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.
It’s like those two guys in a truck coming to an overpass with a warning that says, “CAUTION: CLEARANCE 12’5.” They both know that their truck height is 13 feet. But when the passenger asks the driver, “What should we do?” the driver answers, “Hey, I don’t see any cops. Let’s go for it.” The laws of physics say that it just won’t work. And life doesn’t work very well when we violate God’s spiritual laws by our dishonesty or selfishness, or any other sinful behavior.
My favorite definition of wisdom is “insight into the true nature of reality.” A good synonym is “understanding.” As Jesus grew older, he grew wiser, because he understood that the ultimate nature of reality is spiritual. It centers on God, respecting his place of honor in our lives and living in right relationship to his will. “The fear of Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” as Proverbs tells us repeatedly.
Life’s most crucial answers are ultimately the product of wisdom. Insight into the true nature of reality is a matter of our spiritual understanding, and our relationship to God is at the center of that.
But wisdom won’t just fall into our laps; it has to be sought after and pursued. The Apostle James encourages us to ask for God’s help in the process: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives to all, generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). It’s important that we realize the great value of wisdom and that we pray for it, knowing that it’s God’s will for us to receive that guiding light.
We can also see from this story that Jesus was pursuing God’s wisdom even in his youth, by seeking out Israel’s teachers. He didn’t grow in spiritual understanding on his own, but through the benefit of the larger religious community.
Jesus’ own context was Judaism, including its rabbis and lawyers, its Temple and synagogues, and its rich heritage of study and worship and prayer. Those factors would have nurtured his spiritual growth in preparation for his later ministry. It was a necessary process for him, in his full humanity, to grow in wisdom and understanding by being part of his community of faith.
The same is true for all of us. Spiritual wisdom comes primarily through means of our religious community. That’s God’s design, and it’s why he provides the church for our collective spiritual benefit. If I were asked to identify a “life verse,” it would probably be Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” There aren’t any self-made Christians. We need each other’s encouragement, support, inspiration and enlightenment to sharpen our own faith. And the church is that resource.
A number of years ago, someone wrote a letter to the editor of a Christian magazine complaining about how, after all the thousands of sermons he’d heard in the course of his life, he could only remember a handful or two. He questioned whether he’d been wasting his time listening to all the rest of them. This sparked a debate among the other readers, pro and con, about the value of sermons, until one letter brought some helpful perspective. The writer observed that he’d eaten many thousands of meals in his life, but he was only able to recall a handful or two that were especially memorable. Yet, all of those other, everyday meals were no less important in providing the nutrition and strength necessary to live a healthy, productive life. They were all important.
While that may be a self-serving illustration(!), it’s still true. It speaks to the importance of the Word of God as vital to our spiritual health and growth. Whether through sermons, Bible study or personal reading, the Scriptures are absolutely crucial to our pursuit of wisdom and spiritual guidance in life.
Jesus knew that, of course, and we see in the Gospels how intimately familiar he was with the Word of God, in the way he quoted it as his guiding truth—when he was tempted in the wilderness, when teaching his disciples, and even on the cross. The Scriptures are a repository of wisdom and spiritual insight, and it’s an important part of our lives as Christian disciples to “become workers who don’t need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
Wisdom also comes to us in other ways, as well: through the lyrics of our great hymns, discussion in small groups, and other in any number of other ways.
We live in the Information Age, an amazing time in which entire libraries of knowledge are available to us. And that’s a blessing, for sure. 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.
In the words of Proverbs: “Wisdom is supreme; therefore, pursue wisdom… gain understanding. Hold onto instruction, don’t let it go; guard it well, for it is your life. For whoever finds wisdom finds life and receives favor from the Lord” (Prov. 4:7, 8:35).