Preaching Luke 2:41-52
Luke's account of the young Jesus in the temple is disarmingly simple, natural, and engaging. One effect of the story is to give the reader a foregleam of the special nature, role, and destiny of Jesus. He disappears from the family group and from his companions on the journey as if he has been "caught up into the seventh heaven." When he is found, he is at the temple among the elders, astounding them with his insight. When reminded of filial duty to his parents he affirms that he must be about the business of his heavenly father.
The story also serves as one of a series of vignettes to establish the complete identification of Jesus with the faith and practice of Israel. He is a Hebrew of the Hebrews, standing fully in the old order, the son of observant parents and the dutiful recipient of the rituals and traditions of his faith community. What is important about this, though perhaps not at first transparent, is that Jesus is thereby qualified to subsume the spiritual heritage of Israel and go beyond it to bring new life, to be the bearer of the destiny of others, a representative hero of the spirit.
The interaction between Jesus and his parents was not one of contempt for their authority. Neither does the story reflect contempt for the rites, rituals, traditions, and laws of the faith. The thrust is not antinomian or rebellious. Rather it is a movement toward the spirit of the tradition by the one who came not to destroy but to fulfill the law.
In addition to its contribution to the narrative and argument of Luke's Gospel, this episode in the life of the redeemer is characteristic of the human developmental process. The child is nurtured by his parents. The teachings of parents, culture, and community authorities are integrated into the child's own conscience. But he must also learn how to be his own person, to assess situations for himself, and to discern the moral and spiritual significance within the situations that confront him. He must learn to go beyond rote and unthinking conformity to what he has been taught. This is to distinguish between the voice of the parent and the voice of God, between traditional and external authority and the discernments of his own heart.
At the heart of Luke's story of the boy Jesus, therefore, is this vital threshold crossing. It is demonstrated in Jesus' preoccupation with the temple visit, his precocious conversation with the teachers and elders, and his reply to his parents--respectful yet firm--that he must be about his father's business. In the legend of Parsifal, for instance, the young aspiring knight arrives, in his quest for the grail, at the castle of the wounded fisher king. The king has a terrible wound, and, in apparently great suffering, is borne into the hall by others. Parsifal's instinct is to inquire sympathetically about the wound. He, however, also has been schooled in his knightly training not to ask questions in such a way, and so he restrains himself. By conforming to rules, even though they have been internalized by his training, rather than responding with compassion at the bidding of his heart, Parsifal fails the one crucial test in his quest for the Holy Grail. He is doomed to a long and distracting wandering before he is given, at last, another chance to respond appropriately to the same challenge.
In celebrating the coming of Christ during the Sundays of Christmas, there is the pitfall that the emphasis might remain entirely upon the there and then of his appearing and upon his divine identity and mission. The story of the appearance of the Christ is a story about us. If we go no farther than celebrating the divine identity of Christ or his appearing as an event of the past, we will have heard only part of the message. It is the Christ born afresh in us, become incarnate in our lives, which is the point of the Christmas story.
The sermon, consequently, might deal with the necessity of the hearer making the same threshold crossing as the young Jesus, making the actual inward journey of faith. The journey is not the same thing as the map, anymore than the menu is the meal. There is no proxy faith. There is a difference between a pilgrim and a tourist. Tourists take trips. Pilgrims make journeys. Tourists are spectators. Pilgrims are participants. A tourist expects to return to the same place from which he began the trip and to be the same person. A pilgrim makes the inward as well as the outward journey.
Conformity to external authority is not faith by this definition. Faith is inward, voluntary and of the heart. This is the center of the case for religious freedom and for tolerance of differences within the family of the faithful. As the old bit of doggerel has it, "There is no expeditious road, To pack and label men for God, And save them by the barrel load." People don't come to faith on other people's schedule or at the pleasure of the evangelist. In values theory, a real value must be freely chosen from among options.
Beyond the necessary transition to autonomous adult decision making, and beyond the implications about coming to faith for one's self, there is also the issue of the competing claims of conflicting authorities. The teaching of Jesus is that a person can not serve two masters, but must eventually choose between one or the other. The claims of his parents Jesus gently but firmly subordinated to the claims of his heavenly Father.
James H. Slatton Richmond, Virginia