January 27 – February 3

Friday, January 27

Hebrews 11:8-16: Prior to the calling of Abraham, God provided the human race with certain introductory instruction through the deep perceptions of three patriarchs: Abel, Enoch, and Noah. In what Holy Scripture says of these men, we discern the initial steps of human education.

First, Abel examined the structure of the world around him and reached the conclusion “that things which are seen were not made by things which do appear.” The “thing-ness” of the world, that is to say, was not self-explanatory. The world was not its own cause. On the contrary, it gave “evidence of things not seen.” Abel’s probing mind, gazing at this visible world, became aware of certain invisible truths.

Chief among these, I suppose, were the simplest rational principles (such as causality and non-contradiction) and the basic axioms and elementary theorems of the mathematical order. These interests emerged from the intellect’s encounter with empirical data. Abel’s mind perceived in matter an explanatory reference, and this perception laid the foundation for logical analysis and, in due course, metaphysics.

It is not without interest to reflect that Abel was a shepherd; the pastoral life was eminently compatible with the leisured intellectual exertion required for mathematics and metaphysics. Standing guard over his flock, as it grazed on the grass of the fields, Abel sought deeper nourishment from a greener pasture. He sharpened the earliest human hunger for “the substance of things hoped for.”

In the first generation that followed man’s alienation from God, then, Abel took the first human step back in the direction of Eden. In the world of things seen, he perceived God’s most basic self-testimony. This spiritual perception was an act of faith, in which Abel understood that “the worlds were framed by the word of God.”

Abel’s thought was followed by that of Enoch, who discerned the moral structure of existence. It was clear to Enoch, not only that God is, but also that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” To the deductions of mathematics, therefore, and the insights of metaphysics, Enoch added the requirements of the moral order. He perceived that whatever separated true from false also separated good from evil.

In the transition from Abel to Enoch we trace the noetic step from “the invisible things clearly seen” to “the law written in the heart”—man’s conscience bearing witness to his responsibility. Just as Abel discerned the human mind as the locus where the universe learned the truth about itself, Enoch perceived in the human conscience the classroom where the universe was instructed about right and wrong.

The biographies of Abel and Enoch testify that neither man lived very long. The first was driven from this world by a violent human hand, and the second was summoned forth by a divine impatience, unwilling to wait longer for the delight of his company.

Since neither thinker remained long on the earth, it fell to a third patriarch to discover the moral structure of history; this discovery takes a bit more time. Living longer than Abel and Enoch, Noah carried their teachings to his consideration of culture and human affairs. If Abel was a metaphysician and Enoch a moralist, Noah was a prophet.

Tutored by the patriarchal tradition, which affirmed that God is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, the logical and observant Noah became certain that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” Metaphysics and the moral order drove his mind to the necessity of the retributive eschata. Evil was unnatural; it could not go on indefinitely. Driven by the fear such a perception engendered in his soul, Noah got busy and “prepared an ark to the saving of his house.”

Thus, in the three major patriarchs who followed the Fall, the human mind was enabled to grasp the true structure and significance of the world, to lay hold on the moral foundations of reality, and to act on a correct understanding of human events.

In this progression, humanity was duly prepared for the vocation of Abraham. Even as he dwelt in tents with Isaac and Jacob, Abraham was the heir of a thorough and intense tutelage. Though he left Ur not knowing whither he went, he was in no doubt about the universe—and university—he came from. Saturday, January 28

Hebrews 11:17-22: Readers of Genesis 22—from Sirach to Kierkegaard—have pondered long what thoughts may have intruded themselves into the struggling mind of Abraham when the Lord required him to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice.

Perhaps the most insuperable problem was one of logic: How did Abraham reconcile in his thought the imminent loss of his son with the Lord’s earlier promise that this same son would be the father of many people? Just how could he resolve the contradiction between God’s promise, which he completely believed, and God’s command, which he was completely resolved to obey?

In fact, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the earliest Christian commentary on this story, explicitly cited God’s earlier promise—“in Isaac your seed shall be called”—in the context of the command that Isaac was to be sacrificed (Hebrews 11:18). How was it possible to reconcile God’s promise with God’s command? Abraham had three days to think about it.

The author of Hebrews reflected that Abraham, in order to resolve that contradiction, must have introduced into his reasoning process one further consideration—to wit, God’s power: “He reasoned that God . . . was able”—logisamenos hoti . . . dynatos ho Theos.

