Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 2.41-52
1st Sunday of Christmas - Year C

Other texts:


This is the only canonical story of young Jesus. This story is also found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (19), which is full of stories about young Jesus. It is dated about 125 C.E. Another story is

Once again he [Jesus] was going through the village, and a child who was running banged into his shoulder. Jesus was angered and said to him, "You shall go no further on your way." And immediately the child fell down dead. (4:1)

This story might give an indication why the Infancy Gospel of Thomas wasn't included in the Bible -- it doesn't present a picture of Jesus that is consistent with the Jesus that the believers knew and believed in.

THE PIETY OF MARY AND JOSEPH

Our text not only tells us about the young Jesus, but also a lot about his parents -- they were very devout in keeping the Jewish Law.

Luke stresses the fact in this chapter that Mary and Joseph were very devout Jews. We might wonder how much of Jesus' knowledge and self-identity came from the way he was raised in this pious household.

MAKING IT A "HABIT"

I have made the word ethos the topic of sermons on this text. The English word "ethics" comes from this word. It refers to "a pattern of behavior that is more or less fixed by tradition and generally sanctioned by the society" [Lowe & Nida]. The word is frequently translated "custom" or "habit."

Of the 12 times this word is used in the NT, 10 of those are in Luke/Acts. The only occurrence of the verbal form (ethizo) is in Luke 2:27, where it indicates that Mary and Joseph do for Jesus what is customary under the law. Even though there is nothing else written about young Jesus in scriptures, we know that he grew up with parents who made it a habit of obeying the Law. I'm certain that young Jesus was encouraged to obey it when it applied to him. Young Jesus was learning some good religious habits from his parents.

The noun is used of Jesus in Luke 22:39 where we are told that it was his custom (or habit) to go to the Mount of Olives. He goes there to pray.

What "customs" or "habits" are being handed down by parents today? Some have made it a habit of attending church every week. Some have made it a habit of attending church on Christmas and Easter. Some encourage their children give an offering every week. Others give almost nothing themselves.

It is interesting to me that the Greek word ethos is never used in scripture to refer to what we would usually consider ethical or moral behaviors -- like "don't tell lies, don't steal, help other people, don't be immoral, don't hurt or kill other people, be generous." When ethos is used in the New Testament, it almost always refers to religious behaviors -- mostly about attending church!

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb 10:25).

Another word with the same meaning [eiotha] is used of Jesus when he goes to the synagogue on the sabbath as was his custom (Lu 4:16); and of Paul (Ac 17:2). Do we need to promote regular church as an "ethic" that believers should practice? When we make lists of ethical behavior, is church attendance or taking time to pray on the lists?

However, most of the seven times ethos is used in Acts, Jesus and his followers -- especially Paul -- are accused of destroying the ethos that Moses had handed down (Ac 6:14; 15:1; 16:21; 21:21; 28:17). As we see in Luke, Jesus came from a family that followed the "customs" of Moses. Jesus did not seek to destroy, but he did seek to give them the proper meaning. "Habits" can become mindless actions -- doing something without knowing the meaning(s) behind such actions.

We do some of the same thing with Christmas. We don't want to destroy Christmas, but we try and promote the real meaning of the holiday. It is a time to celebrate the birth of God's son, not primarily a time to worry about presents to buy or receive, or the tree and decorations to put up. These other actions may help support the real meaning of the festival, but they may also get in the way of the true meaning.

If Jesus made it a habit to attend church (synagogue) and to go off on a mountain to pray, how much more do we need to make it a habit if we are to keep a constant walk with God?

WHOSE SON IS HE?

ANSWER 1: HE IS THE SON OF MARY AND JOSEPH

One of the paradoxes presented in this lesson is: Whose son is Jesus? One answer is that he is the child of Joseph and Mary. He has been put into their care for their instruction and guidance. As I pointed out above, God made a good choice. They were very devout Jews and, as this text indicates, concerned parents.

Mary asks, "Child, why have you treated us in this way? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety" (v. 48b).

Note the reference to Joseph as Jesus' father.

I think that the content of "in this way" is found in the Greek word translated "in great anxiety". This word for anxiety (odynaomai) is used only by Luke in the NT. It is used to describe the agony and pain of the rich man in hell (16:24, 25). I'm certain that his pain was much more than just anxiety. It is used once in Acts. Paul begins a speech to the Ephesians: "I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again" (20:25). Then we are told:

When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship (20:36-38).

This is the pain and agony and grief when one will never see a close friend (or relative) again. It is this pain and agony and worry and grief and anxiety that the missing Jesus caused his parents that I think is behind the question: "Why have you treated us in this way?" I'm certain that Jesus did not think that he had done anything wrong. There have been times when our children have caused us such pains -- and it wasn't because they had done something wrong, but often because we didn't know where they were.

What also compounds the feelings in Mary and Joseph is that this is the first time they had taken their son from their small, familiar town into the big city. For those familiar with small town life, often there is a fear of the big city.

Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) point out another source of their anxiety, besides the missing child.

2:44 In antiquity travel was a dangerous undertaking and was considered deviant behavior except for certain customary reasons. Group travel was safer, especially with kinfolk or trusted neighbors; see the note below on 2:48.

2:48 Mary's question implies more than concerns for a lost child. Having to return to Jerusalem, the family must break off its travel with kinfolk and neighbors. They will be five days behind their group on the trip back to Nazareth and thus in a much more dangerous position (see the note on 2:44). Joseph is also made to look bad by appearing unable to control his family. [p. 299]

Could this be an example of leaving family and friends, and the safety they provide, in order to follow Jesus?

