Seeing this passage in such a light is certainly reasonable. First, Jesus is only 12 years old and, instead of being obedient to His parents, stays behind in Jerusalem. After journeying for a day, His parents are forced to return to Jerusalem and search for three days before finding Him. Asking Jesus why He did this is an obvious question parents would ask their child in this situation. Jesus’ response seems almost disrespectful to Mary and Joseph. He doesn’t seem to care about their worry and efforts to find Him. Instead, He responds by saying He must be in His Father’s house.
This incident is a mystery, meaning that we can gleam some of the meaning of the episode. Like Mary and Joseph, though, we’re left at the same time with a sense of not totally understanding what we’re being taught.
The story begins with the Holy Family going to Jerusalem for the Passover. This isn’t an isolated incident but their custom, meaning that they’re obedient to God’s law. This obedience is further understood by the remark from Luke that they stayed until the feast was concluded. While it was the custom of some to depart for home after the first couple of days of the feast, the Holy Family remains until the end.
Just as the Holy Family is obedient to God in the observance of the Passover, Jesus is now obedient to the will of His Father: God the Father. Instead of returning home with Mary and Joseph, He remains behind in His Father’s house.
Jesus’ answer to Mary and Joseph’s reasonable question astounds them, for it comes from this plane of obedience to the will of the Father. In Jesus’ eyes, Mary and Joseph shouldn’t have been worried about Him or looked for Him. They have taught Him to be obedient to God. If they knew this lesson they had taught Him, they should have known where He was, obedient to the Father in His house about His affairs.
This episode reflects a later teaching of Jesus, that one must be willing to forsake mother and father for the sake of the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:29-30). Obedience to one’s parents is certainly commanded by God and is good. Yet ultimately, our will must be conformed to the will of God the Father.
At the end of the passage, Jesus returns with them back to Nazareth, showing His obedience to the Fourth Commandment. But obedience to the will of the Father would drive Him away from Nazareth, again to be about His Father’s affairs. On the cross, the mystery foretold in this incident from Jesus’ youth would come fully to light as Jesus dies on the cross for us while a sword of sorrow pierces the heart of Mary. Obedience to the will of God is rewarded as Jesus rises after three days and Mary receives Jesus back just as she did years before.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael Parish in south St. Louis.