The wording of this argument is quite precise. In speaking of God, the author of Hebrews uses the adjective dynatos instead of the verb dynatei (“is able” instead of “could”). In spite of several standard English translations, there is no explicit object (“him”) in this clause. The author thereby indicated he was thinking of more than the saving of Isaac; he had in mind an abiding quality of God—His power.

Abraham had already experienced God’s power in the conception of Isaac, when he and Sarah, for all practical purposes, were as good as dead: “And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (Romans 4:19).

In other words, Abraham reasoned that God’s power had already overcome the forces of death in the very circumstances of Isaac’s conception. And if God had overcome death once, He was always able. Thus, with regard to Isaac, says Hebrews, Abraham “considered that God is able [dynatos] to raise from the dead.”

When the Sadducees challenged Jesus about the resurrection from the dead, He likewise appealed to the power of God. “Are you not therefore mistaken,” He asked, “because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power [dynamis] of God?” (Mark 12:24) And it is passing curious that Jesus spoke of both Abraham and Isaac in that context of the resurrection: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” By way of explaining the reference, Jesus concluded, “He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living” (12:26-27).

For the author of Hebrews, the mind of ancient Abraham raced ahead in prophecy to the doctrine of the resurrection—it was an experienced inference from what he already knew of God. From the very temptation he endured, Abraham arrived at a new understanding of God:namely, that He is powerful to raise the dead to life. This was a true prophetic revelation granted to the struggling mind of His servant.

Sunday, January 29

Matthew 8:5-13: Among those sections that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, independent of Mark, have in common, almost all are directly didactic. That is to say, those sections almost invariably consist of the explicit teachings of Jesus, with no attention to events in Jesus’ life. Those shared sections convey, for instance, the sort of material we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5—7) and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20–49).

When, on the other hand, Matthew and Luke do tell a common story about Jesus’ life, Mark normally has that story too.

The clear exception to this pattern is Matthew’s and Luke’s narrative of the centurion who sought healing for his cherished servant (Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10). As an account of a person beseeching the Lord on behalf of someone else, this shared narrative resembles other stories in the Gospels, such as Jairus and the Syro-Phoenician woman praying for their daughters (Mark 5:23; 7:24–30), another man and a centurion pleading for their sons (9:17; John 4:46–53), Martha and Mary of Bethany interceding for their brother (11:3). These are all accounts of petitionary prayer on behalf of loved ones.

Such stories surely had a great influence on the patterns of Christian intercessory prayer. We note, for instance, that the petitions in these accounts are addressed to Jesus. Although in Jesus’ specific teaching about prayer, the normal emphasis was on prayer addressed to the heavenly Father (Luke 11:2) in Jesus’ name (John 15:16), the emphasis is different in these particular Gospel stories. One of their singular values is that they unambiguously answer a practical question that might arise among Christians, namely, “If one of your loved ones gets sick, is there some special Trinitarian protocol to follow, or is it all right just to take the problem right to Jesus?”

However, the idea of taking one’s problems “right to Jesus” is surely not to be understood in the sense of forgoing the mediating prayer of others. It is not as though the unique mediation of Jesus our Lord (1 Timothy 2:5) excludes certain saints from mediating on behalf of other saints, and these various Gospel stories are the proof of it. In fact, it is the entire point and the whole business of the foregoing stories to validate such mediation. This is called intercessory prayer.

Sunday, January 29

Matthew 8:14-17: When Jesus, in the first days of His ministry, made Capernaum a center of his ministry (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:23), he was closely associated with the home of Simon Peter. This early disciple, though he came from Bethsaida (John 1:44), had apparently moved a few miles westward to Capernaum, perhaps because of its fishing opportunities.

Jesus, centering his ministry at Capernaum, preached around a wide circuit (kyklo) that included Galilee and the coast towns of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 6:6). He perhaps even lived at Peter’s home. It was evidently here that he met his host’s mother-in-law.

Mark’s account is so lively and detailed that we suspect it represents an eyewitness account from Peter himself:

But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and they told him about her at once. So he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her. And she served them (Mark 1:30–31).

The parallel accounts of this scene in Matthew (8:14-15) and Luke (4:38-39) are much less vivid. Luke, for instance, omits the notice about Jesus “taking her by the hand.”

