Jeremiah 31:714; Psalm 84:18; Ephesians 1:36,159; Luke 2:4152
This wonderful story in which Jesus stays behind in the Temple as his parents leave Jerusalem—a story of which all parents have a version—is Luke’s final anecdote in his compilation of the accounts of Jesus’ birth and childhood. When Jesus next appears, he is the thirty-year-old man familiar from all the Gospels. This story, though, catches our attention, not only for its human whimsy, but because it is the first time we hear the voice of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Each of these moments in the four Gospels is informative, because in them the Gospel writer encapsulates something that he wants us to glimpse about his main subject and his understanding of it.
So, as we heard it today, the first thing Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel is, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” This, then, is what Luke wants us to get foremost about Jesus. A number of Luke’s concerns cluster here.
Both the books Luke wrote, his Gospel and the Book of Acts, start off in the Temple in Jerusalem: Zechariah offers incense there at the beginning of the Gospel; the disciples are worshipping regularly there as they await the Day of Pentecost at the beginning of the Book of Acts. So, when we are first to hear Jesus, Luke has us hear him in the Temple, the heart of Jewish devotional life. Here, more than any other place, contact with God was ensured by God’s own promise and injunction. The Temple was the place where prayers and sacrifice were offered, where forgiveness and blessing were pronounced. Luke’s Gospel centers on a strong message of world transformation through the decisive intervention of Jesus in human life, so this intervention must be shown to start from this place where contact with God was known to be effective. The presence of God in the Temple is the warranty of all the promised good embodied in Jesus. Saving activity could flow from no holier source. So Luke starts his story at the place where blessings originate. His Gospel preeminently celebrates how the Jews became a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.
In the Temple, we see Jesus discussing Scripture with those committed to the study of Scripture; he is immersed in the interpretation of God’s plan of salvation, the slow expansive cosmic restoration of all things. To comb and sift and sort Scripture, to come to know God in that way, is to tend the root of this vast tree planted to provide shelter and food for all creatures: if we understand how God acts in Scripture, we can recognize God acting in our own day and participate in this ministry of reconciliation. This ought to matter more to us than any other enterprise—so Jesus is right to say, “How could you have looked for me anywhere else? How could I be involved in anything other than this?”
The shadow that momentarily darkens this hopeful scene is his parents’ failure to understand him. Even Mary, who according to Luke pondered the miracles of Jesus’ birth in her heart, failed at this moment to grasp Jesus’ God-centeredness. It is the first sign of the rejection of Jesus by his own that will become the dynamic of Gospel expansion. In Luke’s account, because Jesus’ own did not understand him and even rejected him, his message of God’s tender approach to us burst the carefully tended dykes of Jewish tradition and poured out across the entire Mediterranean basin, softening and feeding the Gentile fields that lay beyond the horizon, so that all flesh might know the salvation of God. God’s household comes to include all people. Luke has structured his two-volume work—his Gospel and the Book of Acts—to bear this out.
So when we turn to the final verses of the Book of Acts, to see how this glowing opening is brought to completion, we find Paul under house arrest in Rome. Scripture is still being discussed, but that is all the two scenes have in common; Paul’s interpretations of Scripture are taken as controversial and spurious by the leaders of the synagogue in Rome. From the delighted discoveries of the Temple scene we have come to the scarred endurance of a man awaiting trial. From the coherence of Judaism in its own context, in which law and ritual support each other, we arrive at the apparent incoherence and baffling resiliency of faith when seen from the centers of political power. The triumph of this scene, though, lies in the last spoken words in Luke’s account, spoken by Paul, the last of the Apostles: “this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” For Luke, a sophisticated Greek writing in polished Hellenistic prose to an erudite Gentile reader in search of an admirable teacher, this is the heartfelt hope that has fueled all his effort.
Now, from one angle of vision, the entire catastrophe of Christianity is contained here. In Luke’s depiction of the life of the Early Church, this Good Jewish News of a Messiah, a Son of David, who fulfills all that is promised to the Jews, begins slowly to turn its back on its origin, to lose its grounding in a culture and a religious tradition. On the positive side, it becomes flexible and inclusive; on the negative side, it risks becoming shallow, subjective, and spiritually amnesiac to the point of genocidal vindictiveness. This, of course, is where we find ourselves today. We are far from the cultural coherency of the Gospel we heard this morning. The outcome Luke built into his story—the ambiguous picture of Paul under lax house arrest at the seat of empire—is a depiction of our own time and place, a short leash and little respect. In the heart of empire, we may be kept under guard, but even the guard believes we can’t do much damage.
However, another angle of vision shows Paul as the full reach of the boy in the Temple. We must return to those first words of Jesus, with their uncanny implausible ring of truth. Our solution is there.
The great mystery to the early church was not Jesus’ divinity—they had no doubt about that—but his humanity. For them, the boy’s words—“I must be at my Father’s concerns”—were a moment of divine transparency. Their stumbling block was that divinity would irrevocably assume humanity. The Church struggled for centuries before it could finally assert that neither was divinity enervated nor humanity eviscerated in the Incarnation.
Today the pendulum has swung to the other side. We are as desperate in our situation as the Early Church. Their uncertainties were about the worth of humanity, but ours are about the truth of divinity. We do not know if we believe in God or not.
