Historical Culture Context
Jesus in the Temple
When Jesus is finally found, two things emerge in Luke’s report. Jesus is meeting with an adult group of men, teachers, in the Temple and giving evidence of intelligent understanding. Luke thus indicates that Jesus has successfully made the transition into the male world.
But the transition has other consequences that are evident in Jesus’ dialogue with Mary. The personal irritation reflected in Mary’s reproach: “Son, why have you treated us like this?” is perfectly understandable. Jesus is supposed to begin to behave like a responsible, adult male. He obviously did not inform Joseph, Mary, or any friend or relative about his intention. In this group-oriented culture, such independent and individualistic behavior is irresponsible, disrespectful, and shameful.
Jesus’ less-than-respectful response (“Did you not know ... ?”) is equally understandable. The plural verb “know” indicates that Jesus reproaches both Mary and Joseph. Male maturity in the Mediterranean world entails becoming liberated from the female control that characterizes early childhood. A man wrestles throughout life with the tension between leaving female company behind yet continuing to nurture the strong bond with his mother. Struggling now to trade his mother’s tutelage for Joseph’s, Jesus is irritated by her reproach.
One possible explanation for Jesus’ reproach to Joseph is that he failed to keep a closer eye on and stronger control over him as an adolescent eager to take his rightful place in his appropriate, controlling, all-male group. Did Joseph not care enough about him?
Raising children has never been easy in any culture. Sometimes the only thing that parents can do is to ponder the mystery and hope the child will (continue to) grow in wisdom, maturity, and favor among human beings and God.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University