Column: Jesus’ true identity revealed in Temple story

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

I remember when my young niece informed me that she was now a preteen. She had reached the advanced age of 12.

Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 2:41- 52, mentions that Jesus is 12 years old when he and Joseph and Mary travel to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. When Joseph and Mary leave to return to their home in Nazareth, Jesus remains behind, without Mary and Joseph noticing that he is not with them. Three days later, after searching for the missing Jesus, they find him in the temple at Jerusalem.

Understandably, Mary is concerned. She asks Jesus: “Son, why have you done this to us?” This is not the first time that a preteen has been questioned about his or her whereabouts. They often give an evasive answer, such as “Nowhere” or “Why do you want to know?”

Jesus is apparently no different. He responds to Mary’s question with a question of his own: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The second part of Jesus’ question to Mary and Joseph can legitimately be translated two different ways. The first possibility, adopted by our Lectionary, reads: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” That interpretation makes Jesus’ words a question of location: “Did you not know where I must be?” It identifies the temple of Jerusalem, where Jesus has been passing the time with the scholars, as the Father’s house. Jesus’ question implies that he should be in the temple, rather than at the marketplace, or out in the fields, or someplace else, because the temple was the dwelling place of God.

Since Luke’s Gospel places a great deal of emphasis on the temple of Jerusalem, this option makes a lot of sense. After all, the action of the Gospel begins in the temple, with Zechariah, the father-to-be of John the Baptist, burning incense at the altar of God. The temple of Jerusalem runs throughout Luke’s Gospel as an important theme. We can easily see how it could make its appearance here.

The second possibility instead reads: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” This interpretation makes Jesus’ words a question of activity: “Did you not know what I must be doing?” Since Luke’s Gospel places a great deal of emphasis on spreading the word of God, this option also makes a lot of sense. As Jesus meets with the teachers, “listening to them and asking them questions,” he is sharing the word of God with them. This activity will engage Jesus throughout the rest of his life. This scene of the young boy Jesus then provides a preview of his adult life.

Does Jesus’ question allude to his location or to his activities? Take your pick. The text will support either translation.

In either case, though, perhaps the more important aspect of the question involves Jesus’ description of God as his Father. Jesus’ words contrast with Mary’s reference to Joseph as Jesus’ father: “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

Mary and Joseph have found Jesus’ physical location: the temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus’ words to them suggests that they are still in the process of finding out who Jesus really is, of discovering his true identity. That is the real find — to know that he is the Son of God.

Leave a Reply