Lessons from Adolescent Jesus

Br. Lucio Boccacci

What does the adolescent Jesus tells us about adolescence?

Did you ever notice that there is only one passage about Jesus as an adolescent in the entire New Testament? The vast majority of each of the four Gospels is dedicated to Jesus’ public ministry, passion and resurrection. Except for a few chapters regarding Jesus’ infancy at the beginning of Matthew and Luke, Luke is the only one to report one episode in the life of the adolescent Jesus.

This began to strike me a few years ago when I got involved in youth ministry. I started off with a lot of enthusiasm and always tried to do my best, learning from the pros, and reading up on the best books on youth ministry. All the advice was excellent, based on successful experience, and definitely practical. I learned quite a bit from psychology and parenting regarding the adolescent years. I even took a two week course to study a new pedagogical approach based on modern philosophical ideas. Then, there were all kinds of youth ministry books. What about Scripture? A lot of authors base their vision of youth ministry on Scripture’s motivations for parents to educate their children, or else on the essential message of the Gospel itself: out of love for us God sent his son so that through faith we would have eternal life (cf. Jn 3:16).

However, there was still this one passage. For some reason it struck me as an untapped gold mine. It lay in the back of my mind for months on end. Do you ever feel this way about a passage of the Scriptures? I felt this way because I wanted to know what Jesus himself thought about adolescence. So why not look for it in the only passage where Jesus himself is an adolescent? Isn’t this logical? I thought so; so I dove right in! What I discovered was amazing: the richness of the passage was hardly touched upon.

the lamb on his shoulder

When Jesus was a Boy at the Temple, Lk 2:40-52:

First, let me present you with the text itself. Then, I’ll bring out its richness, showing how it reveals ideas on adolescence and youth ministry. Here goes (translation by yours truly):

40 And the infant was growing and becoming strong, being filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him. 41 Now his parents were going every year to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. 42 And when He was twelve years old, they went up according to the custom of the feast. 43 And when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the child Jesus remained in Jerusalem, and his parents did not know it. 44 But having thought he was in the caravan, they went a day’s journey, and they were searching for him among those related and known. 45 And not having found him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46 And it happened that after three days they found him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all those hearing him were being amazed at the understanding and his answers. 48 And having seen him they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why did you do this to us? Behold, your father and I were looking for you anxiously.” 49 And he said to them: “Why is it that you were looking for me? Had you then not known that I must be in the things of my Father?” 50 And they did not understand the word which he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And his mother was treasuring all the words in her heart. 52 And Jesus was advancing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. (Lk 2:40-52)

The Gift of Tradition and Culture

Verse 40 is all you need to get a summary of Jesus’ “wonder years”: his childhood in the remote town of Nazareth, the uniqueness of this little holy family, the traditions and habits of Galilean country folk, and the unique blessedness of children. Verses 41 and 42 tell us about our 12 year old’s first official pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem (though he had been to the Temple as a baby), his first Passover feast, and likely the first time he witnessed the whole slaying of the lamb ritual, which he certainly saw as a poignant prelude of his own sacrifice. The passage reminds us of the deep mark that the original Passover impressed upon the Israelites. They were a culture defined by feasts meant to relive now their common past, and pilgrimages, the “great heartbeats” of Israel. These feasts and pilgrimages were meant to increase the fervor and devotion of the faithful Jews, many of which were more than willing to find a way to express their faith in God.

The boy Jesus didn’t completely break with his culture. He assumed it wholeheartedly as a milestone in the 30 or so silent years in Nazareth. But he did bring something new: this was none other than himself! He chose to be born among the Israelites, the People of God, assuming their traditions, choosing to fulfill them from within. Jesus showed that these traditions, and the entire Law, really only make sense if they help reveal his own mystery.

Likewise, Jesus confirmed for us the value of our own Christian traditions. These traditions range anywhere from popular feasts such as Christmas and Easter, to the commandments and the prayers we memorize from our youth. These are standard ways that a family, and an entire community, is able to relive the story of Christ throughout the ages, transmitting to the ensuing generation practices that define our identity as adopted sons of God and members of Christ’s body. And they can be great teaching moments, since kids are inserted into a series of traditions that make no sense to them unless they are explained. Lastly, these traditions are not meant to replace faith; rather, they’re meant as a stimulus for children and for teens to discover their deeper meaning.