Matthew’s account is distinguished by: (1) the removal of all the characters except Jesus and this woman, so that the encounter is entirely person-to-person (Indeed, in verse 15 the lady in question serves “Him,” not the “them” of Mark 1:31.); (2) Matthew’s insertion of the expression “by word” (logo) in verse 16, an addition that heightens the sense of the Lord’s power and ties this text back to 8:8; and (3) the quotation from Isaiah in 8:17, which continues Matthew’s sustained emphasis on Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament. Thus, in the three miracles we have seen so far in Matthew 8, the Lord conquers leprosy, paralysis, and infection.

Psalm 8: From the very earliest translations of the Creed into the English language, the mystery of the Incarnation has been expressed in a rather puzzling way, even if our long familiarity with the words has reduced our sense of their grammatical enigma. We say of the Son of God that He “became [or “was made”] man.”

The puzzle posed by this construction is exactly how to classify the predicate nominative “man” in this instance. Is the sense of the expression indefinite—“a man,” much as we might say that “Fred became a farmer”? But if so, why didn’t the translators simply say that? “He became a man” would not only make sense; it would be both grammatically and theologically correct.

Or is the meaning of the expression merely descriptive—“he became human,” much as we might say “Fred became agrarian”? Here again, the translators could easily have said that, if that is what they meant, because God’s Son most certainly did become human.

No, neither of these translations was deemed adequate. Rendering very literally from the underlying Latin (and not directly from the original Greek, by the way), the translators said that He “became man,” leaving us with this stylistic puzzle. One can hardly think of an occasion, after all, in which we might properly say “Fred became farmer.”

What the translators gave us here is an idiom, which is to say a form of expression unique to a particular setting and standing outside of expected usage. On reflection, their recourse to idiom in this case is hardly surprising, for the event under discussion, the Incarnation, is itself “idiomatic” in the extreme, in the sense of being completely unique, utterly unexpected, and standing free of normal patterns of acquiescence. How better, after all, to speak of an incomparable and unparalleled event than by recourse to an idiomatic improvisation?

God’s Son did not only “become human,” though it is true that He did. Nor did He simply “become a man,” though this likewise is a correct statement of the fact. He “became man,” rather, in a sense defying grammatical precision as thoroughly as it confounds also the expectations of biology, psychology, metaphysics, and other aspects of the human enterprise, thereby shocked and left reeling, all its vaunted resources now massively strained and overcharged at the infusion of unspeakable glory.

Monday, January 30

Hebrews 11:30-40: This summary of the “great cloud of witnesses” may be described as centered on the author’s reference to what he calls “a better resurrection.” In the context, the comparative adjective, “better,” distinguishes this resurrection from the dead from earlier biblical stories in which, as he says, “women received their dead raised to life again.” Those earlier stories include the accounts in which Elijah and Elisha raised to life the deceased sons of the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman.

These true resurrections from the dead may be compared with Jesus’ resurrections of Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain, and the daughter of Jairus. These were true resurrections, genuine victories of life over death, and Holy Scripture uses the same word—anastasis—to describe them.

For all that, however, those resurrections were not complete, because those who were raised were still obliged to face death once again. When our author speaks, therefore, of a “better resurrection,” he has in mind that definitive victory over death, which was Israel’s most precious hope. “Others were tortured,” he tells us, “not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.”

There are three points to be made about this better resurrection:

First, it represents the final and completed stage of Old Testament hope. The author of Hebrews refers here to those late Old Testament martyrs, who confessed the resurrection from the dead even as they were being tortured to death.

Such were the seven brothers and their mother, whose passing is recorded in the 2nd Book of Maccabees. One of those brothers used his last breath to declare to his tormentor, “You, most wicked man, destroy us from this present life: but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for his laws, in the resurrection of eternal life.” One by one, these seven brothers endured torment and went to their deaths in the same hope of the resurrection from the dead. Finally, their mother, having witnessed her first six sons slain in this way, exhorted her youngest: “So you will not fear this tormentor, but being made a worthy partner with your brothers, receive death, that in that mercy I may receive you again with your brethren” (7:9, 29).

It was this hope of the final resurrection that sustained the people of the Old Covenant in their hour of peril, during the persecution by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It was of those Israelites that the author of Hebrews wrote: “And these all, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” This “something better” is what our author calls a “better resurrection.”

