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Sermon Ideas For Luke 2:41-52 Part 1

This scenario from Jesus' childhood, the only one attempted in the Synoptic tradition, is a stereotyped piece. Its focus is the concluding sentence telling us how Jesus, a person of lowly birth and warranting no preeminence in the eyes of the culture, is attested to by both God and human beings. Notice how a similar stereotypical conclusion is found in the account of Samuel's childhood (reading from l Sam 2). In antiquity, the description and assessment of the birth and childhood of notable personages inevitably derived from the adult status and roles held by that person. The idea that personality can change was almost completely alien to ancient biography. Hence notable adult traits were retrojected to childhood with certainty. What is the significant feature presented in this scenario?
Here are the typical features of the scenario. In the pre-industrial peasant societies of the Mediterranean, the early years of a male were spent almost exclusively in the women's world. The private world, the world of women, was the world of the family. Loyalty, obedience, hard work and sensitivity to family honor are its principal values. The bond developed between mother and son remained the strongest emotional tie throughout life. The good father acted formally and distantly with his children. Since the male world was the public world, it was the arena in which males defended family honor. Eloquence, cleverness, aggressiveness and courage were fundamental male values. A son's transition to this male, public world was often painful, difficult and lengthy. Mediterraneans lacked an institutionalized rite of passage from boyhood to a public conferral of masculinity. (Note: It was only later Jewish practice articulated in the academies of the Talmudic period that held that one's being a Jew depended on being born of a Jewish mother, or that males follow the practice of the bar-mitzvah; neither were part of first century, patriarchal Israelite Yahwism.)
Jesus is shown here successfully making the transition to the male world. He properly talks down to his mother (Lk 2:49; also in Jn 2:1-4), who addresses him as though still belonging to the world of women. Later on he will distance himself from her and her Mediterranean claims on him with: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it." (Lk 11:28) His ability to function effectively in the public world of the male is duly underscored. (Lk 2:46-47)
But what is there in the passage giving evidence of Jesus' increase in wisdom and stature? Why should this quality be approved by God and human beings? For Mediterranean people, the one great goal in life is the maintenance and strengthening of the kinship group and its honor. Those personality traits which tend to strengthen group cohesion are positive, encouraged and rewarded in childhood, approved and upheld as ideals in adulthood. Those personality traits which tend to be detrimental to group cohesion are considered faults; their manifestations are discouraged and punished in childhood, and met with strong disapproval and censure through the individual's life. Actions that strengthen in group cohesion are honorable, otherwise they are not.
The underlying Mediterranean value is kinship or family loyalty. Words such as Heb. hesed, Arab. `asabiyya, Grk. agape all refer to the social value of group attachment. They connote familism, family spirit, kinship spirit, feeling of being tied together to persons by birth. Such family commitment implies boundless and unconditional loyalty to fellow family members in a cultural setting where parental claims on children are strong enough to make a husband give up his wife. This is ineradicable familial particularism. It assumes the (extended) family unit by and of itself, a self-sufficient and absolute unity, with every other family as its legitimate victim and object of raiding and plunder.
Whatever the exact nuance of this statement of Jesus' being about his father's business or father's house. This is the first indication of a break with biological family and emergence of a new fictive kin group for Jesus. An insistence on loosening family bonds for the sake of doing God's will is underscored in Luke's story of Jesus. Jesus' mother and brothers are those "who hear the word of God and do it." (Lk 8:21) He foresees how "they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." (Lk 12:53) To those who would follow him, he states: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." (Lk 14:26) He strongly dissuades a would be disciple from burying his father, a fundamental obligation of patriarchal piety in Israel. (Lk 9:60) In Matthew, too, we find Jesus attempting to loosen family bonds because they proved contrary to the spirit of renewed Israel (see Mt 10 :34-36; cf. also Mk 10:29-30 and parallels. It is noteworthy that later in history, Muhammad, too, condemned family attachment `asabiyya, as contrary to spirit of Islam).
This excursion into the ancient Mediterranean world suggests that it would be wrong to take biblical Mediterranean family and child-rearing patterns and apply them to U.S. culture. Christianity's traditional merit has been the attempt to fit into a range of cultures. While such attempts have not always been successful, they do point to the meaning of Jesus as Incarnate Word. What is needed today is an incarnation of God's Word in U.S. culture, not a reworking of U.S. culture to fit Mediterranean molds. The question is not what would the Mediterranean Jesus of the house of Israel do if he lived among us today. Surely, he would obey God in a meaningful Mediterranean way, following the range of values available in the house of Israel. The problem for Americans is rather: What does it mean to obey God in a meaningful U.S. way, following the range of values available in the Christian tradition.
Thus to apply the gospel scenario of distancing from one's family to nuclear U.S. families bent on individualism is simply the application of an inadequate, certainly dysfunctional scenario. It would be like insisting good Christians ride donkeys instead of drive cars because first-century gospel personages did. On the other hand, those U.S. sub-cultures that overemphasize the primacy of the family over individuals (e.g. , strong groupism values of certain Chicano and African American families) will find in the story the ultimate unthinkable--that allegiance to God supercedes allegiance to family in general and to parents in particular.
Bruce J. Malina