Friday, December 29, 2017

Jesus the God-like Smarty Pants

Now every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. Luke 2:41-52

“Well, hoity-toity, Mr. Godlike smarty pants.”

The retort is from the 1992 epic The Muppets Christmas Carol when Rizzo the Rat reacts to Gonzo Charles Dickens’ explanation of the omniscience of authors. But it also works for Jesus and the elders.

For many of us, the story of the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple reminds us how we reacted to it when we were 12. We hated him.

For us mature readers, the scene can be quite disarming. Here’s a callow kid standing among the great scholars of Jerusalem, preparing for his Bar Mitzvah by out-quoting and out-exegeting the old graybeards. It’s enough to make any parent’s heart swell with pride. If Jesus had attended one of Port Chester’s elementary schools, they would have skipped him a grade or two ahead of his peers.

Which is exactly what we didn’t like about this kid when we were 12. We knew the type. There was always the kid who spoke better Spanish than the Spanish teacher, corrected the math teacher’s calculations, knew the date of Columbus’ second voyage, and reminded the history teacher when she forgot to assign homework. We hated that kid.

And look how the smug prodigy treated his mom, who was in a teary panic after searching for him for hours among the teeming Passover crowds. “Why have you treated us like this?” she demands, and the kid responds with dismissive condescension. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I’d be in my father’s house?”

Well, hoity-toity, Mr. Godlike smarty pans. If Jesus’ mother has been Cuban, mi esposa cubana once observed, the outline of her hand would still be visible on the cheek of Salman’s Head of Christ.

Perhaps so, but the episode described in Luke raises some disturbing questions.

First, the fact that Joseph and Mary searched for their child with “great anxiety” suggests children ended up missing in Roman occupied Palestine just as they do now, and their possible fate was too terrible to imagine. There is evidence that pedophilia was practiced openly in Greco-Roman culture and unattended children in large crowds would have been likely targets. Child slavery was a component of economic life in the era, and a child wandering the streets may have been a tempting acquisition for merchants seeking free labor.

Mary and Joseph would also have horrifying memories of the Slaughter of the Innocents, a disaster they knew was driven by the birth of their own son. King Herod sought to eliminate a threat to his throne by the Messiah reported born in Bethlehem and ordered the murder of every baby boy younger than two
A voice was heard in Ramah,Wailing and loud lamentation,Rachel weeping for her children, 
She refused to be consoled, 
Because they are no more. (Matthew 2:18)
The Feast Day commemorating the massacre of innocent children is observed the last week in December in many Christian churches, most often on December 28. It remains a terrible reminder that, even after God intervened in human history to redeem the world, human parents continue to suffer the unbearable and inexplicable loss of their children. And Mary knew this full well as she searched for her missing child with rising panic.

Second, we see that Mary, who earlier had exulted that “the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49), is also capable of profoundly human doubts. 

She is probably in her early twenties as she searches the streets of Jerusalem for her beloved boy, and she has seen so much in her brief life. The angel of God came to her in the earliest days of her pubescence, perhaps even before she experienced the first stirrings of sexual awakening, and told her she was pregnant. 

The pregnancy, the angel said, was of God. And then miracles descended upon miracles: her fiancĂ© Joseph, who had never touched her, accepted the story and married her. The neighbors, who must have done the same calculations we do when a young women becomes pregnant ahead of schedule, did not shun her or stone her. Angels, shepherds and, later, eastern mystics gathered around her as she gave birth to her son and she could hear the chorus in the spheres: 
Glory to God in the highest heavenAnd on earth peace among those he favors. (Luke 2:14)
God made it clear to Mary that she was surrounded by grace and marvels, but as she searches the crowded streets with no sign of her son, she doubts. It beggars reason that God would have brought her this far to snatch all the miracles away, but still she panics. In frightening times like these, the words of old Simeon echo in her head:
“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34-35)
Searching in vain for her son, Mary may have asked herself: is the opposition winning? Is this the time when my soul will be pierced like a sword? Despite her best efforts to hold on to the messages of the angels, Mary is tormented by doubts. And the doubts won’t go away until her darling boy is back in her arms.

