As we have written in this blog, again and again, Nurturing Justice is seeking to promote a Christian political option. And any reader who has followed what I have been trying to formulate over the years will be aware of my conviction that a Christian political option stands in need of a deeper and living reading of Biblical teaching by Christian citizens.
So in this blog, I’m reporting on something that I have begun to think about from considering what the Gospel tell us about the early years of Jesus, as well as what the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament tell us about the marriage of Mary and Joseph and their family life. And yet there is deep, deep denial of the Gospel record that Mary had other children in some prominent quarters of Christendom. The Gospels do in fact speak about Jesus’ siblings (Luke 8:19-21; Mt 12:46-50; Mt 13:55; Mk 3:31-35; Acts 1:14). I am suggesting that such denial is unhelpful in many ways, and has led to many misunderstandings and wrong paths. And that means problems for developing a Christian political option as well. A Christian political option needs to talk about the human task given by God, generation to generation, of raising and nurturing children to maturity. Jesus’ coming also has much to say about that intensely meaningful part of human responsibility coram Deo.
But Luke also tells us that in the years of their nurturing Mary’s first-born, Joseph and Jesus’ mother had only a vague glimpse of what Jesus’ coming into their lives meant. So as we read Luke’s Gospel, and keep in mind that he is reporting what he has uncovered in his investigations for Theophilus, we need to be alert to what we can learn from what is implied by Luke’s approach to how the child Jesus was nurtured within his family circle. And it’s not so much what we “hear”, it’s more like what we “overhear” as we attend to what is written. And for that we need careful, but at the same time, bold discussion to arise among those who wish to seek public justice in Jesus’ name.
From Luke’s account we hear that the story of Jesus’ childhood was kept as a family treasure by his mother. And just at the point in text where we might think we are being invited to view the family’s photo-album, we discover Luke telling us that what he has written is all we will get to know and, presumably, all that he knows too.
Just because this was the childhood of the One who would be resurrected and ascended to God’s right hand, does not mean that we have to know the full family history of these years. We do not find ourselves diminished in any way by not knowing Jesus’ family’s history.
We do know from Luke and Matthew of Jesus’ conception, we know of his birth, we hear of his presentation to the temple and we know of the event that occurred when the family crowd “went up” to Jerusalem when he was twelve. Luke and Matthew also help us understand something of the political context in which the lad was raised.
But what we mainly have are accounts of Jesus’ adult ministry, his works and teaching as the Anointed of the Lord. He was a poor Galilean preacher, teacher and healer.
Similarly, we do not have any accounts of the childhood of Jesus’ cousin, John, and there are only indirect inferences we can make about the experience of children from the reports of events that took place when, years later, Jesus’ ministry took him around Judaea, Galilee and Samaria. And I have noted that there may be something similar at work here when Jairus and his wife, and with them Peter, James and John, were instructed by Jesus not to tell the story of the little girl’s raising – there would be no internet site, no selfies of Jairus’ daughter put up on that synagogue’s web-site. Wasn’t the little girl’s ongoing health in view when Jesus gave that instruction?
And yet, Jesus instructed his disciples to give their full attention to children. This did not mean that the details of their young lives, their particular stories, were to be proclaimed as so much free information for whomever may have wanted to know about such details. And that is why I am saying that there is indeed something here for us to attend to. Particularly today with the epidemic of undifferentiated “data” being strewn around. We need to respect the tender plant which is a child’s life, to wait, and not presume upon its public blossoming. There are delicate facets of parent-child relationships that are just not for public distribution. Celebration and treasuring in one’s heart are not without a context of God-given human responsibility. And this is not just a matter to be respected after family life goes pear-shaped and falls into tragedy, or violence or break-up of marriages.
The coming of the Saviour of the world, did not mean that he left behind a family scrap-book or photo-album or diary for his followers to get all sentimental about and leaf through when they didn’t have anything else to do. In fact what he left them was a meal, a meal reminiscent of a broken body and a bloody execution – until he comes again. And it is a meal to which all family members who love him are all invited
Jesus seems to have assumed that his followers would have their own family traditions and stories to tell, even when his command also required them to leave that all behind in order to follow him.
So what were the parents, Mary and Joseph, to do when they could not find their son among their fellow-travellers on their trip home? Did they not, as parents, have responsibilities for which they were accountable to God? What we have here is but one little excerpt, one corner or one page from what was, no doubt, a rather full family scrapbook.
The young Jesus, in his reply to his parents, tells those who were present (and, via Luke’s account, us as well so many, many years later) that he was taking the initiative in learning more about the teaching of the Law and the Prophets, and doing so alongside his own family and extended family network. He took the opportunity of the Jerusalem temple visit at Passover time to do so. Was not a twelve year-old’s education part of that trip up to Jerusalem celebrating the Passover, the deliverance from Egypt? Family life is so important for nurture; but there is also life beyond the strict limits of the family network and household. Young people mature and become adults. Jesus was on the path to adult maturity, even as, as Luke tells us here, he was still submissive to his parents.