And we can see from our passage that Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews that took advantage of all the “milestones” in a young person’s life: circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, making the Passover pilgrimage every year. It’s an invitation for parents to make the best of similar milestones today, such as Baptism and First Communion, so that these experiences become significant stepping stones in the life and faith of children and teens. This way they don’t just remain stuck in the superficial celebrations promoted by society today.

Towards a Renewed Understanding of Adolescencejoseph teaching boy to work

For the most part this passage was overlooked as a kind of awkward ending to the infancy narrative of Luke. It was awkward because Jesus was no longer an infant at this point. Yet, it can’t be placed at the beginning of chapter 3 because Jesus hasn’t started his public ministry yet. So the passage was interpreted as a kind of transition from Jesus’ infancy to his public ministry.

Although the passage is just 13 verses long, it covers up to 30 years of the life of Jesus. Think about that. Just verse 40 covers all of Jesus’ life starting from his return from Egypt up to this episode. Then, verses 41-50 cover this particular episode, which in all takes up about two weeks of Jesus’ life. Then, vv. 51-52, just two verses, cover all of Jesus’ life as a young adult before his public ministry. It’s almost as if time slows down and the camera zooms in so we can get a rare glimpse of one moment in the 30 or so years of Jesus’ hidden life. And this is precisely the point: this episode in the life of Jesus has meaning in and of itself. It was included so that it would speak volumes about the 30 or so years that Jesus spent in Nazareth as a child, adolescent and young adult.

There’s a curious parallel between the interpretation of this passage and our understanding of adolescence itself. Before the last few decades adolescence was treated as merely a transitional phase in the life of a person. Now, we know that it’s not just a transition, but it has meaning in and of itself. Its purpose is not only to leave behind childhood and become an adult as soon as possible, but really to embark on a personal journal of discovery. The teen changes because he discovers his own intimacy. He seeks new kinds of relationships with others and with adults, where he’s treated as an equal. He sees meaning behind the things that happen to him and begins to seriously look for his place in God’s plan. He’s not just striving to leave behind his past or move towards the future he wants to build. He’s enjoying all the freedoms and adventures that this stage in life brings along with it.

Existential Questions and Answers

46 And it happened that after three days they found him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all those hearing him were being amazed at the understanding and his answers.

(Lk 2:46-47)

The very center of the passage’s concentric structure is focused on verses 46 and 47, when Jesus was in the Temple seated amidst the teachers of the law, asking them questions, and answering theirs. Seated as an equal in their midst, it’s the first of what would be many exchanges with the teachers of the law. Already the 12 year old begins to pose subtle questions that reveal the hidden and perennial truths of God, himself, and his mission. For the first time he presents answers to all those problematic and complex questions that would one day be formulated to trap him into a corner. He lets out the first few rays of wisdom, with which he would repeatedly amaze his audience and reduce them to silence with his penetrating understanding of the Scriptures. This exchange presents him both as the wise Jewish boy of both Jewish pedagogy and as one more of the various Greek prodigy children.

The passage has all kinds of questions. First, for almost three days Jesus was listening and asking questions, and he was also answering the questions of the teachers of the law. Then, Mary asked Jesus a question, and Jesus responded with two more of his own! The passage shows us the value of connecting with teens questions. If we’re going to make a difference in the life of our teens, I believe it’s very important to be able to discern both what they need and want to know, before we provide an answer. Notice that in the passage the questions came first, then the answers. Let’s not answer questions that no one formulates.

Dialogue and Reverse Mentoring

46 And it happened that after three days they found him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all those hearing him were being amazed at the understanding and his answers.

(Lk 2:46-47)

Unlike what you’ll see in just about all the paintings of this episode, Jesus wasn’t in the middle of the teachers as if he was the only faithful pilgrim in the Temple. He was also in the midst of the crowds. During different moments of the year teachers spread out all over Solomon’s Portico, and each had its circle of faithful pilgrims willing to lend them an ear, interested in asking questions, and eager to expose their own ideas. Various teachers could also come together and debate their points of view, while the crowd listened on, and yet even at times some in the audience would chime in. Jesus was by and large immersed in this environment for almost three full days.