Second, this “better resurrection,” the final and highest hope of the Old Covenant, is the major and defining thesis of the New. Paul the Apostle made this claim before the Sanhedrin itself: “I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets. I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection” (Acts 24:14-15). Paul finished his defense by declaring, “Concerning the resurrection of the dead I am being judged by you this day.”

The Resurrection is the core substance of the "good news." It is not just one of the things that Christians believe, but the heart and kernel of the evangelion. For this reason the earliest, shortest version of the Creed asserted simply, "Jesus is Lord," an assertion explained in the first apostolic sermon: "This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. . . . Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:32,36). Peter preached this message to the Jews, because it addressed a specifically Jewish hope. “Let the whole house of Israel know,” he said. What God accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus was the fulfillment of a specifically Jewish hope. The Apostle Paul, in his sermon at the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, proclaimed the same Gospel of the Resurrection: "And we declare to you glad tidings (evangelion)–that promise which was made to the fathers. God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus" (Acts 13:31-32). Paul proclaimed this message in a synagogue, where he spoke of a “promise which was made to the fathers.” This promise made to the saints of the Old Testament, he announced, “God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus.” Third, the better resurrection—the raising of Jesus—accomplished what the Old Testament Law could not: man’s justification. In fact, the first time the noun "justification" appears in the New Testament, Paul proclaims that Jesus "was raised for our justification" (Romans 4:25). He had earlier written, "For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!" (1 Corinthians 15:17) No Resurrection, no justification. It is through Jesus' Resurrection, then, that we are begotten as children of God. St. Peter wrote, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3).

"If you confess with your mouth," wrote Paul, "that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). These two salvific assertions are identical in meaning. " God has raised Him " is just another way of saying, "Jesus is Lord." His lordship and His resurrection are synonymous, forming the fundamental thesis of the faith, through the confession of which we come to salvation. Christ’s resurrection from the dead fulfills the Old Testament’s hope for a better resurrection.

Tuesday, January 31

Matthew 8:23-27: In this account of the stilling of the storm, the Lord again speaks of faith, which was also the point of the second miracle account, the story of the centurion (8:10,13). There is a striking contrast between the utter serenity of the Lord (asleep!) and the agitation of the disciples. The Lord imposes his own tranquility on the sea itself (8:26). Dominant in this narrative is a Christology of majesty, ending with the major query of the gospel itself: “Who is this?” (8:27) This is the very question that Peter, in the name of the Church, will answer in 16:16. The correct answering of this question is the affirmation of faith on which, as a foundation stone, is constructed (16:18).

Hebrews 12:1-11: Even in advance of the darkness of the Passion, the celebration of Palm Sunday gives Christians a vision of the glory that will follow the Cross. They are not expected to step into the dark corridor without knowing where that corridor will lead.

Jesus Himself knew exactly where He was going when He began Holy Week and the Way of the Cross. Indeed, it was his vision that strengthened Him to walk that path. He, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” He did not suffer the Cross for the sake of the Cross, but because of that final joy.

Christians, likewise, are not called to endure for the sake of endurance, but for the sake of glory. In this, they are to be modeled on Jesus: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus.” Several translations (Phillips, NIV, NEB, NAB) render this last expression as “our eyes fixed on Jesus,” which perhaps better catches the sense of aphorontes. We are, in fact, dealing with a fixation.

In the Christian life, very much depends of where we look, where we direct our attention. Recall Peter’s attempt to walk on water: “And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid” (Matthew 14:29-30).

This fixation is a function of concentration: “Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The opening verb here (its only place in the New Testament) is the imperative form of analogizomai, which refers to critical, discursive thought—the labor of the mind.

In fact, one sees in this verb the same root found in the English “analogy.” This is all the more curious inasmuch as our author proceeds immediately to provide an analogy: “It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?”

These reflections touch the very purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews: to encourage Christians who were despondent because of the difficulties attendant on the life of faith. The author endeavors to fix their attention on those considerations that provide strength for the struggle. His model, in this respect, is Jesus Himself, who “endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Wednesday, February 1

Matthew 8:28-34: The question asked in the previous story (“Who is this?”) is now answered by the demons themselves: “Jesus, the Son of God” (8:29). In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the account of expelling of these demons follows the storm on the lake, where the external turbulence of the elements prepared for the internal turbulence of the soul. It is a point of great irony in this story that the local citizens, who had managed to overcome somewhat their fear of the demoniacs, are so completely terror-struck by the Lord’s action that they request that he leave them be (8:34).