Jesus responds to his parents' concern with two questions: "Why were you searching for me?" "Did you not know that I must be in my father's house [or "be about my Father's interests"]? These are the first words Jesus speaks in Luke.

Why were they searching for him? They are good parents. Wouldn't each of us go searching for our children if we thought they were lost? Wouldn't finding the lost child be more important than personal safety (illustrated by staying with the traveling group)?

"Didn't you know?" -- No, they didn't know. Even after he tells them this, they don't understand him. This word for "understanding" (syniemi) occurs only four times in Luke. The first three times (2:50; 8:10; 18:34) it is applied to people who don't understand Jesus. In the final occurrence (24:45), the risen Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures.

We might look at these parents as models of discipleship -- they are very devout, but they don't totally understand. They don't understand the word (rhema) that he tells them, but Mary keeps all these words (rhema) in her heart.

WHOSE SON IS HE?

ANSWER 2: HE IS THE SON OF GOD

Craddock (Luke)

Jesus now claims for himself that special relation to God which was the real meaning of his dedication as an infant. To this point, all signs of Jesus' special nature or mission have been to or through others: the angel, Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, shepherds, Simeon, and Anna, but now he claims it for himself (v. 49). The church has sought to recognize this moment in the lives of young people in the rite of confirmation [p. 42].

The last part of verse 49 is difficult to translate. Most literally it says:

"in (or among) the [plural things (or men) is understood] of my Father it is necessary that I be"

Things assumes a masculine or neuter plural noun, but "house" is not plural!

Luke Timothy Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina) offers three possible renderings: "My Father's things (i.e., affairs or business)"; "my Father's house"; or "my Father's associates (e.g., relatives)." [p. 59]

He goes on to comment:

...The translation "to be in my Father's house" does not work as well as "to be involved in my Father's affairs." The first translation would emphasize the place rather than Jesus' activity, but unlike John 2:16, Luke never has Jesus call the Temple "my Father's house," and although the Temple plays an important role in his narrative, it is as a place of activity.

This points us to the second translation. The "affairs" must mean the sort of activity Jesus was engaged in, discoursing with the Jewish teachers. Because of the amazement of the crowd focused on his "answers," he is in effect teaching the teachers. In fact this is precisely the activity of Jesus that Luke emphasizes at the climax of his ministry. From 20:1-45, Jesus responds to the questions put him in the Temple precincts by Jewish leaders, and this activity Luke calls 'teaching in the Temple" (19:47; 20:1; 21:37; 22:53). ... [p. 61]

Tannehill (Luke) says much the same thing:

The use of the Greek expression to refer to someone's house or home is well documented, and Jesus is indicating that his parents should have known the place to find him. Therefore, a location, "my Father's house," must be part of the meaning. But it is quite possible that there is a double meaning, for the same expression may refer to someone's "affairs" or "business" (hence the NRSV footnote, "be about my Father's interests"). Then Jesus is not only indicating where he can be found, but why. He already feels the calling to be engaged in his Father's business. [p. 76]

The little Greek word dei = literally: "it is necessary" and can be understood as: "I/he must" is frequently used by Jesus to indicate his duty to God or in fulfillment of scriptures -- which often runs counter to what others expect him to do.

How do we deal with competing claims on our lives? Often the competition is between two good things; e.g., family and God. However, Jesus states quite forcefully: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (14:26).

He also redefines family relationships: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (8:21).

There is a subtle shift within this story. In the beginning, it is the parents who go to Jerusalem. They take Jesus with them. The parents are in charge of the "journey". It is different in v. 51a: "Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth." As I have written before, Luke/Acts is primarily a story about God, but Jesus now comes to the forefront as the "co-star".

Can doing what God has called us to do cause pain and agony in parents or other people? If I remember right, Martin Luther's parents were not pleased that he decided to become a priest rather than a lawyer. (One job paid much better than the other -- and they expected him to take care of them in their old age.)

Can doing what God has called us to do cause pain and agony among church members? How many church conflicts are over seeking to do what God is calling us to do (in the present and future) vs. seeking to do what God had called us to do (in the past)?

Can doing what God has called us to do cause pain and agony to one's self? If 12-year-old Jesus was as compassionate as I think he was, I believe that the pain he caused his parents, he also took upon himself. While he may have preferred to stay in the temple, learning from and teaching the elders, he returns to Nazareth (a somewhat pagan, border town) and is obedient to him. What was God's will for Jesus to do at that time? Sometimes the answer is not too clear. Sometimes it is a choice between two good things. It is in situations like this that Luther's advice is handy, "Sin boldly."

I'll give the entire quote for those who might be interested:

" If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says [2 Peter 3:13], we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells . Pray boldly -- you too are a mighty sinner." [Martin Luther in a Letter to Philip Melanchthon following the Diet of Worms, Luther's Works, Vol 48, p. 281-282]

Looking ahead, The Baptism of Our Lord (Jan 7) will again stress the divine sonship of Jesus. What does it mean to be the Son of God and to be about "My Father's business"? In Luke, the baptism is followed by the genealogy, which ends with "son of God" (Luke 3:38d). This is followed by the temptation story (Lu 4:1-13) where the devil says twice: "If you are the Son of God, ...." Next Jesus reads from Isaiah in Nazareth: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Lu 4:18-19)

Being the Son of God, being about his father's business means facing temptation and being servant to all in need. Perhaps in our text, it was the teachers in the temple who where the ones in need. Perhaps for Luke, it was Theophilus (and other readers) who are in need of better understanding Jesus.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com