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Commentary: Luke 2:41-52

This is the tenth pericope in Luke's narrative effort to present the familial and spiritual background of Jesus of Nazareth. It It illumininates what had heretofore remained obscure in accounts beginning with his baptism. In this vignette of the boy Jesus, Luke intends to bind infancy with adulthood by way of an illustrative story, making plain the continuity of divine identity and purpose in Jesus. In so doing, Luke tenderly gives to Mary the mother's prerogative of inner knowing, prepared for by the earlier angelic visitation. Whether the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is to be interpreted as taking place on the occasion of Jesus' Bar Mitzvah is disputed. In any case, the focus shifts from the child's introduction to adult matters to the adults' introduction to the child that matters. In all Luke employs a common topos, as a reading of the Samuel lection readily shows.
In style and vocabulary the pericope is from the hand of Luke, although it is rich in verisimilitude, and there is nothing in it improbable or fanciful, as in the later apocryphal gospels. In content and form (the precocious child who reveals future greatness), it is a biographical type paralleled by stories surrounding the childhood of Cyrus, Alexander, Apollonius, and other heros of antiquity.1 Yet, for all its legend-like qualities, it places its christological assertion (v. 49) against a backdrop of child-parent incomprehension, in sharp contrast to the natural inference one would draw from the preceding narratives. It cannot be ascertained whether this lack of understanding is historical reminiscence or the historicization of the theological claim that the Father/Son relation in Jesus was unique (cf. 4:22; 10:22; 24:37). It may be both. What we do know is that its earliest recession is here, in Luke's Gospel.
The body of the pericope (vv. 42-50) is given a temporal/geographical introduction and a double (or triple?) closure (vv. 51-52). Verse 51b is partial fulfillment of the prophecy in 2:35a. Verse 52 closes the entire section with the repetition of a favored theme (cf. 1:80; 2:40). The whole pericope is essentially perfect in its telling, with the denouement in the next to last verse before closure. (Would that sermons were written so well!)
Verse by Verse
Vv. 41-42 The custom is described in Deuteronomy 16:1-8. Whether Luke intends this to be understood as Jesus' Bar Mitzvah, as some suggest, which customarily fell when a youth was thirteen years and one month, or seeks to avoid this inference by reference to his age as twelve, is beyond knowing. The age given was conventionally assigned to adolescence in antiquity. The story is in any case not interested in binding Jesus to Judaism as in revealing his own peculiar relationship to God.
Vv. 43-46 The temporal designations are again imprecise and are not essential to the story. What the boy Jesus does is unexpected; what the parents do is "according to custom." The precocity of Jesus attracts several of the rabbis, here alone in Luke called teachers, and his understanding amazes them. This is not, however, the point of the story.
V. 48 The exchange here is vivid and dramatic, with the mother's question rejoined with another. The parents' anxiety is expressed, and the Son's adolescent tone comes through as well, whether Luke intends to convey it or not. Still, this too is not the point, although it alludes to it: Jesus' "home" is not his father's house, not Joseph's and Mary's. The lack of understanding between Jesus and Mary, present elsewhere in the gospel accounts, must have been a puzzlement both to the disciples and to later Christians. It is retrojected here into Jesus' youth: "Did you not know . . .?" Even so, there is nothing here out of the ordinary.
V. 49 In Greek, Jesus' response is ambiguous. The term "house" does not appear in the phrase, "in the (things) of my Father." Compare King James: "about my Father's business"; or Jerusalem Bible: "Busy in my Father's affairs." The point is christological: The Son is involved where the Father is and in what the Father is doing.
V. 50 Incomprehension is the natural response, even to those who know Jesus intimately, viz., his parents.
Vv. 51-52 With return to the starting point (Nazareth), the pericope is given closure. The whole event is then wrapped up and placed in Mary's heart. After all, it is not necessary for mothers, to be mothers, to comprehend their sons entirely.
That the term "stature" is used here to translate a Greek word meaning "age" or "years" is as happy a solution as we are likely to find. The whole verse is formulaic, as 1:80 and 2:40 show. Cf. 1 Samuel 2:26, Proverbs 3:4. Perhaps what is meant is succinctly captured in the epistle reading for the day, Colossians 3:12-17.
Richard N. Soulen
1. See C. F. Evans, Saint Luke (London: SCM Press, 1990), p.222.