When Jesus Was Twelve

Boy in suit. Photo credit: janvanderkerken (via flickr.com)I once said to my grandson, Zachary, when he was twelve years old, “Let’s go for a walk.” We started together down his lane and by the time we got to the sidewalk 300 yards away we were moving at a brisk pace, side by side. I looked down and suddenly realized that Zach was self-consciously matching my strides step for step. That had never happened before. I knew it was an early sign of approaching manhood.

We don’t make much of the age twelve in our culture. Sixteen is an important birthday because in many jurisdictions it means a person that age has the legal right to drive a car. Eighteen in some states means one is old enough to drink alcohol within the law. And 21 has long been regarded as the age of full maturity. Each is an important year, but not twelve.

It was different in Jesus’ culture. St. Luke tells us much about the birth of Jesus. Then he reports in great detail about his public appearances approximately 30 years later. As for the years between, they are sometimes called the silent years — except for one event. St. Luke breaks into the gap to report that Jesus attended his first passover in Jerusalem when he reached the age of twelve. Why does he tell us details of this and no other event during those years?

During Jesus’ times a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” (bar mitzvah) at the age of twelve. That is, a boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah. The same transition to manhood is celebrated in some branches of Judaism in our day. The lad begins his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” He is now old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts. Some say he has even reached the minimum age to marry. In Jesus’ times, a twelve-year-old, standing at the threshold of manhood, could attend his first passover in Jerusalem.

Despite the long years of silence, we can fill in some of the gaps about Jesus’ life by inference. We know God chose a devout young woman, Mary, to be his mother. When she received from the angel, Gabriel, the news of the coming miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, she responded, “I belong to the Lord body and soul, let it happen as you say.” At the home of her cousin Elizabeth this expectant mother sang a song laced with Old Testament content: “My soul glorifies the Lord/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …” She was in all likelihood not yet out of her teens when she gave birth to the baby Jesus.

And Joseph, the man who was to be Jesus’ earthly father, was a “righteous man,” a man of character. When he learned of Mary’s curious pregnant condition his first impulse was to cancel the engagement — actually to divorce her, though in a way that would not embarrass her unduly. However, an angel intervened and Joseph, apparently the kind of man who was open to the spiritual realm, got the angel’s message: It’s okay; God is in this.

We know that Mary and Joseph were serious practitioners of the faith of Israel. They brought the baby Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. It was a ritual duty. Moreover, they made a trek of 70 or so miles from Nazareth to get Jesus to that first passover in Jerusalem. As well, they had an ordered family life in which, we are told, Jesus as a teen was obedient to them. And Luke tells us that many years later as an adult, Jesus went to the synagogue to worship on the sabbath, “as was his custom.” We can be quite sure he had been taught the custom in his home.

And as for his first Passover in Jerusalem, we learn something very important about Jesus. Recall that his parents were alarmed, at the end of their first day of trekking back to Nazareth, to discover that he was not among the pilgrim band of relatives and friends. They had to return to Jerusalem to search for him, finding the lad in the temple. What was he doing there? Listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Onlookers were amazed at his “understanding and his answers.”

Was this knowledge supernatural, setting Jesus apart from all other Jewish boys? Is that what it meant for him to be “the Incarnate God”? A passage in the ancient Jewish Talmud may hint at the answer. The essence of this passage reaches back before the times of Jesus, and it lays down these stages of a Jewish boy’s development: “At five he must begin the sacred studies; at ten he must set himself to learning the tradition; at thirteen he must know the whole of the law of Yahweh and practice its requirements . . .”

For Jesus to be in every respect human as well as in every respect divine he had to experience growing up as other boys of his times did. Twelve years of age must have been the time when he began to be aware of his unique relationship to his Heavenly Father. When he sat at the feet of the teachers he obviously surprised onlookers by his knowledge of the Jewish faith — likely learned in his home and from instruction at the local synagogue school.

How did Jesus respond when his parents finally found him in the temple and chided him for the inconvenience he had caused? In surprise he asks, “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?”

Think of it: All this at twelve years of age — a rich knowledge of God’s law and an awakening awareness of God as his Father in a unique way! It makes one think of the capacity a twelve-year-old must have for religious knowledge, understanding, and the experience of God! I surely think of it. I think of it when I recall that memorable walk with my twelve-year-old grandson and how he walked with me on the verge of his own manhood.

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