Did Jesus do something wrong in Luke 2.41-52? This text has always puzzled me just as much as Mary and Joseph seem to be puzzled themselves. In his new commentary on Luke, James Edwards gives us a picture of Jesus as “a boy of unusual wisdom and nearness to God, whose spiritual endowments and understanding are similar to those of Simeon (v. 25) and Anna (vv. 36-37)” (91).
Jesus and his family go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Garland says that, “The age of twelve was regarded as the age of discernment. In the Jewish tradition a boy became a man at age thirteen and was fully responsible for keeping the law” (ZECNT). After the family completed the festal week, they returned home, but the “boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem” (2.43). We see the growth of Jesus throughout Luke 2. In v16, Jesus is a baby, v40 a child, v43 a boy, and he is referred to as Jesus in v52.
How did Joseph and Mary lose Jesus? It’s likely that they traveled as a large caravan which “functioned as a quasi-family” (93). Plus, sometimes women and children traveled separately. It would have been easy for Mary to think Jesus was with Joseph, and vice versa.
“After three days they found him in the temple” (2.46) probably includes the day they left without Jesus, the day they returned, and the day they found Jesus in the Temple (which wouldn’t have taken long to do). While it is students who sit at the feet of Jewish rabbis, here Jesus is “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions“ (Lk 2.46). “His ‘wisdom’ (v. 40) and ‘understanding’ (v. 47) recall the ‘spirit of wisdom and understanding’ that will rest upon the Messiah (Isa 11:2)” (94).
So of course all were amazed at Jesus’ answers (v47). Well, all but Jesus’ parents. They were astonished that Jesus “treated” them “so” (v48). Mary sounds less concerned about Jesus and more concerned about what he has done to her and Joseph. They have been “searching in great distress” for Jesus. Edwards reminds us that, “Mary’s distress is a first fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy that a ‘sword will pierce her soul’ (v. 35)” (95).
Edwards says, “Jesus is not surprised that his parents came back for him; he is surprised that they did not know where to find him“ (95). In v48 Mary speaks to Jesus about the anguish he caused to his father (“your father”). But in v49, “Jesus testifies to a prior and higher obedience to ‘my Father’” (91).
“Similar to the situation with Zechariah and Elizabeth in 1:59-63, Jesus ‘must’… align himself with God’s purpose over against the claims of the family“ (95).
Unlike the apocryphal gospels, this story is pretty average. It’s not spectacular. People are amazed, but no miracles are performed. Jesus doesn’t create pigeons out of clay. Everything is very human. A child is separated from his parents who show human panic. Throughout Luke 2, the shepherds (v15), Simeon (v25), and Anna (v36) seem to understand who Jesus is. Yet in this story, the very human Mary and Joseph “did not understand the saying that he spoke to them” (v50). How is this so?
Garland says, “After all the events that have occurred—his conception, his birth, his presentation in the temple—his parents should know that as God’s Son he would begin to play out his role in the divine plan for which he was sent.”
Edwards gives a perceptive answer,
Two fathers are mentioned in the account, one human, one divine, and Jesus is the son of both. His parents ‘did not understand what he was saying to them’ (v. 50), nor do we. Faith and understanding are not guaranteed by the privilege of proximity to Torah, angels, God, or even Jesus. Zechariah was visited by Gabriel, yet he disbelieved (1:20); Mary (and Joseph) received more revelation than he, yet they do not understand.
The story of Jesus is the story of the inscrutable and unfathomable ways of God. This story is not understood in a flash of insight. Time, struggle, even suffering are required of the parents of Jesus, as of all people, if they are to know and follow Jesus. ‘Not understanding’ forms another inclusio of Luke-Acts: it characterizes Mary and Joseph in the temple, the disciples on the way to Jerusalem (18:34), the disciples at the end of the gospel (24:45), and the final response of the Jewish leaders in Acts (28:26).
Lack of understanding is not a final verdict, nor does it alone jeopardize salvation. Jesus himself does not understand the ways of the Father (22:42) — and according to the other Gospels, he experiences the abandonment of God (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46).
Unlike Gnosticism, which bases salvation on knowledge, Christian faith is based on trust in a final Nevertheless — that salvation depends not on human wisdom and understanding, but on God’s inscrutable grace (96-7).
In Luke’s Gospel, the first and the last words of Jesus show his “filial relation to God as Father.”
2.49, And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
24.49, And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
To know Jesus is to know the Father, and to know the Father is to know Jesus. We do not understand the full details of this relationship, but we trust that through it, despite our imperfect knowledge, the Father’s salvation comes through his Son. This is a relationship that takes work.
As Calvin Miller has said, “Mystics without study are only spiritual romantics who want relationship without effort.”