The tragedy in this is that all human beings are made with an opening towards the divine. I do not mean any specific divinity worshipped by any single religion; those are all the various solutions that have arisen to deal with our longing and our terror. I mean something more basic: we are made to function best when we can be oriented towards what transcends us. We are happiest in families and in communities of deep mutual knowledge and acceptance, most satisfied and most strong when our work or our suffering serves some larger purpose, most patient and creative in our solutions when we have hope in a future beyond our brief time on earth. We are made to function best oriented by what transcends us. Our nature is made to be aware of more than itself. And because we are made with this opening towards greater meaning, by which we orient ourselves, and which we must have for our sanity and health, we are at frightening risk when we cannot distinguish the truly transcendent. So the very human boy in the Temple, from the fullness of his humanity, said, “What is my Father’s is necessary to me,” and he meant, not that he had an arbitrary preference, but that he understood his life-source; he understood what makes him human.
That phrase is potent and difficult in the Greek. Luke uses the word dei—an important word for him, which we translate as “necessary.” It does not connote requirement, but fulfillment. He puts the same word in Jesus’ mouth at the predictions of the Passion and in the culminating explanations that both the Death and the Resurrection were “necessary.” Dei indicates the fullness of divine activity that has the power to accomplish what it intends. So even this small word points to the power of a larger frame to order what seems catastrophic into what becomes redemptive—and as we embrace that redemption, we agree, “the pieces fit, it was necessary that it be so.”
More crucial, there is no mention in the Greek of the Father’s house or business or concerns. In fact, there is no noun there at all. Luke uses only the plural article, but no noun, and thus gestures towards a huge openness. We cannot even say it in English. This comes close: “It is necessary for me to be in those…of my Father.” It is no surprise that Joseph and Mary didn’t understand what Jesus meant. Their precocious child is pointing, but to what?—only to “those…of my Father.” But this is the hope of the phrase; it admits no single identifiable situation or object, no building, no cult, no community, that can be turned into an idol or a deadly final solution.
Anxious translators have once again let theology overrule faithfulness. They think we will find appetizing and wholesome the predigested pellet they have coughed up for us. But in our day, we must dig past these prior solutions, and as often as possible sit next to these ancient witnesses, the Gospel authors and Paul, our true godparents, and lean close to catch their whispers.
This very phrase in the Greek—a plural article with no noun followed by a possessive clause—is about the mystery of being human. We together are those unnamed objects, the ellipsed nouns, owned by God, that are the overpowering interest of Christ. We together are what remain unnamable to ourselves. We are those beings of the Father whose dignity cannot be coded and catalogued, but which is rooted in depths that recede beyond our comprehension. But this much we can comprehend: if human beings are to survive, let alone flourish, we must know that we are about that which is greater than ourselves. “Those…of my Father,” with its odd empty center, points to what transcends, to what is beyond, to the cataract of life pouring incessantly out of the Source of all, which could terrify us if it did not carry us, in which we are daily refreshed, and into which we will one day sink. This active Benevolence, restoring, recreating, reconciling, renewing, tireless in its creativity, constant in its compassion, joyful and triumphant as it demonstrates the incomprehensible scope of its unity through the endless multiplicity of our diversity—because, remember, the article is not singular, but plural—how can we not want to be about those of this God?
When this is true, sitting in house arrest in Rome is no different than discussing Torah in the Temple, because “those of my Father” are everywhere. We cannot be where what is of God is not.
So, my brothers and sisters, we are in these days again wandering in desert wilderness, suffering thirst and hunger. We are a disparate clutch of clans, suspicious of each other, greedy and envious. Some of us credit a golden calf with our survival so far; others credit shrewdness, tenacity, and a strong arm—and hear no voices in volcanic eruptions. And because we are driven by lashings of fear, the horrors of our world will not change; they will continue to assault us daily.
But the strange and urgent truth is that the tent of meeting, the tabernacle, you must pitch—not only for yourself or by yourself, because you cannot do it alone, but working together, for all of us—must be anchored in what seems to us empty air. We in these days cannot locate the truth of divinity. The crucial tent-peg that must be fastened first, the one urgently needed, because when it holds, all the rest aligns, is our grasp of “those of my Father.” “Those…of my Father” is all that which is about what gives life, all those uncontrollables and inexhaustibles that make for life. It is necessary for us to be in what makes life for each other.
The paradox is that we can only do this as we are aware of being held by what we cannot grasp, inexhaustible and uncontrollable. We must come to find ourselves in the presence of that tender but relentless regard that sees our story as precious in its uniqueness, but not to be prized over the equally precious stories of the millions around us that we do not know. We come to life when we are consciously in the presence of the witness that transcends us all.
This is not a function of our imagination, which too quickly concretizes our preferences into images, but of our apperception—an awareness of awareness—“the eyes of the heart,” as Paul says. That interior search is the greatest and most urgent you can undertake. That encounter, as Paul discovered on the Road to Damascus, is irrefutable and transformative; and it held him safe and secure in the courts of the Lord even under house arrest in Rome. My dear sisters and brothers, this is no less than your search for life itself, for the power and love that extends beyond you and sustains you, which was made flesh in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
In our agnostic and disconsolate days, our first and last hope is to understand how necessary divinity is. We are called to arrive at being able to say wholeheartedly with the young Jesus “It is necessary for me to be in those of the loving God that bore me, in those that foster life;” so that in that glorious day when all our lives are raised up into those of the Trinity, we will find ourselves in the home we have long known is our own, where it will be necessary for us to be with all those of the One God, the Eternal Source and the Only-begotten Word and the Life-giving Spirit, whom we praise this day as we hope to praise for all eternity.