Hebrews 12:12-20: The author of Hebrews outlines a contrast between two mountains: Sinai and Zion—the mountain of the Law and the mountain of the Temple, or the covenant with Moses and the covenant with David.

A similar contrast between these two mountains—Sinai and Zion—was made by St. Paul, much to the same effect: “For these are two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:24-26).

In both texts—Galatians and Hebrews—there is a contrast between the bondage of the Law and the boldness of the Christian. With respect to this contrast, St. Paul writes, “you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7). In both cases, we observe, Mount Zion is called the heavenly Jerusalem: According to Galatians, “the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” According to Hebrews, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”

One suspects that this contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion may have been a rhetorical trope in early Christian preaching. This suggestion would explain why we find it in both Galatians and Hebrews, in spite of the great differences between these two works. This contrast is used in both places and adapted to the theme of each work.

Here in Hebrews, the two mountains are contrasted with respect to what we may call “comfort”: Mount Sinai provokes fear and trembling, whereas Mount Zion inspires boldness, or parresia. In Hebrews, this word describes the spirit in which believers have access to God.

In the blood of Christ heaven and earth are joined, we are in the presence of the angels and the perfected righteous figures of history, and we have this approach by reason of the eloquent blood of Jesus. It is not the old covenant mediated through Moses, but the new covenant mediated by Jesus. In this final contrast, the author of Hebrews repeats what he has made the major theme of this entire work.

Thursday, February 2

Luke 2:22-40: Since the presentation of our Lord in the temple is an account found only in the Gospel of Luke (2:22-40), it seems reasonable to look at that narrative through the lens of Luke himself.

It is not hard to do. This is the story, after all, of the Messiah's first visit to the temple in Jerusalem, a site that Luke makes a foundation stone of his literary structure. Indeed, he begins and ends his Gospel in the temple (1:5-9; 24:52-53).

Moreover, near the end of Jesus' first visit to the temple, Luke remarks that the prophetess Anna "spoke of Him to all those who looked for the redemption in Jerusalem" (2:38). The real "redemption in Jerusalem" takes place, of course, in the last pages of Luke, describing the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These are the events included in what Luke's original Greek text calls Jesus' exodos, "which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (9:31).

Luke's story takes for granted the full significance of the temple. He presumes that the reader is familiar with the Lord's assumption of "residence" there shortly after its completion (1 Kings 8), His departure from it at the time of its destruction (Ezekiel 10), and His return there when the temple was rebuilt (Haggai 2:1-9; Zechariah 8-9).

Luke especially presumes the prophecy of the Messiah's coming appearance at the temple, an oracle found near the end of the last prophetic book of the Hebrew Scriptures: "And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming, says the Lord of hosts" (Malachi 3:1).

According to that same prophecy, the purpose of the Messiah's coming to the temple was to purify its priesthood: "He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness" (3:3).

It was those very priests, however, who failed to recognize the Messiah's arrival. On His final recorded visit to the temple, in fact, Luke tells us that "the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him" (20:1). Their confrontation came in response to the purging of the temple in the scene immediately preceding (19:45-48).

Those sons of Levi wanted nothing to do with any purging. They had no use for what Malachi called the "refiner's fire" and "launderers' soap" (3:2). What, then, resulted from their confrontation with the Messiah? Luke tells us, "the chief priests and the scribes that very hour sought to lay hands on Him" (20:19). The temple was the site where this messianic drama was decided. It is surely significant, therefore, that Luke, in describing Jesus' words about Jerusalem's coming destruction, places that prophecy in the temple itself (21:20-24; contrast Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:3).

Such is the full literary context of Luke's story of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple. It is a prophetic preparation for the redemptive events that will culminate at the end of the Gospel. The Lord is met by Simeon, an elderly man whom Luke describes with references to the Holy Spirit in three successive verses (2:25-27). Cast in the role of a prophet by these references, the inspired Simeon, after a canticle of praise, prophesies the drama that will ensue in the temple toward the end of the Gospel: "Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against" (2:34).

It was "in that instant" that Simeon was joined by "Anna, a prophetess," who spoke of this Messiah "to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (2:36-38). This too, as we have seen, was a prophecy of the Lord's death and resurrection, for those things brought about that "redemption in Jerusalem."

