Skandalon: Mary teaches the boy Jesus

This is a short story / sketch based on the events recorded in Luke 2:41–50. It is told from Mary’s point of view.

We went to Jerusalem again this year to celebrate Passover. It was the third time we’ve been able to do so since Joseph and I returned to Galilee, but still it conjured so many emotions for me.

On the one hand it was good to be amongst family and friends, walking with them and seeing the children play together. On the other hand it reminded me of all that I missed during the years we were in Egypt. I heard the young mothers asking questions of the older women, receiving good advice and homely encouragement. It stung to be reminded how I didn’t have that community and I tried so hard not to begrudge them.

The children were a handful, as ever.

James, now ten years old, continued his habit of playing hide and seek. Each morning on our journey towards Jerusalem, he disappeared just as we were about to set off. Joseph tried to impress upon him that it’s not funny to play games when other people are trying to look after your safety, but he still did it.

Little Elizabeth was disappointed not to be carried over the rough terrain this year and she started to complain that her feet were swelling up. Simon then began to tease her, saying that if her feet were swelling then she clearly wasn’t one of God’s chosen people. Honestly, the things an eight year-old can come out with.

Fortunately, my friend Judith overheard him and gave him a stern talking to; she said it’s horrible to tell someone that God has rejected them and he should never say it, not even in jest. She then tried comfort Elizabeth, but to no avail. I’ve never seen her cry so much. Every morning afterwards, while I was feeding baby Anna, Joseph had to measure Elizabeth’s feet to prove to her that they weren’t swelling.

Jerusalem was heaving when we arrived, as usual. Seeing how tired I was, Joseph suggested that Judith and I take our girls to stay in one household, while he and her husband took the boys to another. We all ate the Passover meal together, of course, though I was grateful for his suggestion. I suspect that I had considerably more sleep than he did – even with me waking to feed Anna in the night.

When we left Jerusalem, Joseph took it upon himself to keep a careful watch over James and Simon, while Judith kept me and the girls company. We travelled like this for a day until in the evening, Joseph decided it was time for the family to come together again.

That’s when we realised Jesus was missing.

Joseph’s face drained of all colour. We each blamed ourselves and neither of us could think of an sensible explanation for his absence. He wouldn’t have gone off with another travelling company, but there was no reason for him to stay in Jerusalem. And Jesus wasn’t one to play games the way James did.

James meanwhile came to me; his head was bowed low and he promised never to hide again unless we were all playing the game together.

Had he apologised on any other occasion I would have been delighted, but with the worry about Jesus, the most I could manage was a brief hug – followed by an instruction to keep an eye on his younger sister.

It took all of Judith’s wit and common sense to calm me down. She sat and prayed with me – or rather prayed for me. I felt utterly unable to offer anything but the most desperate of prayers. Afterwards she said the Lord had told her that Jesus was safe and still in Jerusalem, and that we should go back for him.

I struggled to believe her. It’s such an easy thing to say, “Oh, you needn’t worry!” How did she know? How could she be sure God’s Spirit had spoken – and not just her imagination? And I’m Jesus’ mother – couldn’t God have told me directly?

Joseph then pointed out that if Jesus was safe and still in Jerusalem then this would be the best answer to our prayers and we should at least check. Meanwhile Judith and her husband kindly offered to take James, Simon and Elizabeth back to Galilee, whilst Joseph and I returned to Jerusalem.

Jesus wasn’t staying with either of the families who had hosted us. Or their neighbours. We walked the streets for three days asking everyone we met whether they’d seen a lost Jewish boy, twelve years old, whose accent was mostly Galilean but also slightly Egyptian. On the third day we spoke to a man who said he had seen a boy just like how we described, except that he didn’t look lost. He said this boy was in the temple and had been for the last four days.

As soon as he said it, I groaned inwardly; I should have guessed all along.

When we tiptoed inside the colonnade, my stomach churned and I braced myself for all the suspicious stares of being a negligent mother.

We found him sitting on a stool surrounded by priests, rabbis and pilgrims – not to mention a crowd of onlookers. And they were all debating the law together.

These were old men, learned men, sparring intellectually with our young boy and marvelling at his answers. I could barely believe my eyes – or my ears. I couldn’t for the life of me say where he got his understanding from; it wasn’t from Joseph and me, that’s for sure.

They had just finished a lengthy discussion about the sixth commandment and were about to embark on the fifth when all of a sudden he looked up and saw me. “Mother!” he said with a smile on his face.

And then all eyes were on us. The rabbi who had been speaking with Jesus stood up and said, “You are a most blessed mother! You must be so proud to have a son with such understanding.”

I managed to smile in response and thank him, but I felt so weak under the scrutiny of all the stares around us. A stilted silence came over the crowd as they waited for us to speak; it was excruciating and I realised then that I was too emotional to pretend I was a happy, doting parent.

I said to Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching anxiously for you!”

It was the most restrained rebuke I was capable of giving.

But within seconds I wished I hadn’t said anything.

Jesus answered, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Joseph’s face turned scarlett and my jaw fell open. Whispers began to ripple about the room. Meanwhile Jesus’ face was a picture of honest confusion. He clearly had no idea how scandalous his words were, but when he saw our faces he began to realise something was very wrong.

And for the briefest of moments we both looked at each other helplessly, neither of us knowing what to do next.

Just then a priest stepped forward and addressed Joseph and me. Jesus had been staying with his family and he was happy to escort us to his home, where Jesus could collect his belongings before returning with us to Galilee. Somehow his words disarmed the tension and allowed us to leave with dignity. I have found myself thanking God for this man every day since.

