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Commentary: Luke 2:41-52

Context
This is the only canonical story of Jesus during the period between his infancy and the beginning of his ministry at age 30. The story portrays the youthful Jesus thoroughly within the first century Jewish rabbinic historical context. His family, like many other devout Palestinian Jewish families, would make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year for the Passover festival. They would go to the temple, which was in the process of a massive remodeling/rebuilding that Herod the Great had begun back in 19 B.C. and which would not be completed until 62 A.D. While the priests would be making the daily sacrifices inside the temple, rabbis would be teaching and learning in small groups in the outer court. Young Jesus had undoubtedly seen this going on every year when he went to the temple. In this his twelfth year, he joined in this teaching and learning process.
Elements of Structure
The story is structured as a brief and straightforward Lucan narrative in some ways similar to the pronouncement stories that occur later in the gospel, the pronouncement being v. 49. One could read the story as proleptic of the crucifixion and resurrection. Here Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, just as he does the last week of his life. Here he goes to the outer court of the temple and amazes those who see him (v.47), just as he does during the last week of his life. Here he is lost to his mother, just as he was at the crucifixion. Here she finds him alive after three days, just as she does at the resurrection.
In the Lucan infancy and childhood narratives there are several parallels between Jesus and Samuel in the Old Testament. Mary's Magnificat (1:4655) which she utters in thanksgiving for the miraculous conception of her son, is remarkably similar in theology and in tone to the prayer of Hannah, Samuel's mother, which she utters in thanksgiving for the miraculous conception of her son (1 Samuel 2:110). Similarly, Luke 2:52 is almost an exact parallel to 1 Samuel 2:26.
Meaning and Exegesis
In vv. 4142 the annual pilgrimage of Jesus' family to Jerusalem for Passover demonstrates the family's piety. That Jesus is twelve years old at the time of this particularly Jewish act on his part may be significant.
Twelve is a number frequently associated with Judaism, because of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus will choose twelve disciples. Later in Luke 8:4052 he will heal a twelve year old girl on the point of death and a woman who has had a flow of blood for twelve years.
Vv. 4344 may look like a case of child neglect on the part of Mary and Joseph. If we assume, however, that Jesus' four brothers and his sisters (cf. Mark 6:3) had been born by this time and that they were all traveling in a large group that included relatives and friends (v. 44), the situation seems plausible. Jesus' younger brothers and sisters may have been infants or toddlers at this point and would have required all their parents' attention. They trusted Jesus, the oldest, to be where he was supposed to be. Luke focuses on what Jesus was doing at the time. He says little about what must have been the anguish of Mary and Joseph as they returned to Jerusalem and searched the city for him.
When Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple he is acting like a precocious boy rabbi (v. 46), listening to and questioning the rabbis and amazing them with his comprehension (v. 47). What the rabbis always taught and discussed was the interpretation of the Torah. Jesus was learning his Torah lessons well, lessons that would serve him later in his debates with the Pharisees during his ministry.
In v. 48 Mary rebukes Jesus for the anguish he has caused his family. Jesus reply, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (v. 49) evokes several meanings. At a base meaning, Jesus is simply saying that they should have figured out that the temple was the most logical place for a particularly religious kid like him to have been. They should have looked in the temple first, then they would have saved themselves three days of searching. Second, Jesus seems to be saying that his true father is God, not Joseph. Third, he is saying that his place in life is the house of God, be that the earthly temple in Jerusalem or at a more abstract level the heavenly house of God, God's kingdom which Jesus is beginning to bring on earth. Mary and Joseph understand none of this talk (v. 50). They have the more practical and worldly concern of having found their lost child.
In v. 51 they return to Nazareth. Luke dutifully notes that Jesus is subsequently obedient to his parents. When Luke says that Mary "treasured all these things in her heart" (v. 51), we might conclude that Mary remembered these events and told them later on to people who became Luke's sources. The Lucan infancy and childhood narratives consistently show the perspective of Mary, in contrast to Matthew's infancy narratives, which are entirely through the perspective of Joseph.
V. 52 is a concluding summary statement paralleling 1 Samuel 2:26. It merely indicates that Jesus grew up, matured, and learned over the eighteen intervening years between this event and the beginning of his ministry.
J. Christian Wilson