At the end of Luke’s Infancy Narrative, we find a story that does not really pertain to his infancy, since he is already twelve years old when he visits the temple with his parents on the occasion of the Passover feast. He is there because he has now reached the age of “maturity” and must therefore join the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the major feasts.
We must be careful not to be distracted by paintings of this scene of Jesus with the doctors of the law. In such cases, he is often pictured standing in the center of a circle of old men, with a halo on his head, and in a pose of one who is teaching. In the text, however, we read that he was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” This would be the normal situation of a bright and curious young person. There does seem to be some form of dialogue also, for the old men are “astounded at his understanding and his answers.”
In the context of Luke’s gospel, where choice of vocation is of paramount importance, Jesus is here presented as one who is beginning to take charge of his life, which means that he is also beginning to establish his independence from parental guidance. Nonetheless, it is important to note that, at the end of this episode, Jesus returned to Nazareth with his parents and “was obedient to them.” This tension between parental control and personal freedom makes this an especially appropriate gospel for the feast of the Holy Family.
There is much in this gospel that is important for the delicate and critical task of responsible parenting. As teen-age children begin to test the boundaries of their lives, parents are faced with the enormous responsibility of steering a middle course between a rigid and authoritarian solution and a lax and indulgent attitude. The authoritarian model prevents a child from developing in a normal and healthy way and can lead to later demands for freedom that are bitter and sometimes violent. But lax indulgence is no good solution either, for it allows children to make decisions, and face consequences, for which they are not prepared. Granting too much freedom too soon can look like love, but it may be simply a form of abandonment.
I have never had to face the difficult problem of parenting, but I did have an analogous experience when I was rector of our seminary for seventeen years in the days of Vatican II. We all knew that the rigid regime that had prevailed in seminaries would have to be changed, but of course the students had a much more radical change in mind than the rector! The boundaries needed to be moved, but the desire of some students was to have no boundaries at all. I soon learned that governing by fiat would not work…and so we had endless discussion about what a reasonable compromise would be. In such circumstances, what is at issue is the concern one has for the long-term benefit of the students rather than for good order alone.
I think a parallel situation for parents would be the perennial struggle that occurs when a teenager is trying to choose a good college. It is not a very good idea to make that critical choice simply on the basis of where this teenager’s boy friend or girl friend is going to college! This is especially true when we realize that this boy friend or girl friend will probably not turn out to be one’s marriage partner after all. But this is only one of many choices where parents and children must dialogue with sincerity and trust. And the critical ingredient is a tough love that is in touch with reality and which engenders real trust.
In terms of today’s gospel, we note that Jesus asserted his independence from parental constraints but nonetheless returned with them to Nazareth and “was obedient to them.” I think it is safe to say that his career was not endangered by such a wise sense of balance.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.