Christmas 2 • Luke 2:40–52 • January 2, 2011
by William W. Schumacher
So soon after the sometimes sentimental scenes of the infant Jesus we cherish at Christmas, this unique account of Jesus as a twelve-year-old boy accelerates us toward the mature ministry of the Savior. The sense of leaving infancy behind and jumping ahead toward Jesus’s mission is integral to the text (rather than an artifact of the lectionary); the so-called “infancy narrative” of Luke’s gospel (1:5–2:52) does not paint us a Hallmark portrait of Jesus but rather prepares us to witness and believe his life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection for our salvation.
Verse 40 actually concludes the preceding section of the infancy narrative, but the lectionary reading includes it to help us connect this story of Jesus as a growing child with the preceding passage in which he was first brought to the temple in Jerusalem. Both that earlier passage and this present one conclude with Jesus returning to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and growing physically and spiritually (vv 51–52, compare vv 39–40).
While Arthur Just (in his Concordia Commentary on Luke) and Luke Timothy Johnson (and others) find eschatological significance in the phrasing “after three days” in verse 46 and see here an allusion to Jesus’s resurrection, the wording in Greek seems to be a more ordinary designation of time and does not necessarily carry that fuller theological weight.
What does stand out theologically is the answer Jesus gives when his mother chides him for the worry he has caused his human parents. They should have known, he says, “that I must be in my Father’s house” (49). A few points can be noted briefly. First, as Joseph Fitzmyer points out, this is the first time Luke uses the impersonal dei (“it is necessary”) in his gospel. For Luke this usage has a special connotation which connects this necessity to God the Father’s plan of salvation, which is the impulse behind everything Jesus says and does. We may also note that the Greek places the personal pronoun me in final (emphatic) position, which accents that this saving plan of the Father centers uniquely and emphatically in Jesus.
The phrase usually translated “in my Father’s house” (en tois tou patros mou) is more literally “among those [things/people] of my Father,” and is sometimes rendered something like “about my Father’s business.” While either translation is possible, the context stresses the location (i.e., the temple) where Mary and Joseph found Jesus, so it is best to translate it as the ESV does.
These first recorded words of Jesus are an unmistakable claim to being the Son of God, a claim which echoes and confirms 1:32 and 35. Mary and Joseph do not understand (v. 50) what Jesus has told them in spite of those earlier predictions and promises, but Luke expects us as readers of his gospel to understand by faith what they were unable to fathom at the time. For, as the closing verses show, Jesus does leave the temple and go to Nazareth with his human parents. In other words, the unveiling of Jesus as a boy in temple was neither complete nor permanent; he returned to a “normal” life of a twelve-year-old Israelite boy in first-century Galilee.
This episode from Jesus’s childhood is a glimpse (but not a complete revelation) into the deep truth about the person and work of Jesus, God’s Son. Here we have what I. Howard Marshall called a “secret epiphany,” a brush with things which are not yet fully revealed in these events, but which God’s insistent mercy drives forward to their fulfillment in the passion of God’s Son for the salvation of the world.
God’s self-revelation in Christ is a glorious mystery and now a public proclamation in all the world. But it is not self-evident, not even for those who saw these things with their own eyes, and in whose ears God’s promises had rung. There is more here than meets the eye, and we are still unpacking the inexhaustible Christmas gift from our Father.