be, and no matter how old or young you may be, we have a God-given responsibility to honor, serve, obey, love, and cherish our parents. Only if they tell us to do something evil do we resist their command. (For example, if they tell you to lie about your age to get the 12 and under discount at the restaurant or theme park!). In that case, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Martin Luther writes: “If a situation arises where we must choose whether to be disobedient to God or to our parents, or those in authority, we must answer with Christ: ‘I must be about the business of my Father in heaven.’” But in every other case, we obey God by obeying our parents.
So Jesus returned home to Nazareth with his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, “and was submissive to them” (2:51). Jesus set aside his own divine power and yoked himself under his parents’ authority. Like a good son, he was obedient to them.
The Gospel reading ends by telling us Mary “treasured up all these things in her heart” (2:51b). “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (2:52). Jesus grew in favor with God and man. In other words, people liked him. Clearly, the Gospel of Thomas is wrong to suggest that the neighbors in Nazareth tried to run Jesus out of town. He was a good boy: wise, intelligent, strong, and obedient. He was the model child. (Aside: Can you imagine being his younger brothers and sisters, knowing you could never blame Jesus for breaking the vase or sneaking the last cookie from the cookie jar?)
Do you want to know what Jesus did in his childhood? Whatever his parents asked. Whatever his parents required, he did, whether it be babysitting his younger siblings, changing a diaper, cleaning his room, or picking up sticks in the yard. He didn’t turn clay pigeons into live birds (his first miracle was not until he changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana). Luther writes, “When his mother said, Son, get me a bucket of water, fetch some beer, some wood, some straw, or whatever, he ran and got whatever she asked.”
Why did Jesus do this? Yes, to set an example for us to follow. But there’s so much more to it than that. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that he came not “to abolish the Law or the Prophets… but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Jesus came to keep God’s Law perfectly, so that he could be our Savior. He even kept the ceremonial Law by being circumcised on the eighth day of his life (Luke 2:21), the event in Jesus’ life marked by the Church on New Year’s Day. If you keep the whole Law but then stumble at one single point, no matter how trivial it may seem, then you are guilty of breaking all of it (Jas. 2:10). With God, obedience is all or nothing. There’s no in-between, no shades of gray when it comes to obedience.
But we sin every day. We break God’s commandments every day, when we lie, cheat, steal, have lustful thoughts, take God’s name in vain, or disobey and dishonor our parents. The punishment we rightly deserve for our disobedience is to be damned to burn in hell for eternity. But God doesn’t give us what we deserve. “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). Instead, he gives Jesus what we deserve. “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). God punished Jesus by killing him on the cross for our sins. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
Jesus saved you from your sins by his obedience and his bloody sacrifice. If Jesus did not submit to his earthly parents, we could not be saved. If Jesus did not submit to his heavenly Father’s will to die and rise again, we would not be saved. But Jesus “was submissive to them” (2:51). He was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Jesus obeyed his earthly parents—and heavenly Father—joyfully, willingly, and completely, in order that he could save us from our sins. And that makes all the difference. Jesus honored his father and mother for you—thanks be to God! In the name of Jesus. Amen.