Mary’s Search for the Son of God

In a homily a few years back Pope Francis expounded on Luke 2:41-52, the familiar story of finding the 12-year old Jesus in the temple. He adds a detail, however, which he thinks is clearly implied in the text:

“Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, causing great distress to Mary and Joseph who were unable to find him. For this little ‘escapade’, Jesus probably had to beg forgiveness of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it. Mary’s question, moreover, contains a certain reproach, revealing the concern and anguish which she and Joseph felt.” (Link)

Luke 2:48-49 reads:

“When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety. And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?’”

While Mary’s words clearly imply a reproach of the boy, I would prefer to presume an innocent explanation for Jesus’ failure to join the caravan. However, St. Luke’s direct language suggests that his actions were deliberate:

“After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it” (vs. 43).

Mary and Joseph thoroughly trusted their son or they would not have traveled a day without checking up on him. They were fully confident that he was nearby. This is significant; if Jesus intentionally missed the departure and remained in Jerusalem at the temple, the boy was acting way out of character.

Jesus’ response to his mother is curious as well. He ignores his mother’s first question (“why have you done this to us?“) and responds only to the second, and with a question of his own, “Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?”. Answering a question with a question is generally considered rude. Was the Pope correct to presume that Jesus would subsequently be begging for forgiveness?

It is the next verse of the passage, I believe, that provides the key to its correct interpretation:

“But they did not understand what he said to them” (vs 50).

Luke’s inclusion of this line is a signal for us that in Jesus’ response to Mary something extremely important is being conveyed. I believe it has to do with the two references to “father”: “your father” (Mary’s words) vs. “my father” (Jesus’ words); they are not the same father. It may well be that in a not so subtle and even painful way, God, through His son, is affirming to Mary and Joseph that He, not Joseph, is Jesus’ rightful father and to whom he must first render obedience.

Jesus was almost 13, the age when a boy was regarded as a man in 1st-century Palestine and could fully participate in the life of the synagogue. The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Judaism and referred to as Bet-YHWH, the “House of God”. Whether Jesus felt summoned to the Temple by God, or was actually commanded to go, we’re not told. This marked the end of his childhood, and perhaps God wanted his human parents to understand how that would affect their relationship to him.


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