Reflections on Luke’s Account of Jesus’ Childhood
“Why have you been hunting all over for me? Did you not realise I must be busy in the things of my Father?”
The reply of the young man Jesus to His parents is well known. But when Mary and Joseph discovered that the young twelve year-old in their charge was not travelling home with them, what were they to do? Were they to continue on and trust that God would take care of him? Did they not receive their responsibility, as parents from the Almighty One, who had somewhat inconveniently brought this first-born into their lives? Were they not accountable to God for his nurture and his safety?
From Luke’s account we hear what the young precocious twelve year-old said in his reply. He thereby tells us, presumably having also told the teachers in whose midst he was sitting, that he was eager to take the initiative and learn more about the Law and Prophets, about Israel’s expectations concerning their Messiah. And though he had already heard about this from his parents back home in Nazareth, it would also be to his benefit to hear how those teaching in the Temple understood God’s promises to His people. Wasn’t that, after all, part of the purpose of this yearly trip up to Jerusalem?
And here again Luke, like the other Gospel writers, depicts for us a situation in which Jesus Christ was on his own “learning curve”. Sure it was important to hear how these teachers understood Holy Scripture, and no doubt he had already been introduced to the teaching of the Torah and the prophets by his diligent and faithful parents. But here Luke tells us of how the twelve year-old Jesus confronted what we might call the “intersection” of family and Temple, how that contributed to Israel’s and his own way of life. This was an important moment, Luke tells us, when Jesus’ appreciation of the “intersection” between himself as a child of his parents, and himself as a child of God was clarified to some degree. But then he accepted his earthly parents’ care and nurture and
… returned with them to Nazareth, living obediently to them. But his mother carefully stored all these things in her heart. And thus Jesus developed wisdom, years and favour before and man (Luke 2:51-52).
This account is not mere “shavings on the floor” of the Nazareth carpenter’s shop. Luke is not trying to fill up space on parchment in a narrative which would otherwise go on to more important things. This too is a vital element in the story of the Incarnation, of God’s tabernacling with us. Could Luke have recounted more of his investigations about Jesus’ childhood? At this point we might reflect upon what can be gleaned about children in the Gospels and we’ll soon come to note that Luke doesn’t tell us much about John’s childhood either. The little girl who was raised in Jairus’ household does not have a name and neither does the son of the widow of Nain. Clearly (as with speculation about Mark’s involvement in Jesus’ Galilean ministry) there were children in the crowds that followed Jesus, but it seems that the Gospel writers – let alone the writers of the other New Testament documents – were satisfied in telling us unequivocally that Jesus surely welcomed children. And that’s about it! “Honour your father and your mother, that the days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you!”
What we as readers of the sacred documents need to be told is that Jesus was a child in the full sense of the term, that he was on his own learning curve, that he was respectful of his earthly parents and understood that the One he referred to as his Heavenly Father had given him to them and them to him for his nurture and his benefit.
Is there something here from which we can learn not just about Luke’s silence, but also about the character of the years in which a child is nurtured within a family circle? Luke is emphatic: the story of Jesus’ childhood was kept as a treasure by his mother. We know of her confrontation with the angel who announced her conception; we also know how that story is woven into the story of the conception of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, the one who, in adult life, would announce Jesus as “God’s own lamb for the taking away of sin!” John would also be cruelly executed by a mad tyrant. And by the time Luke takes up his pen, to inform Theophilus but also, presumably, to assist Paul and others in their ministry, such information was known and such stories would be told. How would Luke be able to say that Mary kept these stories in her heart if he hadn’t heard them? But Luke, in his Gospel, in telling us of this visit to Jerusalem, tells us what we need to know about Jesus’ childhood. Yes there was ongoing and intense political tension that dominated their everyday life, in terms of which they had to form their many-sided responsibilities.
What we have in the Gospels are accounts of Jesus’ adult ministry. We might say that what we have are accounts of the way he went about fulfilling his vocation as the Anointed One, in his preaching, teaching and healing. Jesus decisively instructed his disciples to give their unstinting attention to being like children of their Heavenly Father, to keep children in mind as they lived their lives following him, to sit on the mat in the creche when their Rabbi decided that that was where he would teach God’s Kingly Rule that day.
But this nowhere gives any suggestion that the everyday details of children’s lives are to be broadcast far and wide. In fact, it would seem that those composing the Gospels, as well as the other New Testament writers, are united in respecting the tender plant of young people, of encouraging those “grown up” to take on a Christ-like patience to give them time for the public blossoming of God’s gifts in their lives, without presuming upon them. Children are not to be made into objects for adult gratification. Their everyday details may be there to delight those who witness them, but they are not there for public distribution. Nurture is very much a matter of what happens “in house” and open-air and public discipleship needs to be disciplined by the knowledge that parenthood is a calling from God to witness how He is also busily at work in family life. That amazing fact is what we can think about when considering Luke’s apparent silence about the details of Jesus nurture in Nazareth (Luke 4:16).
