What Mary and Joseph forgot

There’s a story in the book of Luke about a missing boy. He’s only 12 years old, and his family is journeying home from a festival when his parents realise they don’t know where he is. You can imagine the terror, their frantic exchange: “I thought he was with you!”, “I thought he was with you!” They look for him among their party of relatives and friends but he isn’t there.

They return to the city. They search high and low. They don’t find him for three days.

I even wondered how Jesus could do such a thing to his parents and still be considered sinless.

When they do find him, he’s in the temple courts, calm and self-assured, amazing the adults with his understanding.

His mother tells him how anxiously she and his father have been searching for him. In reply, he asks why they were searching in the first place: “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

I used to read this story and sympathise with Mary and Joseph. I even wondered how Jesus could do such a thing to his parents and still be considered sinless. But recently, finally, it struck me: his parents knew, even then, who he was. Before Jesus was born they were visited by angels. Mary fell pregnant without having sex, for crying out loud. She was told, in no uncertain terms, that the child she was carrying would be called “the Son of the Most High God”.

How, then, can she and Joseph worry about Jesus being lost, as if he’s an ordinary child? How can they behave as if he needs them when ultimately, it’s the other way round?

Big picture versus small details

I suppose they worry because it’s hard to maintain a big-picture perspective when you’re anxious and afraid. Whatever we know to be true, immediate concerns can still distract us, panic can still derail us.

I imagine Mary and Joseph were reminded, on a daily basis, that their son was no ordinary child. What kid is consistently kind and honest and good? What kid never throws a tantrum? What kid never tells a lie? But the daily grind can dim our vision. Mary and Joseph had other children and other concerns; maybe they grew used to their son’s angelic ways, even took them for granted.

Tending to the details of life without losing sight of fundamental truths is easier said than done.

Come to think of it, I’ve read Luke chapter one many times – the angelic messengers, Mary’s song, the virgin birth – and then, just one chapter later, Mary and Joseph are ordinary parents who don’t seem to know the truth about their son.

The problem isn’t simply that they’ve forgotten who he is, but that they still don’t really understand.

If Mary and Joseph should have remembered after years who Jesus was, how much more, after minutes, should I remember what they already knew?

Hearing versus understanding

There’s also the fact the most profound truths can be the hardest to grasp, and the hardest to keep hold of over time.

Even when Jesus reminds his parents of the big picture – that his true father is God (“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”) – they remain perplexed (“But they did not understand what he was saying to them.”).

The problem isn’t simply that they’ve forgotten who he is, but that they still don’t really understand. Today we can point to numerous prophecies about God becoming man, but who would have imagined, then, that when it sounded as if the Messiah would be both fully human and fully God, it was because he would be – literally?

Remembering versus forgetting

History gives us every reason to entrust the details of our lives to God – even if we can’t fathom what he’s up to – but, God knows, we fail. We know he’s in control but we’re still so slow to grasp the implications, so quick to worry and panic, fret and forget. We need to be reminded – again and again and again – of who he is and who we are and what it all means.

Being faithful in this world takes work, remembering takes work …

In her recent book A Habit Called Faith, Jen Pollock Michel marvels at the way the signs and wonders given to Israel, up to and including Jesus’s generation, didn’t ensure lasting faith.

“It didn’t matter how many times God dazzled them with fantastic displays of power. Every new crisis was a new reason to disbelieve. This puts a squirmy question to all of us when we think of our own hesitant spiritual journeys. Is it evidence we lack – or faith?”

Often it’s faith, sometimes it’s diligence too. In Deuteronomy chapter six, God tells Israel to talk about his commandments when they get home and when they go out and when they lie down and when they get up; to write them on their door frames and on their gates; to remember all he’s done for them, all the time. It sounds like hard work – because it is.

Being faithful in this world takes work, remembering takes work; this should not surprise us.

Even those who witnessed miracles first-hand – who saw oceans part, who feasted on manna, who heard angels speak about the “Son of the Most High God” – were prone to forgetting. And even we, who read of promises and prophecies made and fulfilled; who can binge the series all at once – the mystery revealed – doubt and forget.

Mercifully, our salvation isn’t about how much faith we have, or how diligent we are, because it’s not about us. This truth is hard to grasp, but wonderful to hold.

Emma Wilkins is a Tasmanian journalist and freelance writer.

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