The story of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve (Lk. 2: 41–41) is unique in the New Testament in that, being the only story about Jesus as an adolescent, it is also the only text that gives us insight into Jesus as a developing person. The infancy narratives show Jesus as a vulnerable baby and stories of Jesus as an adult, thirty years of age, show a pretty steady portrait of Jesus although a few stories hint at some change in Jesus’ perspective, such as the story of the Canaanite woman. (Lk. 18: 1–9). The big turning point in Jesus’ life was the baptism when the heaven’s opened. This was clearly a powerful experience that oriented him for the rest of his life and solidified his identity. It is well-known that early adolescence is a time of transition and a growing sense of identity, and Luke shows us the beginnings of the identity that was firmed up by his baptism.
The biggest transition for an adolescent is to move from parental care and authority to a growing independence in calling the shots for one’s own life. This is a transition that both parents and children have to navigate. That Jesus’ parents assumed that their son had rejoined the caravan for the return trip from Jerusalem (a poor assumption) suggests that they were indeed letting go and giving their son some responsibility for himself. If Jesus had been younger, they would have made sure the boy was with them before the caravan left. As for Jesus, it is obvious that he made an independent decision on his own initiative. This independent choice led to a new dependence beyond his family as Jesus felt drawn to the temple and took advantage of the opportunity to learn and sharpen his own growing insights in conversation with the elders. Although Jesus would, as an adult, have an adversarial relationship with many of the same people, at this time in his life, Jesus asked questions, listened carefully, and weighed the answers for what they could teach him. As often happens with adolescents, Jesus seemed to assume that his parents would know where he would be, another poor assumption..
That Jesus was drawn to the temple and to conversation with the elders indicates that he had a growing sense of a vocation deeply involved with the religious tradition of his people and the time to begin preparing for it had come. When his parents found him, he showed himself to be firm in this growing sense of vocation when he said: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2: 49) Like many adolescents, Jesus failed to make himself understood to his parents. Not wishing to be a rebellious adolescent, Jesus returned to Nazareth and “was obedient to them.” (Lk. 2: 51)
The insights into adolescent psychology are pretty good for a writer who had no opportunity to take a course in developmental psychology, but that is not the point of the story. What is important, and something we should ponder, is that Jesus, as truly and fully human as well as divine, developed as a human being as every human being develops. As with everything else human, Jesus leads us through his own human experience in our own navigating of transitions in life.