St. Paul’s – Christmas 1 – 12/26/2021
Some years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article by Dr. Paul Ruskin on the Stages of Aging. In the article, Dr. Ruskin described a case study he had presented to his students when teaching a class in medical school. He described the case study patient under his care like this:
The patient neither speaks nor comprehends the spoken word. Sometimes she babbles incoherently for hours on end. She is disoriented about person, place, and time. She does, however, respond to her name… I have worked with her for the past six months, but she still shows complete disregard for her physical appearance and makes no effort to assist her own care. She must be fed, bathed, and clothed by others. Because she has no teeth, her food must be pureed. Her shirt is usually soiled from almost incessant drooling. She does not walk. Her sleep pattern is erratic. Often she wakes in the middle of the night and her screaming awakens others. Most of the time she is friendly and happy, but several times a day she gets quite agitated without apparent cause. Then she wails until someone comes to comfort her.
After presenting the class with this challenging case, Dr. Ruskin then asked his students if any of them would like to volunteer to take care of this person. No one volunteered. Then Dr. Ruskin said, I’m surprised that none of you offered to help, because actually she is my favorite patient. I get immense pleasure from taking care of her… and I am learning so much from her. She has taught me a depth of gratitude I never knew before. She has taught me the spirit of unwavering trust. And she has taught me the power of unconditional love. Then Dr. Ruskin said, Let me show you her picture. He pulled out the picture and passed it around. It was the photo of his six-month-old baby daughter.
Now, I like that story for several reasons. For one thing, it shows us the importance of perspective. And it shows us how essential it is to have all the facts before we make a decision. It reminds us too, that our children have so much to teach us… if we will tune in and pay attention.
And also, it reminds me of this dramatic scene in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus lingers behind as a 12-year-old boy and gets separated from His family for three days. Eventually they find Him in the Temple discussing theology with the rabbis. I see this winsome account of Jesus at age 12 in the temple as a glowing example of family life for us today, and not incidentally as a charming commentary on the fourth commandment.
First, I see this remarkable family keeping the fourth commandment by keeping the first: I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me. The very first words of Luke’s account show his family putting first things first: Now the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when Jesus was 12 years old, they went up according to custom.This reminds us that we cannot truly keep the 4th commandment, or the fifth or sixth, or any of them, without first keeping the first commandment. God alone is Lord of Life, Jesus himself reminds….You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. That’s important to remember. It keeps your priorities straight.
Second: This year, Jesus is given a measure of independence, a measure of freedom. Why…. In those days, a Jewish boy became a man when he was 12 years old. Up to that point the boy could ride spiritually on his parents’ coattails. But, at 12 years of age, a Jewish boy was considered a son of the law and had to take the obligations of the law upon himself. So at 12, Jesus for the first time came to Passover and participated as a man. When His parents started the trek back home, 12-year-old Jesus stayed behind caught up in the theological discussions for the first time.
The actual text of the fourth commandment reads: Honor your father and mother. When a son or daughter, becomes 12 years old, I think this fourth commandment should be amended to include…And honor also your children. It should work both ways. A mutual trust, a mutual affection, a mutual respect gives honor in both directions, from child to parent, and from parent to child.
And yet, what runs through many parents mind is the question……Why didn’t Mary and Joseph miss Him? It was not through carelessness. What probably happened was this: Usually the women in the caravan would start out earlier because they traveled more slowly… and also so they could begin the evening meal. Remember it was a patriarchal society back then. The men would come later to the campsite. It was Jesus’ first Passover, so obviously Joseph thought He was with Mary… and Mary thought He was with Joseph. Not until the evening camp (a full day’s journey away from Jerusalem) did they miss Him. They rushed back (worried sick, I’m sure) and found Him three days later in the Temple.
He thought they would know that He would be doing exactly what they had taught Him… to be a person of deep faith. Of course, the story is also a foreshadowing. It is here to remind us that Jesus has come into this world to be the Savior of the world.
Thirdly: Both parents and child are acting responsibly. Usually we search for blame in a given situation. We’re tempted to ask here, as elsewhere in human life: Who’s to blame here? Who’s at fault, Jesus or his parents? Three days of anxious searching, his parents perhaps haggard with looking, perhaps beside themselves with fear over what might have happened to their son: surely here is indication that Jesus was wrong, worrying his parents so. Or, perhaps Mary and Joseph were wrong: worrying about him, or letting him slip away in the first place. So we attempt to fix the blame.
In the face of these contradictory events and emotions, let me suggest a possibility: that both were right, Jesus acting as a model of responsible behavior, obedient to the will of God, and Mary and Joseph, acting as they knew and cherished God’s will for them in the moment.
This kind of thing often happens often in human life: Mary and Joseph not really understanding their son, and trying to act out their love for him; and Jesus, not really understanding his parents any better, and trying to act out his love. In life there is often a conflict of misunderstandings, a conflict in values. You simply can’t say with any certainty who in a given situation is right or who is wrong.
We simply don’t have the security of making ultimate judgments in much of life. Usually life isn’t a case of true or false, good or bad, right or wrong. It is most often muddy and unclear, full of moral compromise and ethical ambiguity. Probably what hurts the most about being human is that there is always a price to pay. The price is paid not so much in being wrong, as in being uncertain, in simply not knowing.
It is unsettling for me that we read this charming and unsettling story in Luke’s gospel during the Christmas season. Christmas is the reminder that God has not abandoned us to a world of uncertainties and ambiguities, but enters that world with us, alongside us. The message of Christmas is supremely that: God’s own hands in the muck and mud of life, God’s own hands bloody with the wounds of our own moral compromises and our own ethical uncertainties, God’s own feet bloody with the wounds of our own not knowing where to walk, of our own simply not knowing.
The God we meet in bread and wine today is the God who has honored and respected us that much: to join us at Christmas as Emmanuel, God-with-us”– even here, even in this, even in the full limitation and moral anguish of our humanness. For me and I hope for you, no other kind of God would be worth my worship.