Uneasy childhoods

Christmas 1 – 2015

Luke 2:41-52

Marian Free

In the name of God whose unconventional choices transform the world. Amen.

The readings from 1 Samuel and from Luke tell the stories of two young boys – Samuel and Jesus – whose childhoods are anything but conventional. Two boys – born generations apart whose stories are remarkably similar and yet vast different. Both were conceived in miraculous circumstances, both were separated from their family, both were found in the house of the Lord, both were doing God’s will and both were destined to play significant part in the life of God’s people. Two boys who stories coincide, but whose experiences, personalities and roles are entirely different.

Samuel is the son of Hannah and Elkanah. Samuel’s mother, Hannah was her husband’s second wife. Elkanah already had children and he loved Hannah even though she was childless. However, Hannah was desperate for children of her own – both to remove the sense of shame that she felt and also to remove the disdain in which Elkanah’s first wife held her. Hannah was desperate and, in the house of the Lord, she prayed fervently for a child. As she prayed, she made a commitment to God that if her prayer was answered she would dedicate her son to God’s service.

According to the story, it is only when the child is born that she tells Elkanah of her promise. Elkanah accepts her decision but asks that the child remain at home until he is weaned.

Even so Samuel can have been no older than four when his parents took him to the house of the Lord and abandoned him to be raised by a complete stranger who was old enough to be his grandfather. Apart from a yearly visit, Hannah and Elkanah have no more to do with the raising of Samuel who seems to accept and to adapt to his new life and to obedient to his surrogate father Eli. Hannah has three more sons and two daughters as a reward for her gift to God.

This is the bible, so we are led to believe that Hannah’s behaviour is perfectly acceptable, that Samuel is perfectly acquiescent and that he experienced no long-term negative consequences as a result of his being deserted by his parents at such a young age and did not resent his siblings who presumably stayed at home with their parents). Samuel goes on the play a significant role in the life of Israel. He oversees the transition from priestly to kingly rule and it is through him that the first two kings of Israel are appointed and anointed.

Jesus’ story and Jesus’ character is completely different to that of Samuel. Jesus was, if you like, imposed on his parents rather than sought after. His parents did not abandon him he abandons them. Jesus did not willing accept his family obligations nor did he comply to societal expectations. He consistently strained against the real and perceived restrictions and limitations of living in that time and place.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is apparently not his first visit. His parents have brought him every year for the Passover festival. Jerusalem was a small town by our standards and no doubt as a twelve-year-old Jesus and his friends have had a degree of freedom to roam the streets. All the same, he would have known that his parents were returning home yet he chose to remain behind, oblivious to or selfishly disregarding the anxiety that his remaining would cause them. When Mary and Joseph finally discovered Jesus after days of searching the teenaged Jesus was any but apologetic, in fact, he was disrespectful to the point of being callous. He showed no compassion for his parent’s anxiety. Instead, he behaved as teenager would, by expressing surprise that they had been worried. Worse, when Mary says: “your father and I have been searching for you”, Jesus responds by saying: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Joseph’s feelings and is role in Jesus’ life are completely ignored as his precocious son redefines his responsibilities and commitments. Jesus separated himself still further when, as an adult, he claimed that it was believers, not his natural family who were his mothers and brothers and sisters.

Again, this is scripture. The story of Jesus’ defiance is told in such a way that we are led to believe that Jesus’ behaviour in the Temple is an aberration or that it is an illustration of his recognition of his role and of his obedience to God. From now on at least until adulthood, Luke tells us that Jesus was obedient to his parents, to Mary and to Joseph.

Two stories of two very different boys chosen by God, to do God’s will – one willingly given up, the other reluctantly let go, one compliant, accommodating and obedient, the other non-compliant, non-accommodating and rebellious – both chosen by God to fulfill God’s purpose: for the people of Israel and for the salvation of the world.

The childhood stories of Samuel and Jesus remind us that God is not conventional and does not operate according to human standards. God can and does choose unusual people and unexpected situations to work out God’s will in the world. God’s chosen may or may not behave in conventional ways and may or may not conform to the expectations of the world in which they find themselves.

We would do well to withhold our judgement and suspend our expectations of others, for God in them, may take us completely by surprise.

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