Preaching Luke 2:41-52 Part 2
You might want to hang a clove of garlic around this passage to ward off vampires who would suck the life out of it, assuring us that all such stories of Jesus' boyhood are fictional inventions. With all due thanks and praise to the fruits of historical criticism, the Jesus Seminar does not set the canon. Therefore, ask not whether this episode "happened." Ask rather how to make it happen for your listeners, perhaps inviting them to imagine how this story might have made its way down to Luke.
Various traditions claim both Ephesian and Jerusalem connections with Mary (the mother of Jesus), and Paul ergo Luke (cf. Acts 18-20). While there is no Biblical evidence that any direct conversation ever took place between Mary and Luke, is it so impossible to imagine a conversation in which she shares some of those events from Jesus' childhood which she "treasured in her heart"? Rather than shy away from fiction, why not employ it this Sunday, and create a late night dialogue between an elderly, reminiscent Mary, and an inquisitive Luke, who would only much later commit her story to writing. How might such a conversation come about? Could she not have been among the "brothers" who welcomed Paul and Luke to Jerusalem in Acts 21:17? Might the physician not have been asked to care for her? How might she have gone about relating her story?
One element of Mary's story might center on the puzzlement she and Joseph experienced when they heard their son refer to his "Father's" house (v.49). This is the first occurrence in Luke's gospel of the familial reference to God as Jesus' "Father." What did they make of that? Had they told him previously of his divine birth, or was this something he discovered for himself?
A different approach puts Joseph in the narrative spotlight, though he is much more clearly out of the picture in the post-Easter setting, therefore I would not recommend constructing a dialogue between Joseph and Luke. Still, Joseph's silence in this story is all the more intriguing. How did Joseph experience Jesus' ingenuous reply, which altogether ignores the former's fatherly role? In the following poem, I imagine Joseph must have felt a tremendous mix of conflicting emotions upon finding Jesus alive and well. I offer it in a spirit of playfulness (without excuse for my doctrinal sins in the second stanza).
Graduations of expectations child to novice to rabbi to mystic the boy is the Christ is a child again Three days he went missing a trick he learned early this making everyone think he was dead Home is dissolved in fluid uncertainty proximity to his parents mingles flesh with spirit And who is the father but the one who is silent angry relieved all at once awash in fears and prayers hopes and horrors gushing down Jerusalem's gutters? In twenty-one years they will run with his blood another Passover, but for this one for now, it is only an echo of years, of months of disciples and tribes of fruits from the marvelous overlooked tree and its leaves for the healing of nations.
The wonderfully indefensible thing about this rare story of Jesus' childhood, whether it is semi-historical or purely conjectural, is that it reminds us he was young once and had to develop like everyone else. It forces us to consider him through stages of "increase" (v. 52) from the perspective of the adults who watched him grow. Yet it is also clear that, like "The Confirmed" children in Rilke's poem, he has "survived… childhood / and what comes now will be something changed."1 We have no stories of Jesus knowing all the answers at the age of two months, despite the uncanny consistency with which iconographers view him as an infant: a tiny body with a mature adult head.
Perhaps, then, the most interesting sermon on this text would wonder with the twelve-year-old mind of Jesus. If I may superimpose Christ upon the narrator of Phoebe Cary's poem, "Nearer Home," the first two and last two stanzas could well reflect his youthful awe at taking his (adult) place in "his Father's house."
If the three-part structure of the traditional sermon outline is a helpful framework for you, try all of the above in a three-part, first-person narrative, with one brief section each devoted to the perspectives of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
Timothy M. Slemmons
1. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Images (New York: North Point Press, 1991), p. 49. Translated by Snow.