Such, at the beginning of Luke, is the small company that welcomes the Messiah on His first visit to the temple. Upon these two old people comes an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, much as Luke describes in the beginning of Acts. Here too the Spirit descends upon a son and a daughter, a manservant and a maidservant, and they prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). Israel is well represented by these two figures who foster in their hearts the ardor of ancient hopes. But Simeon and Anna, even as they gave thanks to God for the Messiah's arrival (2:28-29,38), dimly foretell the drama that will later unfold in the courts of the temple.

Friday, February 3

Luke 2:41-52: Although the story of Jesus lost and found in the Temple is chiefly significant for its Christological import, its narrative structure, as I remarked before, conveys the “action” through the eyes and understanding of Mary. Luke invites us to take this approach in his final comment: “His mother continued to keep all these things in her heart.” Indeed, unless the reader approaches the story through Mary’s perception, he will miss much of its drama.

We observe, first, that the lostness in the story is objective: Jesus is not lost in the sense that he does not know where he is, but in the sense that he is missing—his mother does not know where He is. We readers, too, part company with Jesus in this scene: Until his parents find him, we don’t know where he is either. The story’s movement is advanced by what Mary and Joseph do:


When they had finished the days, as they returned, the boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and his mother did not know; but supposing him to have been in the company, they went a day's journey, and sought him among relatives and friends. So when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him (Luke 2:43-45).


The narrative action, taking us readers along with it, first moves north. The storyteller and his readers travel towards Galilee with Mary and Joseph. The evangelist speaks of their worried search, though he does not directly mention their anxiety—indeed, it is made explicit only by Mary herself in the closing dialogue (Luke 2:48)—because the anxiety is implied in the details of the search. Not finding the boy Jesus after a day's journey, Mary and Joseph return south to Jerusalem—and we go back with them, of course—to continue their pursuit in the same place they last saw Jesus:


Now so it was that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions (2:46).


Jesus, we all discover, is the center of attention: “And all who heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.” The boy's parents are bewildered: "So when they saw him," writes Luke, "they were amazed." Every parent comprehends their amazement: This was the child they had raised for a dozen years. Yet, he did not accompany them back home after the Passover, as he had done on every prior trip. Mary and Joseph searched for him frantically, but even when they find him, the child displays not the slightest remorse or concern for their anxiety. The mother of Jesus finds this insouciance on the part of her twelve-year old a bit more than she is disposed to accept without complaint: "Son, why have you done this to us? Look, your father and I have sought you anxiously" (Luke 2:48).

Then, the boy, instead of apologizing and promising it will not happen again, turns the question back on his mother: "Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?" From any other twelve-year old, this kind of answer would be called "back talk" and treated as impertinent. I suspect that Jesus’ answer to Mary was a sort of continuation of his discussion with the rabbis. Recall that Jesus, when his parents discover him in the Temple, has been engaged (for three days, apparently) in discourses with the rabbis; he has been asking them questions and answering theirs. In other words, Jesus has been engaged in a pedagogical and rhetorical method where a favored device is the "counter-question"—the answering of a question by a further and more probing inquiry. We find this style of debate frequently in rabbinic literature and in the gospels. The boy Jesus, then, so recently exposed to this pedagogical and rhetorical method here in the Temple, spontaneously has recourse to it in order to answer his mother. When she inquires, "Why have you done this?" He responds with a counter-question, "Why did you seek me? Did you not know?" No, as a matter of fact, Mary did not know, nor did she and Joseph find much reassurance in this brief dialogue with Jesus. Luke tells us, "But they did not understand the statement which he spoke to them" (2:50). Then, the three of them return to Nazareth—in silence, one suspects. Mary is portrayed as "anxious"—her own word—amazed, and confused. Considered from her perspective, as Luke clearly intends, the story is most noticeable as a test of Mary's faith. The angel Gabriel had spoken to her nearly thirteen years earlier, when she was perhaps half of her present age. At that time, indeed, she may not have been much older than Jesus was when they found him in the Temple. From that day when the angel visited her, it appears, Mary has understood rather little of what transpired. Like Abraham her father, she followed God's will in faith but can hardly guess where it was all leading. She walked obediently, day by day, not knowing whither she went. Luke’s story, which chronicles Jesus’ growth in wisdom, is told here through the person who witnessed that growth, and was obliged, in a very personal way, to explore its meaning. It was certainly from her that Luke learned the facts of the case.