As Jesus Grew

Church window at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, PA

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.

Jesus Explodes with Life: His Reply to the Sadducees

buddingTree1When the Sadducees approach Jesus in the temple with their question ridiculing resurrection from the dead, they are part of the collective violence surrounding Jesus. This is not a polite debate to entertain viewers on evening TV. The Pharisees have just asked their question to entrap Jesus and triangled in the Roman authorities to boot. Groups of people who normally hate each other but have united against Jesus.

Their question zeroes in on the practice of Levirate marriage, where the younger brother of a man who dies childless marries his brother’s widow. This practice presupposes that one is dead when one dies and that immortality is gained only through one’s offspring. Even this ploy fails in this case as all seven brothers die childless after having married this poor widow. No immortality there. Jesus is trapped. Or is he?

Jesus reply, referring to the words spoken by God through the burning bush, is universally admired for its clever exegesis of a text from Torah that the Sadducees would have to accept as authoritative. But there is much more here than declaring that God is a God of the living. In Raising Abel James Alison explodes this reply by saying that the power of God which the Sadducees do not understand “is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us ‘being alive’ means ‘not being dead;’ it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death.”

These words pack a wallop that throws us through at least seven spheres of being teeming with life. Alison is surely not suggesting that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are counting the days off their celestial calendar! This is about quality of life, eternal life as Jesus means it in John’s Gospel.

Let us revisit the question with these stirring words in mind. There is a second way that marriage is used as a way to defeat death besides having offspring. Marriage is a means of restraining mimetic rivalry by placing the partner off limits to all others. Otherwise, everybody might kill everybody fighting over sexual partners. In the context of seven brothers, this is especially important and incest laws add extra restraint on the brothers of the bride who might be especially presupposed to rivalry. The premature death of the older brother changes the picture and suddenly the wife goes to the next brother in line. This is not a good way to win a game of mimetic rivalry, however, as the offspring still belongs to the older, the dead brother and not to the younger brother who is still alive. The Sadducees’ hypothetical case adds to the mockery by imagining that the seven brothers meet up with this poor widow in the resurrection and fight over her like dogs fighting over a bone, presumably with no end in sight. (The widow doesn’t matter much in this scheme of things.)

Jesus explodes all this by saying that there is no marrying or giving of marriage in Heaven. There is no bride to fight over after all. There is no longer anything whatever to fight over. Just try to imagine life without having something to fight about! The image of Jesus as the Bridegroom and the Church (that’s all of us) as the bride suggests that the intimacy of marriage is a good shared by all without need of restraints of any kind. Like the Sadducees, we are profoundly mistaken about the power of God as long as we cling to the rivalries of the seven brothers.