Thursday, December 17, 2009

Giving Parents their Honor




“Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?  Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them"

After three days[1] of looking, Mary and Joseph find Jesus sitting among the teachers at the temple ‘listening to them’ and ‘asking them questions!’  This is the first scene we have outside of the birth narrative with Jesus as a young man.  If there were ever a text to emphasize the centrality of catechesis (I have written about a “Culture of Catechesis” HERE) in the Christian life this ought to have some attention.  The image of our Lord here is one of sitting among his older teachers, ‘listening’ and ‘asking.’  The incarnate God in Christ assumes a posture of hearing and listening to preaching.  The teacher lets himself be taught.  The catechist is first a catechumen.  Jesus desires to be spoken to, taught, and corrected.  His bearing is that of a catechumen, hearing His Word, continually asking, “Teacher, what does this mean?”  As Hamann observes the ‘creator speaks to the creature through the creature.’ 

What I like here is that Mary gives Jesus a good chastising for worrying his parents, “Son why have you done this to us.”  This correction may have been accompanied by a look of annoyance by the theotokos; maybe she even grabbed his arm, or pulled his ear in some disciplinary stroke.  The first Words we have out of the Christ are these, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”  No doubt, our Lord is speaking about His salvific work in holy obedience to the Father and going to the Jerusalem to be the Passover Lamb – and make atonement – the business of the Father and of the Son.   

What is particularly striking is how Christ’s love and obedience to His heavenly Father (first commandment) mirrors that of His earthly parents (fourth commandment).  Our Lord, as the age of twelve, already gains the ‘astonishment’ of the rabbis in temple, but this does not exult him over the discipline of his parents.  He is rather exulted because He lets Himself be disciplined under them.  The young rabbi par excellence, the sinless Son of God, receives a verbal butt whoopin from the holy mother.  What's more, Luke tells us that Jesus made himself obedient/subject/subordinated (Gr. word upotassomenos) to his parents as they, as a family, walked back down to Nazareth.

I do not think it is possible to overemphasize the union here between Christ’s honoring of the Father (commands 1-3) and his honor, love, and obedience for his parents. We often talk about our Lord’s passive righteousness (atonement and suffering death before the Father) but often times relegate his active righteousness to a lesser role.  Yet his crucifixion and holy, perfect, obedient life exist together as one reality.  The first thing we know about this young Jesus is that he loves being a catechumen, hearing and asking questions (what does this mean?), and then also that he subordinates himself under the authority of Mary and Joseph.

The way we often think about obeying parents now is that it is a legal sort of binding or social contract, that by law I must obey my parents, at least until I am 18, and then I am ‘out on my own.’  At 18 it is understood that you a ‘free to do as you like,’ or ‘make your own decisions.’  Of course, this presupposes that your life is your own, that you may ‘do what is best for you’ and ‘follow your heart.’ 

The fourth command is that we are called to honor father and mother, which however burdensome it may appear to be, holds no expiration date.  What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.[2]  Luther also calls the fourth commandment the ‘first and greatest’ because it is the first promise that holds a promise, “that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12).  What do we owe parents?  The large catechism states:

“God knows very well this perverseness of the world; therefore, He admonishes and urges by commandments that everyone consider what his parents have done for him.  Each child will discover that he has from them a body and life.  He has been fed and reared when otherwise he would have perished a hundred times in his own filth.”[3]   

That is to say we are called into life by God through our parents.  We neither choose or have any say in the matter, but are called and created.  Parents stand as icons of God’s creative work which suggests therefore that an indissoluble relationship between the honor given God and the honor given to parents.  It is impossible to love God and simultaneously hate or rebel against parents, for it is only through parents that life is given to me. 

Luke captures the perfect love of Christ toward his heavenly Father and his parents in a couple brief sentences.  In faith we claim His obedience and righteousness as our own, as we are called to repentance and holy living in the freedom that only Christ’s forgiveness can bring.  


[painting is by Jan Steen 1626-1679 "The 12 year old Jesus in the temple"]                                           



[1] It seems likely to me that Luke likely has the resurrection in mind, “after three days” is a common reference.
[2] Luther’s Small Catechism
[3] LC, part I, 129.

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