Lost in the Temple
That summer, while waiting for the feast of Pentecost and talking about a thousand things, Mary recounted to us what happened the first time that Jesus came to Jerusalem. He was already twelve years old and, according to the custom of Israel, boys of this age should go and partake of the Passover in the city of David…
Joseph: Holy God, how time flies…! Can you imagine this snotty-nose entering the Temple and reading the Scriptures!
Mary: You’re a grown-up now, Jesus!
Old Woman: Take note, this boy knows all the mischiefs in the world!… Let’s see if he’ll behave in the capital!
Mary: We left Nazareth with the other families a few days before the Passover. After traveling some miles, we joined the pilgrims from Cana and Nain. Among the pilgrims were boys of Jesus’ age. They became friends at once. I remember one of them was a lanky red-haired boy and the other was a fat one. They were fast, they were always ahead of us….
Keeno: They say there’s a big place in Jerusalem for horse-racing and betting, involving a lot of money…
Fatso: I was told there’s a plaza where a pigeon contest is held. We’ve got to see that, Jesus…
Jesus: All I want is to get there…. Excuse me, sir, are we near the city yet?
Old Man: We’ll know in an hour or so, young man, when we reach a bend along the road…
Jesus: Did you hear?… C’mon, let’s race to see who gets there first!!
Old Man: Watch out for ravines, young men, the road is dangerous!… Holy God, what a restless bunch!…
Mary: When we reached the bend called the pilgrims’ bend, we started to sing. Jerusalem glowed before our eyes. The towers, the walls, the palaces and, in the midst of all, the Temple, were a welcome sight to us. With the ancient songs of our ancestors, we wished the city peace and happiness….
Joseph: What do you think, Jesus?
Jesus: I never imagined there could be so many things in one place, Papa!
Mary: Move on, we’re left behind…!
Mary: Those were wonderful days… I remember all the Galileans partaking together of the Passover meal in an inn in Siloam... Jesus went up and down the city with his friends, prying into all nooks and corners, and talking with everyone… I thought then that Jesus has turned out to be very smart for a farmer…. On our way back to Galilee, we passed by a marketplace…
Vendor: Beautiful bracelets for pretty ladies…. Ladies, here are precious souvenirs that you can bring home from the south…!
Mary: We stayed a while looking at the stalls. I think it was here where Jesus and his two friends strayed away from the group…
Jesus: Pshh!… Hey, come here…!
Fatso: What’s wrong, Jesus?
Jesus: Why don’t we go to the Temple…? Keeno, are you coming?
Keeno: Hey, that’s a good idea…. Come, let’s run…!
Mary: During the first hours of the day, there was lax vigilance in the Temple, so the boys were able to sneak through…
Jesus: That’s the altar where the lambs are beheaded… No one was allowed to pass there the other day….
Keeno: Not even today, I guess… Look at that man over there…
Jesus: Pshh!… Let’s hide behind these columns and when the guard goes to the other side, we’ll sneak through…
Mary: Without knowing it, they had slipped into the atrium reserved only for priests….
Jesus: Pshh!… Be quiet, Anton…
Fatso: Look, there’s the altar… Let’s take a closer look…
Jesus: I want to touch the stone… Let’s go!
Keeno: Watch out, Jesus, an old man is coming…!
Mary: They started to run through the columns, but the priest had overtaken them….
Saphed: At last, I caught you!… What does this insolence mean?
Jesus: We… we… just wanted to see the stone…
Saphed: Where did you come from, you rascals?
Fatso: From Galilee. We came for the feast… but we’re on our way back…
Keeno: We wanted to see this…. It’s so beautiful…
Saphed: Yes, it’s beautiful, but you’re not supposed to be here. It’s prohibited.
Saphed: Because only the priests are allowed here.
Jesus: Oh… but why?
Saphed: Why do you ask?… What a nosy boy you are!…. What’s your name?
Jesus: Jesus. And this is Keeno. This other one is Samuel, but we call him Fatso because he’s fat.
Saphed: And you, snotty-nosed from Galilee, haven’t you been taught that this is a sacred place, a very sacred place…? Only holy men can enter this place…
Jesus: You mean… you are holy?
Saphed: No, no, I’m a great sinner… Oh my God, have pity on this poor sinner!
Jesus: Then, how come you’re in this sacred place…?
Saphed: Because I’m a priest, son.
Fatso: Are priests holy…?
Saphed: Look, boys, how should I tell you…? You have to distinguish between the sanctity of the office and the weakness of the officiant….
Jesus: Oh, yeah…. Well, I can’t see the difference.
Saphed: Well, you have to. Let me give you an example. Rabbi Aziel says that if we take a fruit with a bitter skin…. No, no, he says that if we remove the skin of a fruit…. Oh well, now I don’t remember it exactly…. And besides, so much for this. I can’t waste my time with foolish kids like you….
Another Priest: What’s going on here, Master Saphed?… And these kids, where did they come from…?