The passage makes the case for sincere intergenerational dialogue, the importance of small groups, and the value of “reverse mentoring”. This passage invites youth mentors to take a second look at how the Temple teachers of the law (the best and brightest teachers of all Israel) transmitted their faith and traditions through frank, and at times poignant, dialogue. The education of Jewish children emphasized strict and repetitive memorization, as well as listening to narratives about God and his role among the People of God. But notice the adolescent Jesus isn’t learning that way. On the contrary, this passage shows us that from about 12 years of age the boy was considered an adult. He entered as an equal into the discussion of the adults, learning from them in a lively way that engages the whole person in deep, prolonged, respectful, and sincere conversations about God and life as a son of God. So the next time you want to organize a retreat with an endless number of talks and presentations, ask yourself if you’ve understood the value of small groups discussions and dialogue.

And what’s this about “reverse mentoring”? Notice that the teachers of the law were amazed at Jesus’ understanding and answers. Reverse mentoring is all about what adults can learn from the younger generations so as always to improve their youth ministry. The only difference between mentoring and “reverse mentoring” is the direction. In both cases the adult mentor seeks to actively and patiently seek out young persons, except that in reverse mentoring the adult accompanies young people so as to learn from them.

jesus reading scroll by himselfAccompaniment, Discernment, Empowerment

Verse 43 tells us something about his character, choosing to remain in Jerusalem while his parents returned home, at first unaware of his absence. It’s the first deliberate decision Jesus makes in the Gospels. It’s a decision that opted in favor of his Heavenly Father’s will; one of the first echoes of his upcoming passion. Verses 44 thru the first part of 46 reveal a lot about the spirit of freedom and trust within the holy family, the habits of those ancient caravans, true “pilgrim communities”, and the diligent searching of his parents for their son and principal love in this life.

Then, in the latter part of the text, Luke provides us with a glimpse into the deep faith of his parents, particularly Mary. Verse 48 makes it clear that his parents didn’t understand his actions, likely also a direct reference to us nearly 2,000 later as we continue to try to understand Jesus’ actions in this passage.

We are placed in the shoes of Mary in verse 51. We see Mary as a woman of deep faith and diligent obedience, as she treasures all these words in her heart, setting the bar high as an example to all future Christians of how we are to respond to the words and actions of God in our lives.

So we see that the text invites parents, teachers and any youth mentors, following the example of Mary in particular, to be deeply interested in accompanying their teens. “Being there” for them during their adolescent years is more than just providing them with the essentials of life, transporting them to school and to all to all their activities, making sure everything is going according to plans at school or at youth group, etc.

It also means discerning. That is, it means trying to understand all the significant events and manifestations in the life of adolescents through the eyes of faith, in light of God’s will, regardless of how odd they seem. It means actively searching to meet them where they’re at, as much as possible, without ever losing faith or hope.

And then it means empowering them to live their own faith journey. It means putting aside one’s own plans for their lives, sincerely helping them discover and embrace God’s unique plan for each one of them. And then it means helping them to experience God in their life through personal testimony and a sincere and open faith sharing of one’s convictions.

The Father’s Adolescent

49 And he said to them: “Why is it that you were looking for me? Had you then not known that I must be in the things of my Father?”

(Luke 2:49)

The reason for Jesus’ choice to deliberately remain in Jerusalem so as to dialogue with the teachers of the law is given in verse 49: He was following his Father’s will. It’s the climax of the narration, serving to resolve the drama that was initiated when Jesus chose to remain behind in verse 43, and providing the underlying motivation for the entire episode. For Mary and Joseph, the whole episode gave them an up front and close prelude to the three days without Jesus before his resurrection. For Jesus, this verse is a wonderful and enigmatic summary of his identity and mission: “being in the things of his Father”. This can also be understood colloquially as “in my Father’s house”, but mysteriously really meaning “I and the Father are always one”.

