Have you ever had your mouth washed out with soap? I’m pretty sure parents nowadays would be horrified at the thought of doing such a thing, but years ago it was definitely done when a kid said something they shouldn’t—especially if they used “adult language,” which of course is a euphemism for language even adults probably ought to avoid whenever possible.
It may be hard to believe, but I even got my mouth washed out with soap a time or two—and if just plain Ivory or something wasn’t bad enough, mine was washed out with some really awful perfumed soap.
If such a thing was done in Jesus’ time, I’m pretty sure Mary would have been sorely tempted in today’s reading. She and Joseph knew there was something special about their eldest son, but after missing him and having to make a terrified dash back to Jerusalem to try and find him, I somehow doubt they were too interested in his specialness.
Some people say there’s no humor in the Bible, but I have to disagree. It doesn’t always hit you over the head—like it does with Jonah sitting under that castor bean plant pouting because Nineveh doesn’t get destroyed—but it’s there if you look for it.
Sometimes it comes when we actually try to visualize a scene. Look at today’s story that closes out the second chapter of Luke. Imagine it in your mind’s eye.
There is, of course, nothing at all that’s funny about realizing your child is missing. There is nothing at all funny about the frantic search for him in a busy city that is full to bursting during a holiday. But picture the scene when they finally get to the temple and there’s the 12-year-old Jesus, sitting amongst the scholars, joining their discussions, amazing him both with the questions he asks and the insights he has about the Scriptures they’re interpreting. Imagine the relief they must have felt…and then imagine it giving way to anger.
Apparently, in that time and place a twelve-year-old boy would have been reprimanded by his father, but not this time. The part of the temple where Jesus and the scholars were debating was off-limits to women. But I doubt very much that stopped Mary. She was no shrinking violet, and that was her son, whom she thought she had lost and who now sat there like nothing had ever happened.
I can imagine her grabbing him by the arm—or maybe the ear—and hauling him right out of there, chewing him out as they went. “How could you scare us like that? You could have been dead in a ditch somewhere for all we knew!”
And his answer, which I’m sure seemed perfectly reasonable to him, went over like a lead balloon with Mary. “Well, didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?” (As the Fresh Prince once said, “Parents just don’t understand.”)
Jesus might have been the Son of God and all, but he was her twelve-year-old son, and what she heard was backtalk. No doubt he got an earful all the way home from her.
Jesus didn’t set out to scare his parents, of course; but having wandered into the midst of a debate over the Scriptures, he just couldn’t help but sit down and join in…and I’m sure he just lost track of time, as you do when you’re doing something that you find fascinating and enjoyable.
Anyway, after this episode—which, we don’t know, may well have been an aberration in a normally quite obedient young man—Luke tells us that he went home and grew up, and behaved himself from that point on.
Now Luke wasn’t just relating a semi-humorous incident from Jesus’ childhood. There’s humor, but that’s not the main point of the story. Luke has a couple things to show us, both of which have been part of earlier stories, including the one we heard last week, which also took place in the temple.
First, he wants to make sure we know Jesus and his family were observant Jews, not heretics or otherwise less devout than they might have been. Jesus was Jewish; he followed the commandments given by Moses, and what he eventually did and taught were in line with that, not some totally new way of being that he invented out of whole cloth.
Second, Luke includes this story as another piece of evidence that Jesus’ unique relationship to God was apparent from the start. Angels spoke to Mary about him, and they sang the news of his birth to shepherds. Two elderly prophets recognized him as the Christ, when he was just a baby. And at twelve he sat with scholars, debating and questioning and listening in ways that most fully-grown men wouldn’t have been able to do.
But even so, I think it’s important to all the Gospel writers that Jesus was fully a human being. He grew up in a normal family, and like most kids do, he sometimes exasperated his parents. But even they knew he wasn’t just a normal kid. And what we learn from this story that we haven’t seen before, is that he was quite aware of this himself, even at a very young age.