Third, we see that Jesus, the “best little boy in the world,” is capable of thoughtlessness bordering on cruelty. 

Jesus knows very well that his parents are probably looking for him, but the adoration they heap upon him is becoming old yarmulke. Wandering into the temple, the boy discovers a new crowd of admirers: old guys who warm to his youthful charms and coo at his precociousness. Luke offers few details what Jesus said to attract this unbridled approbation, only that “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and answers” (Luke 2:47). Possibly the boy was intoxicated by the esteem of temple insiders whose education and intellect outclassed his working parents. 

Okay, he was a smart kid. But the incarnate deity at 12 was a few years short of a fully developed cerebral cortex. And he didn’t stop to think that his parents might be searching for him “in great anxiety.” 

When his mother finally discovered him in the temple, Jesus’ dismissed her pain with pre-pubescent carelessness: 

“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Luke seems to approve of this response, which to our ears would sound rude if it were uttered by anyone besides God’s Son. 

“But they did not understand what he said to them,” Luke explains, which was certainly true. The boy had been missing all day and now he was ignoring their anxiety. What parent would understand that? Happily, Luke reassures us this was only a temporary lapse, and soon “he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Clearly, it was hard to dislike this kid.

Fourth, the anxiety of Mary and Joseph when they couldn’t find the boy Jesus suggests they understood a profound theological truth:

God, who counts the very hairs of our head, chooses not to have a say when those hairs turn gray or when they will fall out.

God does not control the caprices of our nature or the quirks of human impulses. 

God does not control evil kings or mad gunmen or megalomaniacal dictators or hateful terrorists or bullies or greedy entrepreneurs or oppositional adolescents. God merely brings us together in the context of God’s love and watches to see if we will embrace it or turn our backs. 

God has placed us on this planet with free will to do as we please. We are free to follow God’s commandments or reject them. We are free to love God or reject God.

It seems strange at first that God would choose to give us this much freedom – that the Creator of the universe whose casual utterance brought the stars, the suns, and planets into being – would not use that power to compel our love for God.

But as human oligarchs and despots have discovered over long centuries, love cannot be compelled. Love must be voluntary or it is meaningless. If God had forced us to love God, we would have been as companionable as vacuous blow-up dolls with outstretched limbs and open mouths. 

But when humans choose of their own free will to love God, the connection to the God of love is completed with a power beyond understanding, and the love goes both ways. 

Fifth, God does not send us into the world with a script we must follow or a score with notes we are forced to sing.

God sends us into the world with a simple set of instructions: Love God, and love one another. 

If we choose to do that, it is a beautiful thing and our relationship with God and one another assumes an intimacy and a joy that cannot be surpassed. And the true meaning of our lives on this planet becomes clear to us.

If we choose not to do that, we are faced with a harsher reality. One unknown theologian put it this way: life sucks, and then you die.

At this time in the liturgical year, between Christmas and Epiphany, it’s a little frightening to remember that God didn’t give Jesus a script or a score to follow either. 

Jesus was born with the same free will that was bestowed on all God’s creatures.

That may have been one of the reasons Mary and Joseph were in a state of great anxiety as they searched for Jesus in the crowded streets. There was no guarantee that Jesus would choose of his own free will to grow in divine and human favor and accept the bitter mantle of messiahship. 

That wasn’t up to Mary or Joseph, and God wasn’t going to force the issue. It was entirely up to Jesus.

The abundant grace of God that is available to us all is due to the fact that Jesus chose to be faithful to God’s will. God set in motion a plan for the salvation of humanity, and Jesus chose to do God’s will. 

God has also set our own lives in motion, filled with possibilities and potentialities that may or may not be fulfilled.

The choices are always ours.


  1. A biblical episode that troubled me way back; seemed a departure from 'honor your father and mother', to which I considered myself directed. Most prefer to hold on to a heroic Jesus; here he does seems smarty pants. It isn't the only episode that finds him slighting family for heavenly concerns. I'd be tempted to interpret his response as based on his mother's account of his birth as divine, but 'they did not understand him'. We can say that his behavior was human error, and do our best to forgive it.