How does a mother make sense of all this? On the one hand my son is the son of the Most High, but on the other he is a twelve year-old boy whose naïveté can silence a crowd. His heart is full of goodness and kindly obedience, yet he didn’t understand the distress he caused by going to the temple and not telling Joseph or me.

The way he thinks is so, so different to us. I barely know where to begin with him. And I feel so useless – with all his understanding of the law, the writings and the prophets, what can I teach him? Will he save the world by breast-feeding or changing swaddling clothes?

The next day Jesus came and sat with me in the tent; it was still early and I was feeding Anna. “Mother,” he said, “why did people start whispering in the temple after I spoke to you?”

I didn’t feel ready to have this conversation with Jesus, but in that moment I realised I would never feel ready. “They were scandalised,” I said, “because you implied that Joseph wasn’t your father.”

“But he’s not my father,” Jesus replied.

“I know,” I said to him, “but it’s important that other people think that he is your father. If we tell them that you were born of the Holy Spirit, they won’t believe you.”

“But you and Joseph believed it, your cousin Elizabeth believed it. You told me how the prophets Simeon and Anna believed it when you took me to the temple as a baby. Why can’t other people know who I am or how I was born?”

“Sweetheart,” I said to him, “not everybody is like Elizabeth, or Simeon or Anna. They aren’t all ready to know.”

He was silent for a few moments. He’d come to accept a few years ago that he shouldn’t speak too openly about his special relationship with God, though the lesson had pained him.

“But we were in the temple,” he began. “If I can’t say who I am there, then where can I?”

His words wrenched inside me and I broke eye contact to reposition Anna. Suddenly I remembered holding Jesus as a baby and Simeon’s soft words came to me: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against.”

How could I begin explain this to him? I barely understood it myself. My worry that he’d let slip that Joseph wasn’t his father began to pale into insignificance.

I waited until Anna was sucking again. “Why don’t you talk to your Father in heaven about this?”

This tactic had never failed me in the past when he’d asked an awkward question, but this time he quashed it with devastating innocence.

“I want to learn from you,” he said.

I promptly burst into tears. Jesus, son the Most High, wanted me to teach him.

My tears startled Jesus somewhat. He hugged me and said he was sorry and that he hadn’t meant to upset me; meanwhile I sobbed that he hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t need to apologise.

Then I had the most curious thought.

So I said to him, “You know how your little sister Elizabeth was afraid her feet were swelling up?” He nodded. “And you know Simon said if her feet swelled up that meant she wasn’t one of God’s people?” He nodded again. “Do you know why Elizabeth was so upset by what Simon said?”

Jesus looked at me with a small frown. “She was upset because he was saying something that wasn’t true.”

“No sweetheart,” I said to him, “She was upset because she was afraid it was true.”

He froze in front of me, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. Suddenly I realised that he had no understanding of what it was to fear God’s expulsion. He had never been afraid; he had never felt shame; he had never even felt the threat of shame. It was so alien to him, he had never imagined that this might be a daily struggle for the rest of us – even for someone as young and as close as his little sister.

He jumped up impassioned. “But just because someone’s feet swell up, that doesn’t mean they sinned or that God is angry with them!”

“I know, sweetheart,” I said, trying to hush him from disturbing Anna.

But still he carried on. “And even if they had sinned and even if God was angry with them, that doesn’t mean God has rejected them as his people!”

At this point Joseph came into the tent to see what the commotion was all about. He opened his mouth to speak but shut it again when he saw Jesus standing there, red-faced, tears streaking down his cheeks. Little Anna then finished feeding and I lifted her up and began to pat her back gently.

“Jesus,” I said softly, trying my best not to let the tremor of my emotions affect how I was holding Anna. “Most people are afraid, deep inside, that they’re not part of God’s people. And because they’re afraid, they’re also afraid of being near anyone who looks like they’re not part of God’s people.”

Jesus said nothing but continued to look at me intensely, wiping the tears off his face. “Sweetheart, if people think that anyone other than Joseph is your father, they will think that we are not part of God’s people. And they will bully us, like how Simon was bullying Elizabeth.”

Jesus stood stock still and for a few agonising moments I wondered if I’d said too much.

“But God made a promise,” Jesus said quietly. “If people don’t know who I am, how will they hear about God’s promise?”

Joseph then knelt down in front of Jesus and said, ever so softly, “When the angel Gabriel came and told me to marry your mother, it wasn’t just because God wanted us to be happy together. It was also so that we could hide who you were and keep you safe, until you’re ready. God doesn’t reveal everything at once; he waits until the proper time.”

Jesus looked at him and then at me, and then back at him, a frown ever creasing across his young forehead. Then he gave Joseph a long hug, kissed his cheek and left the tent silently.

For much of the day, Jesus walked ahead of us, out of earshot but looking over his shoulder every few minutes to make sure we could see him. His cautiousness reminded me of how I had been in the first days of my pregnancy.

“I thought the scandal would be over by now,” I remarked to Joseph.

He laughed sardonically. “Maybe the scandal will never be over,” he said.

It struck me in that moment that perhaps the events of the week hadn’t been the failure I had feared; that it was exactly this kind of chaos that Jesus had come to live in. And I felt a sudden sense of release; I didn’t need to try and contain him.

He could decide when he would reveal himself to the world; and I knew that when he did, it would be on his terms.

This is my own creative work. If you like this sketch and want to use it, please contact me. Following some feedback I have edited it slightly from the original version posted here.

If you want to learn more about the Greek word ‘skandalon’, which is the origin of the English word ‘scandal’ and translated as ‘stumbling block’ in 1 Corinthians 1:23, I’d recommend watching Paula Gooder speaking about the cross as scandal at St Paul’s Cathedral in London (if you want, watch the whole video, but she starts on this topic at 26m 22s).

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