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As I have composed the above, I have recalled the way we and our legislators – our Parliamentary representatives at both State and Federal levels – have been somewhat incapable of mounting adequate political resistance to the sexualisation of childhood. It would seem that the inability of political parties to argue a coherent public policy case about “marriage, family and household” has weakened our public ability, via the parliaments, to resist the gratuitous commercial exploitation of children in advertising. But more than that. That policy failure now leaves us all exposed to an ideological maelstrom fanned by the consequences of “Marriage Equality” sentimentalism. We are now involved in the political sexualisation of childhood even if advocates of “Marriage Equality” have not realised that this is what it is.
One only has to think about the way , in recent times, “rights appeals” have been made to draw attention to the demand that the sexual identity of children be respected. It is, as if, parents have been somewhat negligent in what is only a marginal role (after a “begetting phase”) in the formation of a child’s character. It would seem that their responsibility is to stand to attention and salute when these supposed (“essentialist”) rights are trumpeted. The military metaphor is entirely apt. This is the view that children are to be viewed primarily as members of the political community, functionaries of the all-powerful state.
The problem is that under legislation, and the rationale that is given for it, we are seeing the fermentation of an ethos that naively presumes that the way of human rights is actually to interrupt efforts to shield children because of their “tender plant” status from social forces that would encourage them to view themselves and others as sources of sexual gratification.
Are we to presume that Jesus’ definitive version of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” in the Sermon on the Mount has nothing to say to a political discourse in which it is blithely assumed that all people are engaged in sorting out their identity by viewing themselves and others as sexual objects?
We are confronted with a “political discourse” that is running blind to the fact that children are not “adult citizens” and is discounting, if not explicitly denigrating, their dependence and vulnerability upon their parents and upon the way in which the state should be honouring and protecting the distinctive integrity of their parent’s parental responsibilities. Watch out for the bogus “equality” provisions now to be legislated to have an impact upon schools and other “religious” bodies. By carefully orchestrated appeal to children’s sexuality, adults are assuming that it is simply part of our human condition to imagine sexual relations with an “other”.
Let me put this in philosophical terms: the deconstructionist, post-structural philosophical justification (sometimes misleadingly equated with “post-modern relativism”) gives emphasis to the individual child’s right to “self-identification” in terms of a (chosen) “sexuality”. If we were to simply focus attention upon the ubiquitous influence of advertising, popular culture and political debate, then it is difficult to conclude other than that the issue has been already decided. The presumption is that the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act is already in violation of Article 28 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that proclaims the right to be free from discrimination based on sexual orientation. In other words the entire effort to legislate a change to the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act is due to the juristic perception that the Act itself (albeit unintentionally as far as those who initially framed it were concerned) condones homophobia, that it gives a license to legislators to imply by the laws they bring down “that one form of sexual orientation is legitimate while another is not.” In principle this interpretation suggests that we really should no longer have a Marriage Act at all, since marriage (whatever it is) is merely a function of a more basic sexuality self-identification, and marriage law thereby becomes merely a matter of equalising rights between those dyadic couples who claim marriage as their “entitlement”. The naïveté of this view may be breath-taking but it is a deeply and widely held view.
Drill down into this concatenation of assertions and you will find that it is dogmatically mired in a reductionist view of human life in which a child should be first and foremost respected in political terms, as a member of the State political community. And these implications are not just inferences by analysts or by opponents of “Marriage Equality”. They are spelled out and are publicly available.
In the midst of this fraught debate is there any room to pause and recall that such “intentionality”, as is presumed to be part of a person’s nominated “sexuality”, cannot really develop without having an “other” person in view. And without an account of the normative structural context in which a young person’s sexual identity comes to expression, in a way of life that is carefully and sensitively nurtured, we are simply left high and dry. (Quite apart from the deeply offensive and authoritarian usurpation of parental nurturing responsibility by those insisting upon an ideological demand that “gender fluidity” and “cross-dressing” be included in the pre-school curriculum!) And so we have the thoroughly ambiguous and antinomian state of affairs in which “professional authority figures” are demanding a social ethos in which their libertarian views are to be given free reign – see for example the view of the former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau: “I have never been able to accept any discipline except that which I imposed upon myself” (Federalism and the French Canadians, 1968, p. xxi). Liberty for libertarians are imposed by law! Children are to be instructed that they have the liberty to chose their sexual orientation(s). This is freedom! What it means in practise is that we are simply left with a theory in which an isolated individual’s demand becomes a transcending normative prescription.
Gardeners, bus drivers and those in charge of distributing meals at a school are just as much a part of the school community as teachers of maths, history, biology and social science. The understanding of human reproduction is and should be integral to any school’s curriculum. But the State has no mandate to disallow parents from insisting that schools maintain their own distinctive integrity, nor should legislation make it more difficult for schools to do so. A school whose purpose is to nurture the “tender plant” of youth should not be harassed or lectured or threatened with industrial action because it is set up in the belief that schooling is about diligent pedagogic protection of the children in its care.