Our “solar system” is a great analogy to describe the various relationships in the passage, and how they are all related to the Father. If the Father is like the sun at the center, and Jesus is like the earth revolving around the sun, then Mary (along with Joseph and the teachers of the law) is like the moon revolving around the earth. I think this image is very insightful: every Christian, as these secondary characters illustrate, are to “act the moon”. That is, their lives ought to revolve around Jesus! And by doing so their lives ultimately revolve around the Father. Mary doesn’t understand Jesus’ answer precisely because she doesn’t see that Jesus’ life revolves around the Father first. So she treasures Jesus’ words and actions in her heart as she discovers the Father behind everything her son says and does.

Hence, the passage definitely highlights the utter importance for adolescents to encounter God as their Father. This is all the more urgent in view of today’s world. Too many adolescents are growing up in broken homes, or falling into tragedies caused by the poisonous pop culture that surrounds them (they literally “breathe it in” all day long). All adolescents, but especially those who are wounded, need to find in their Heavenly Father the source of their existence and the one that gives them true and everlasting meaning and value. He has to become real for them through experiences of grace and love. In fact, God can only feel love for us, and out of love for us he even sent us his only begotten Son to suffer and save us from sin and darkness. He has given us the Holy Spirit, through whom we can enter into communion with the very life of the Trinity.

To conclude this section, I believe the passage presents us with a three step process through which Christ redeems the brokenness of adolescence in general, and adolescents in particular, elevating all things to the level of grace. The process can be summarized as the answer to three relational questions: Who is God? Who am I? Who are others to me? First of all, the passage shows teens that it is Christ that can bring them to a real relationship with the Father in this decisive moment of their lives. Then, it is Christ that transforms them from within, renewing their soreness of heart with his word and enlightening their inquisitive mind with his wisdom. Christ moves them to redefine correctly their relationships, their family, teachers, acquaintances, et cetera, always in light of their relationship to their Father in Heaven, and his will for their lives.

Growth through Obedience

51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And his mother was treasuring all the words in her heart. 52 And Jesus was advancing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

(Lk 2:40-52)

Lastly, verse 51 shows us it was not yet Jesus’ hour, so he returns home, willingly subjecting himself to his parents’ authority. Verse 52 then summarizes the 15-20 years Jesus spent in Nazareth after this episode. Quite a bit of that time was vocational. Since teens were taught the specific manual trade their father practiced, Jesus probably learned carpentry and stone work from his foster father, Joseph. Learning a specific trade was actually considered as important as practicing their religion. It was sacred, and there was a lot of wisdom in this.

But there’s a deeper message to these verses. It reminds us of Hebrews 5:8: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered”. By being subject to Mary and Joseph, Jesus learns what really matters in life, that is, to value the things that God values, to follow the will of God, even if to the world it’s insignificant or folly. And God values obedience to parents, more than adolescents may realize.

What Jesus did in Nazareth was to see the spiritual everywhere, in reality itself. He exercised an ability to understand daily life in as far as it reveals the mystery of the Father’s plan. On the inside Jesus was silently preparing himself by seeing everything about his ordinary life under the perspective of the extraordinary mission that awaited him in the future. And he had the memory of those three days as a glimpse of the Paschal Mystery he was called to reveal and fulfill.

Jesus shows us at least three important lessons for adolescents. These are like light posts on which to guide their adolescent years as they grow into adulthood. First of all, Jesus shows them the wisdom of taking advantage of their most precious years so as to invest them for their future: career, family, faith. Second, Jesus shows that it’s not necessary to rebel from parents and detach from society in order to advance one’s vocation. On the contrary, faithful obedience to parents and a gradual immersion into the real world through education are excellent ways to develop virtue, character, and a solid identity and purpose. Obedience truly forges character! And third, these verses remind us about how valuable it is for adults to help adolescents get a taste now of the kind of future they could aim at. This future is one where each person plays a part, seeking to bring about positive change in a world that desperately needs it. Hence, mentors are called to help adolescents live now in an anticipatory way what each teen is called by God to be: a son or daughter of God, faithful to Him in prayer and daily life, firmly hoping in Him, charitable with one’s neighbor, sincere with oneself, etc.

If you liked my post, you can find more articles on adolescence and youth ministry at www.youth2change.com, where this article was originally published. Thank you!

Main photo credit: Lawrence OP

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Lessons from Adolescent Jesus