(…continued) This is one of those places where we wish the Bible would tell us just a little bit more of the story. Mary and Joseph certainly knew from the circumstances of his birth that Jesus was to be someone very special, but they did not yet know all that would mean. So it is no wonder that here they are left a bit confused. One day, Jesus is just one of the kids playing in the backyard, and the next day he is talking with, and making quite an impression on, the best scholars in the Jerusalem temple. And then he replies to their concern with that strange comment about being in his ‘Father’s house.’
All we can do is go on what we have in the text. Despite the apparent conflict with his parents, what we have here is Jesus not being sinfully disobedient, but rather, Jesus being obedient to a higher authority. The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are, but that he was without sin, so Jesus was not here breaking the fourth commandment by not honoring his parents. Rather, he was beginning the more important work for which he was born. Mary had some sense of this, because at the end of this story it does not say that she grounded Jesus for three weeks for his disobedience, but rather that she “pondered all these things and treasured them in her heart;” the same thing she did after the visit of the shepherds on the night of Jesus birth.
Actually, this story illustrates an important ethical principal. Jesus was sinless. We are told that in the book of Hebrews, and in the very last verse of this story we are told that Jesus returned to Nazareth with his parents and that he was obedient to them. Jesus did obey the fourth commandment and did honor his parents. But in this story he had to obey the Heavenly Father, and obedience to God over-rules obedience to parents every time.
In one of my college classes many years ago the teacher was going on and on about how there are no moral absolutes. For example, lying cannot always be wrong, because what if you were in Germany in WW II and the Nazis came to your house looking for Jews who they would most certainly kill. Would you then be obligated to tell them the truth about the Jews hiding in your basement? No, of course not, he argued, and so therefore it is not always wrong to lie and there are no moral absolutes. Back then this was called ‘situation ethics,’ meaning that right and wrong depended not on some overall divine moral law, but on each situation. Well, for someone who is already of a noble and upright moral character that might work. But for many people, especially college students, it can easily mean that in whatever situation I am in, I am free to do whatever I want to do. How convenient!
It is far better to maintain that there are moral absolutes: that lying is always wrong, and killing is always wrong, and stealing is always wrong, and so forth. But then, with that firmly in mind, it must be added that sometimes in this wicked world moral absolutes will conflict with each other, and then one moral absolute must over-rule the other. Sometimes this is easy to figure out and sometimes it isn’t. The case of the Nazis at the door is an easy one. You lie to them to prevent them from unjustly killing an innocent human. The intent of the fifth commandment is to protect life, and if you have to tell a lie to protect a life, of course you will do that. In some cases, you might even have to take one life to protect another life, and this can get very complicated. But one must begin by affirming the moral absolutes, not disregarding them.
This little story from the childhood of Jesus does just that. Jesus is sinless, and he is an obedient son to his earthly parents. But here he is obeying a higher authority. In some ways, this story reminds me of a few confirmation students I have had over the years, teenagers who had to go against their parents wishes to come to church and Sunday School and confirmation. You don’t see that very often, but when you do, it is an illustration of this principle in action. Jesus’ parents were not keeping him away from God, but it is clear in the story that Mary and Joseph had a different understanding from Jesus’ own understanding of what it would mean for Jesus to obey God. Here, as in other places, Jesus would set aside the lower authority to obey the higher. Later on in his ministry, Jesus got in trouble with the religious authorities by healing a lame man, because Jesus broke the law about doing no work on the Sabbath Day.
In one of the prayers that follow Holy Communion in the Lutheran liturgy we pray: “Almighty God, you gave you Son both as a sacrifice for sin and as a model of the godly life;” and then adds, “enable us to conform our lives to his.” Here in this story, at 12 years old, Jesus is already providing such a model, teaching us to live, as he was teaching the teachers and elders in the temple. May we have the wisdom to do as the prayer says and conform our lives to his in this, and every way.
Acts 5:29 — But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Hebrews 4:14-15 — Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
Almighty God, you gave your Son both as a sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life. Enable us to receive him always with thanksgiving, and to conform our lives to his; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Lutheran Book of Worship, prayer #243