Summary: We live in the Information Age, a time in which entire libraries of knowledge are available to us. And that’s a blessing. But as followers of Jesus, let’s also remember that wisdom and understanding are even more crucial to making a difference for God in our generation.
Read Luke 2: 39-52
When I was a young boy, I had what should have been a teachable moment. My mother, siblings and I were just returning home from being out for the afternoon, and as she pulled in the driveway she said, “I want everyone to come straight into the house. We’re going to eat very soon.” But as soon as the car stopped, I darted over to our next-door neighbor’s house to see my friend. I ran up their side steps and opened the storm door, but it was a blustery day and the wind caught the door, flinging it open violently. I was still holding onto the handle, so I was blown off the porch, landing headfirst into an open trash can. I was helpless, with only my feet sticking out. That would have been bad enough, but it was one of those old metal cans and on the way down a sharp edge at the seam caught my nose and I began bleeding profusely. My mother had to bundle me back in the car to take me to the doctor’s office for treatment and stitches. That didn't go very well!
I’d like to say that I was changed by that lesson, but the truth is that throughout my teens and early 20’s I continued to rebel and make life difficult for my parents, and eventually, even law enforcement. It wasn’t until I came to Christ at age 25 that I finally began to realize that there’s a better way. Only through reading the Bible did I become aware of a virtue called “wisdom,” which had barely even been on my radar before then.
Wisdom is a crucial biblical concept, one that's foundational to our spiritual health and growth. And as we seek and acquire wisdom, it’s something like learning good manners as a child: so much of the benefit is that it becomes second-nature to us, and serves us well once it’s been imprinted.
We have only this story from Jesus’ childhood, found here in the Gospel of Luke. It’s a familiar one to many of us, I’m sure. I wonder, though, if you’ve ever noticed something significant about its context. It’s set between two verses that speak about Jesus being “filled with wisdom” (v.40) and “growing in wisdom” (v.52)—two bookends—so that it seems as if this account is an illustration of that aspect of Jesus’ development: his pursuit of wisdom.
He was age 12 at the time. At age 13 in a Jewish boy’s life, he prepares to become a full member of the synagogue, a practice called Bar Mitzvah that still continues today. It’s a year when devout young men are encouraged to begin making a deeper spiritual commitment—for example, by beginning to fast and to take their religious studies more seriously.
And here Jesus is, having intentionally stayed behind when his family left Jerusalem so that he could remain in the company of some of Israel’s best teachers in the Temple courts, “listening and asking questions,” Luke tells us, but also “amazing everyone with his understanding and his answers.”
The rabbinical method was one that placed great importance on asking good questions to stimulate thinking and reflection. I’ve always appreciated Thomas Merton’s observation that, “In the progress towards religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not by clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.”
In fact, Jesus in his later ministry would sometimes answer a question with a better question, and he’s in that rabbinical mode here, when Mary asks him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been worried sick, looking everywhere for you.” He answered, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
His parents would probably have wanted to ground him (“No riding your donkey for two months, mister”), but they didn’t know what to make of that answer. They had to ponder his question. Why hadn’t they realized where to look for him?
There’s a Peanuts comic strip in which Lucy is waxing philosophical with her little brother Linus, and says, “Wouldn’t you like to have your life to live over, if you only knew then what you know now?” Linus thinks about this before replying, “What do I know now?”
That’s a very good question for all of us: what do we really know, what have we learned and come to understand that will serve us in living wiser, better lives in harmony with the order of creation? Because, just as there are physical laws, like gravity and friction, there are also spiritual laws for how God designed life to be lived well, and we ignore them at out peril.