This scripture is famously the only story in the canonical gospels that tells us anything about Jesus’s growing up years. The information it provides is scanty, but important: Jesus grew up in a faithful and observant Jewish family; his parents trusted the community they traveled with to care for the boy (and so, did not miss him at first); he was unusually passionate about exploring his faith tradition; and, he asked probing questions that explored meaning rather than stifling dialogue.
This approach to learning is consistent with the tradition he grew up in, which was steeped in the practice of midrash. Midrashic practice digs deeply into the language and implications of Jewish scripture through asking questions and sometimes expanding upon the scripture story itself. It “responds to contemporary problems and crafts new stories, making connections between new realities and the unchanging biblical text.” (My Jewish Learning) During his early foray into the Temple, Jesus began to learn the art of interpretation and story-telling so vital to keeping his tradition alive and growing in insight.
His own ministry was shaped by this tradition. In the gospels, Jesus continuously asks people questions—187 of them, according to preacher and writer Martin Copenhaver (Jesus is the Question), and none of them are simple yes/no queries. Rather, Jesus uses powerful and open-ended questions. Questions that encourage new insights and that don’t simply accept peoples’ existing assumptions and beliefs. “An open-ended question does not seek to limit the responses [but] can expand our thinking,” says Copenhaver. And the answer to it can change over time, as we reflect and learn more, or look at things from a different angle (2). It appears that Jesus had profound skills at asking generative, open-ended questions from a young age. The gospels abound with questions we still ask ourselves: What are you looking for? Why are you afraid? If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Who do you say that I am? Can any of you by worrying add a single day to your life? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Jesus was adept at asking questions; he also received many (including those in today’s scripture). According to Copenhaver, the gospels record 307 questions asked of Jesus. There are perhaps three that he answers directly. He often responded to questions with even further questions (as in today’s scripture) in an effort to encourage reflection and challenge the human tendency to get stuck in our beliefs. He also responded to questions with parables, images, and metaphors. About one third of Jesus’s teaching comes to us in the form of parables. Just as Jesus asked open-ended questions, he told stories with open-ended possibilities for meaning. Stories to invite interpretation, varied understandings, different perspectives and opportunities for reflection, multiple meanings. If anyone ever tells you a parable has a single, one-dimensional meaning—beware—they don’t understand the nature of parables very well. They don’t understand stories very well, period.
Even stories from our own lives offer ample material for theological reflection and exploration. In my own life, for example, I have sometimes participated in small groups doing a practice called story theology together. In a group like that, individuals briefly write about a story or incident from their daily lives (and it doesn’t have to be particularly “profound). Then the group reflects on the story with questions in mind such as: Where does the Divine appear in this story? What learnings about Spirit’s movement in our lives show up?
“Arguments may form our opinions, but stories form our lives,” writes Cherie Harder of the Trinity Forum. “Stories ask us to enter another world—which usually has the result of broadening or disrupting our own.” (qtd in Peter Wehner, “Why Jesus Never Stopped Asking Questions, NYT, 12/23/21). Good stories encourage us to expand and explore our inner and outer worlds, not confine ourselves. They invite us to listen and be attentive rather than focus only on our own experience. They invite us into the community of listeners, interpreters, and our wider world. Good stories invite us to return to them over and over, seeking new insights and prompting fresh observations. They shape our lives, create identity in a way that reason and logic simply can’t. Stories dwell in our hearts, not in our minds.
I spent yesterday at a family gathering of about 35 people. Most of us there are among the group I call “siblings and affiliates:” siblings, spouses, nieces, nephews and whatnot. But there were also some cousins of mine there, and an aunt. So, of course, for a while a group of cousins who don’t often see each other sat in a corner for a while telling stories. I didn’t participate, but I was sitting close enough to listen. And even though I have heard these stories for decades, I always learn something new. And this time, new questions came up, like: what happened to the family members that don’t show up in any stories and family lore? Why don’t they show up? What affect does that create on their direct descendants? Old stories are always unfolding with new questions.
I’m also aware that stories are often much more likely to change peoples’ ideas about the world than facts and logical arguments. That’s hard to accept in a culture that says it values reason and facts so much, but it’s true. People I talk to are always more likely to listen and be changed by a story about me taking a poor person shopping with Ezekiel Fund money than they are by me reciting verifiable facts and statistics about poverty. A well-crafted, faithful story makes all the difference; that is why Jesus used parables to teach.
Those of us gathered here today claim an identity as followers of Jesus. We are disciples. We seek to grow more fully in our relationships with the Divine, and with the world, and with each other by modeling our lives after Jesus’s. If we’re to do that, we might think a bit about how to ask ourselves powerful, open-ended questions that can deepen our understandings. Generate fresh insights. And continue asking, rather than seeking static, fixed conclusions. Jesus rarely asked questions with single responses and meanings.
The same is true of the parables Jesus told. They invite us to exploration, speculation, and a life of faith anchored in a commitment to always probe for fresh meaning and insight. Jesus shows us, and calls us to, a life of faithful curiosity brave enough to seek new light through powerful questions and living stories. In that way, his life and example and story continues to live in us. May it be so.
Luke 2: 41-52