The young Jesus

Fragment of a Roman Christian fresco, 8th-9th century. Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington, DC. BZ.1938.59. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. "Early Christian frescoed wall decorations--best known from the Roman catacombs--show more often scenes from the Testaments or saints than a representation of the deceased. The youth of this painting with hands crossed on his breast seems to have been surrounded by saints or members of his family--whether in the context of a tomb chapel, a catacomb, or a church in Rome has yet to be determined." Object record: Tags: praying saint, pretzel, Roman wall painting

Luke 2.41 – end


A week ago, here after church, I spoke with Rob and Vicky Jones as Rob held in his arms their young, deliciously smiling, Timothy Francis, whom Vicky volunteered she could easily lose for an hour or two when they met up the next day with adoring relatives!

I expect that Mary, mother of the twelve-year-old Jesus, might have answered with the same easy, relaxed realism if asked where Jesus was as they journeyed home from Jerusalem to Nazareth after attending Passover there together – ‘O, he’s with his cousins, John, Sarah, Moshe and David I expect.’


But when at dusk Mary and Joseph and their many fellow pilgrims stopped for the night and they discovered than John, Sarah, Moshe and David hadn’t seen Jesus at all, their casual calm would have surely turned to profound concern. He was after all their first born and there had been all those extraordinary circumstances surrounding his birth – angels, dreams and lots more – so much that seemed to mark Jesus out as special and they had lost him.

Ever since being visited in Damascus, where we at one time lived, by a distraught mother whose four teenage sons had gone missing one day on a road in the mountains of Lebanon ( almost certainly kidnapped and killed ), missing children have haunted me. There is a big poster in a bus shelter near our home here appealing for help in finding missing children in Britain. And there many. One can only begin to imagine the thoughts that filled the minds of Joseph and Mary as they retraced their anxious steps to Jerusalem the next day.  (I get anxious if the dog goes missing for five minutes in the park . . .)


When, on the following day, they do find Jesus it is Mary who remonstrates with him – surely with good reason and I expect Luke doesn’t tell us all that she said. However, I expect that what she said may well have been tempered by what she saw and heard there in the Temple – their son seated, listening and asking questions to the astonishment and wonder of the learned company around him. It would have been an awesome sight.


Some scholars have questioned the authenticity of this particular part of the Gospel saying that it was common practice to include in the stories of the great – Moses, Cyrus, Buddha – examples, some very extravagant, demonstrating their genius in childhood.

The Koran actually offers such a story. ‘She (Mary) made a sign to him pointing to the child but they replied, ‘How can we speak with a baby in a cradle?’ Whereupon he spoke and said, ‘I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Gospel and ordained me as a prophet.’ (Sura Mary 19.29)

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas thought to have been written around 200AD has fanciful stories of Jesus’ childhood also. ‘Since his father was a carpenter, he was making ploughs and yokes. An order was given by a rich man for a bed but one of the boards was shorter than the other. And since Joseph had no idea what to do the child Jesus said to his father, Joseph, ‘Put these two pieces of wood down and line up their ends.’ And Joseph did just as the child had told him. Then Jesus stood at the other end and grasped the piece of wood and stretching it made it equal like the other. And his father Joseph was amazed and kissed him saying, ‘I am blessed because God gave me this child.’

Both these accounts are, dare I say it, fantastic and fanciful, but there’s nothing fantastic or fanciful about Luke’s account today of Jesus in the Temple, the only account we have of any incident in the childhood of Jesus and placed there not to illustrate his genius, rather, his dawning awareness of his relationship with his heavenly father. It is a profound and poignant moment. ‘Your Father and I have been looking for you,’ is greeted with the disturbing reply, ‘Don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ With Jesus’ growing understanding of his vocation comes an inevitable loosening of his ties with Nazareth and with Joseph and Mary. Perhaps at this moment Mary felt the first sharp prick of the sword which the age-ed Simeon had said would pierce her soul. (Luke2.35)

And as I begin to conclude, let’s glance back a moment at the young Jesus in the Temple.

  • He was seated with the elders on a level with them – ‘respecting and respected’, if one could put it that way. He was treated as an equal.
  • He was asking questions not as often later in his ministry to expose hypocrisy, jealousy or malice, but to understand – the Greek word here meaning, ‘to probe’, even to cut one’s way through undergrowth to find something.
  • He was listening – crucial to understanding. It was his listening and acute observation that was to enable him to speak later with such authority and relevance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book, ‘Life Together’ wrote, ‘The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship is to listen to them just as love to God begins with listening to his word.’


Christians, especially ministers, so often think that they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others – that this is the one service that they have to offer. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

There is a kind of listening with only half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening . . . and is only waiting for a chance to speak.


Do we give to the young people of our church the space and the respect that the elders in the Temple gave to Jesus? Are they an integral part of our life, faith and ministry here or merely an occasional adornment? For four years before joining St Johns and St Stephens, we were members of St Laurence’s church in the centre of town here. It had a special vocation to work with young, unchurched people. It did it well. Two years ago, at the height of Syria’s civil war and the migrant crisis, one teenager at that church, Ciaran, took the church to task for not doing anything to alleviate the suffering of refugee children in Syria. His words were taken to heart. The participation of young people and children in worship and discussion was a significant feature of life in that congregation. Ciaran’s words were the catalyst for the church engaging with a remarkably effective relief agency working on the ground in Syria with displaced families. Ciaran led us.

God speaks to youngsters. He confided in the young Samuel at the tender age of probably seven or eight years old. (1 Samuel 3.10) He inspired the young servant girl of Naaman’s wife to speak up in faith and to direct Naaman to one who could cure him. (2 Kings 5.3) Jesus quoted Psalm 8 – ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise.’ Isaiah the prophet wrote – ‘A little child will lead them.’ (Isaiah 11.9) As we embark on a new year, may it be our desire to follow closely and cheerfully Jesus our Lord and to make space for children to help us in our following.


Image credit – Fragment of a Roman Christian fresco, 8th–9th century. Dumbarton Oaks Museum (BZ.1938.59), Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.