So Luke tells Theophilus – and he will repeat it later on as well – that Jesus was indeed on his own learning curve. This learning curve involved coming to an appreciation of the intersection between himself as a child of God – and as a child, conceived as no other child had ever been conceived – and the household in which he was called by His Father in Heaven to learn the way of life of his parents, subject to their care and nurture.
Luke might have recounted more of his investigations about Jesus’ childhood, although, as we have said, he doesn’t tell us anything about John’s childhood except the occasion of his naming when Zacharias had to confirm Elisabeth’s choice of “John” as name their son.
There is the implication here that a family “outsider” (like Luke, like Theophilus, like ourselves) needs to develop respect when confronting the public record of a neighbour’s family and its members. Even if that family is the one from which the Son of God came to us, an “outsider” is to remain respectful of what is kept “within the family”, of what is considered that family’s business. This what is beyond the responsibility (and gaze) of “outsiders” like ourselves, no matter how aligned we as “outsiders” may be with the person concerned, is beyond our gaze. Full stop.
So let us ask: when exactly did Jesus make this response to his mother?
Why have you been hunting for me, mother? Did you not know that I must be busy in the things of my Father?
Are we not hearing the the young man Jesus, saying to his mother:
but haven’t you been telling me all these years of how it was that God my Heavenly Father gave me to you?
When Luke says that Joseph and Mary did not really understand what Jesus meant by his reply, he has given us a brief hint, a merest glimpse of what had to be managed within that household.
Mary says to Jesus:
Your father (πατὴρ) and I have been searching for you …
I would have thought that you of all people mother would have understood I have to be busy with the things of my father (πατρὸς).
Luke is (presumably) writing in Greek; we believe on good authority the language in which Mary and Joseph was not Greek but that they conversed with in Aramaic. Here we have just a glimpse and Luke reassures us that, likewise, Joseph and Mary too had a mere glimpse of what all this meant. They too would have to be patient. The young man in their care would grow into an adult and perform a ministry that was unlike anything anyone else had ever undertaken. Just like their son, they too were on steep learning curves.
When earlier we have read of Mary’s compliance with the angel’s news –
“Take note please. I am the maid-servant of the Lord. Let this happen to me. Just as you have said it would.” (Luke 1:38)
we are not wrong to read it as the expression of pious obedience by a young woman to the revealed will of the Lord. But it indeed became the “signature tune” of her entire life, and she would in time have to deal with the enormous emotional roller-coaster of the betrayal of her first-born, his trial and crucifixion and then his resurrection and ascension. And we are not wrong in seeing this as the onset of a life-long “event”, we might say that it is a learning curve, and one unprecendented among all the sons and daughters of Adam. And the comments of Simeon and the affirmation of Anna at the temple in Jerusalem must have been a profound pastoral support, preparing Mary and Joseph for their work as parents as they took on the task of nurturing this boy and the other children of their family and household.
With the four Gospels at our disposal, we now reflect upon how this part of Jesus’ story became clarified for his mother with his crucifixion and resurrection. Was it only later on that the real significance of the angel’s message, and of the prophecies of Simeon and Anna (let alone the Jordan River announcements of John the Baptist) would begin to make sense? It seems so.
And as we reflect upon these events, with the profound mind re-directing questions that inevitably arise, we might note the quiet respect of Luke, patently evident also from all other New Testament writers as well, for this faithful woman and her husband, and their family. We keep in mind that apart from Luke’s report of Jesus’ birth, and what he recounts about two visits to Jerusalem’s temple (Luke 2:21-40, and 2:41-52), that there are only very slight references to the life of Jesus’ familial household.
From pondering this “absence” we seek a wisdom to better understand what God is doing by having met with us in Jesus Christ. What God has done with Mary and Joseph and their family and household was presumably left by Luke for them to work out between themselves and God! We are left outside of it. Why? We have our own family stuff and family background and grandchildren (if we have any) to work with, to work and serve those God has given us, and to do so personally, intimately as members of God’s family and kingdom.
And as with Jairus and his wife and household having their “inside story”, so all other families have theirs and ours. And so I am suggesting that as we develop a Christian political option, in the context of a Christian way of life, that is something vitally important for us to think about. It refers to the peculiar nurturing that God in his creational wisdom is pleased to see develop in our lives – first between ourselves and our parents, then between ourselves and our siblings (if there are any), then between us a married person (whether a husband or a wife (if we get married), between us as parents and children. And from decree of glory to another.
And so here too, with a deepened sense of responsibility coram Deo we can, helped so gently by God’s Spirit, understand our own family’s distinctive integrity and resist all invasive intrusions forcing themselves upon us, whenever and however they attack. And at the same commit ourselves to the service of our neighbour in Jesus name, to all, in our family networks and beyond to the whole world in the knowledge of the grace and goodness of the Lord.