The teenage years – the adolescent Jesus

Christmas 1

Luke 2:41-52

Marian Free


In the name of God, who nurtures and encourages us, and who sets us free to make our own way in the world. Amen.

We all know that a parent bird literally forces a fledgling out of the nest so that it learns how to fly. If it is not pushed, it may never stretch its wings and become independent. It will be unable to survive unless the parent birds plan to lay no more eggs and feed the baby bird forever.

One of the things that I learnt as a parent was this – that good parenting, or at least reasonably good parenting, involves the costly task of letting go. That is, if we do the task of parenting well, what we are doing is preparing our children not to be parented. We engage in the task of ensuring that our children do not need us. The role into which we put so much energy and love is one that if done well inevitably leads to hurt, loss and separation. Our task, difficult as it may seem, is to prepare our children for independence – to love them so much that instead of holding on to them we set them free.

There are at least four stages of separation before our children actually leave the nest.

Each of these stages can create pain, stress and disharmony within the family as the relationships between parent and child are forced to change and adapt to the shifting situations. At least in recent history, it appears that unlike birds, we do not have an in-built trait which is automatically triggered when our children reach a particular stage of development. Our instinct is often to maintain control rather than to let go. Wehave to struggle with the process of our offspring’s growing maturity. Most of us find it difficult to be totally gracious about our children’s growing independence – or at least about the unsettling way in which their quest to separate themselves disrupts what has been a comfortable family life.

All separation is painful. Not only is the process of birth agonizing in a physical sense, but a mother also has to accept that the child, which was an integral part of her, can now exist – at least breathe and eat – independently. She is still needed, but she has to adapt to being needed in a different way. After two years, a child begins to exert pressure to be further identified as an independent individual. The so-called “terrible twos” are simply part of the process as a child makes the journey from dependence to independence. For many families this is a difficult time as parents try to find the balance between giving the child an opportunity to express themselves and at the same time creating boundaries so that the child learns the limits and gains a sense of security.

If this stage is negotiated successfully there may be a time of relative tranquility until the child reaches adolescence. Then, once again, the child will test the limits, make demands for independence and disrupt the pattern of relationships which have been developed and which have allowed the family unit to operate smoothly. Unlike the terrible twos, this is a stage which may extend over a number of years and which may force the final stage to come sooner rather than later. Teenagers often have no understanding of and certainly no sympathy for their parent’s concerns. They know that they will be safe at their friend’s party. They are sure that no harm will come to them if they go out with their friends and so on. On the other hand, parents often do not readily accept that their child is responsible or that their child is capable of making sensible decisions and looking after themselves. Parents know what can happen and take some time to accept that their child is ready for the world.

Finally, the young person is ready to step out on their own, to make their way. Tears at weddings reflect pride, but also a recognition that the person into whom so much was poured can now go it alone. All the love, all the nurture that the parent has provided have led to their child going off on their own.

Today’s gospel has many parts, of which one is Jesus’ adolescence. In this episode the twelve year old Jesus is demonstrating his growing awareness of who he is, he is asserting his independence, separating from his birth family and shifting his allegiance to another cause. In other words he is being a typical adolescent. Jesus has been brought by his parents to Jerusalem – as he has been for the past eleven years. As a twelve year old he has presumably been given some independence which he uses to make up his own mind that he does not need to leave at the same time as the rest of the family. His parents, who have trusted him to be responsible are, not surprisingly, filled with anxiety when they realize he is not with the return party and they begin an anxious search for him.

When they finally discover him, Jesus behaves like a normal adolescent. He cannot understand why they should have been so worried. He knew that he was perfectly safe and capable of looking after himself! Jesus’ response to his mother’s question is one of surprise: “Why were you looking for me?” He dismisses his parent’s anxiety, and as other adolescents have done since, accuses them of ignorance: “Didn’t you know?” This is a typical twelve year old who believes that he is all grown up and who thinks that his parents (who are stupid) should have caught up with that fact.

It is very easy to read the story of Jesus in the Temple in a pious way, but it is just as valid to see this account as further evidence of Jesus’ humanity.

Certainly, the author of Luke uses the account to make a transition from the story of Jesus’ birth to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He is also making the Temple a central character as he does at both the beginning and end of the Gospel, he is introducing the reader to Jesus’ superior wisdom, suggesting Jesus’ strong ties to God the Father, making links with the birth narrative (Mary treasured all these things in her heart) and with Simeon’s prediction (a sword will pierce your own heart). None of these must be allowed to paper over the picture of Jesus’ behaving as any other teenage boy asserting his independence, trying to break free of the parental shackles and seeking to be treated as an adult.

It is clear that “in the memory of the Lukan community, Jesus appeared not only as the son of the divine Father, but also in complete humanity, as a maturing boy[1].”

God as Jesus fully identified with our human situation in order that God might redeem our humanity and restore our divinity. In our own quest for divinity, we need not reject our humanity, but embrace it and, with God’s help make what we can of it.

[1] Bovon, Francois. (Trans Christine M. Thomas). Luke 1. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002, 113.


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