Saphed: That’s what I’m asking…. I don’t know how they got here, but I know where to send them out…
Another Priest: This happens often. Yes, Master Saphed. These kids want to have a closer look at the immaculate beauty of the house of God…. Is that right, children…?
Fatso: Yes, we wanted to see….
Priest: Go ahead, sons… look…. Everything here is beautiful…!
Jesus: Master, what’s there inside…?
Mary: Jesus, pointed with his soiled fingers toward the direction of the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in the huge building that was the Temple of Jerusalem….
Priest: Inside?… There, my son, is the Presence of God!
Fatso: The Presence of God…!
Jesus: Have you seen God, Master…?
Priest: No, son, I haven’t.
Jesus: Then, how do you know God’s there?
Priest: Because He’s there. It’s a mystery.
Keeno: They can’t see Him, Jesus… My grandpa used to say that whoever sees God, dies.
Jesus: Is that true, master?
Priest: Yes, son. Whoever sees the face of God dies.
Jesus: God must be very ugly then….
Priest: No, son, don’t say that. God is not ugly nor beautiful, not tall nor short, strong nor sickly…. God is a very pure spirit!
Fatso: What’s this “very pure pirate”?
Priest: Very pure spirit?… How should I say…. It means that God is intangible, inalterable, infinite, inodorous, colorless…
Fatso: Inodorous…. So He need not take a bath?
Priest: …indescribable, incomprehensible, unimaginable, incommensurable… Now, do you understand how God is?
Fatso: Yeah, now it’s clear….
Jesus: Master, and everything you have said fits inside?
Rabbi Siphar: What’s this gathering here…? You can be heard from that door….
Priest: I’m glad you came, Rabbi Siphar... Come and meet the boys… They are very intelligent…. They’ll be good for our school…
Siphar: Really? Would you like to be with us, sons…?
Keeno: Where?… We’re going back to Galilee…
Siphar: Would you like to attend the school for priests? A lot of young people are there. They become worthy servants of the Temple.
Jesus: What do they do in that school…?
Siphar: They meditate on the Scriptures day and night…
Fatso: Day and night…!
Keeno: Why do they do this, master?
Siphar: In order to know God better.
Jesus: What for…?
Siphar: In order to understand His word better, son.
Jesus: And then…?
Siphar: To continue meditating. You never end up understanding the Holy Scripture, son. You have to meditate on it constantly.
Priest: Nevertheless, the same Scripture speaks of the peace of the just, Rabbi.
Saphed: But this is not the case here, Siphar.
Siphar: Yes, it’s a similar case. Besides, that has nothing to do with the boy’s question!
Saphed: Oh yes, it has something to do with it!
Mary: We were already leaving through the Gate of Fish when we realized that Jesus was not in the caravan of the Galileans…
Mary: Comadre Elisha, have you seen your son…?
Elisha: Oh no, Mary, I thought he was with your son…
Mary: I know, but they’re not here…
Elisha: The last time I saw them was with that fat boy, Fatso….
Mary: Oh, my God, they might have gotten lost in this city! It’s too dangerous here!… Joseph!… Joseph!
Joseph: Hey, what’s all that screaming about, Mary?
Mary: Is Jesus with you?
Joseph: I thought he was with you…
Mary: They must have been bumming around one of those streets and lost their way! He’s with the sons of Elisha and that lady….
A Woman Neighbor: Oh my Samuel, my little Samuel!
Joseph: Take it easy, Ma’am. If they got lost, we’ll find them… Let’s go back…. They shouldn’t have gone very far yet….
Mary: While the caravan of our countrymen had left the city for the north, Joseph and I, and the parents of the two boys turned back to look for our children amid that sea of people… I was really shocked about that incident!… Joseph seemed more relaxed, but I guess he didn’t want to alarm me…. We returned to the market, we went through all the streets where we had been… but nothing…. There was no trace of the boys.
Saphed: It’s the sanctity of the office! And the boy questioned the weakness of the officiant!
Priest: And the nerve of these boys to speak of the Lord as “not having to take a bath!” Can you imagine?
Siphar: The boys were talking of the peace of the just, not of the unjust!
Mary: At noontime, it occurred to us to enter the Temple…
Woman: Oh, Samuel, my little Samuel!
Mary: We’ve lost him, Joseph!… This is like looking for a needle in a haystalk…
Joseph: Take it easy, Mary. Jesus is a smart boy. He would know how to go back to Nazareth alone…
Old Woman: Pardon my curiosity, but why are these women weeping?
Joseph: It’s about our three sons, old woman. We lost them near this place this morning…
Old Woman: How do they look?
Woman: My son is fat, very well-bred and he’s wearing a green tunic.
Elisha: My son’s hair, Keeno, is the color of a carrot.
Joseph: They are with someone who’s a little naughty. He is brown-skinned and wearing a dirty tunic….
Old Woman: These boys…. I think I’ve seen them inside the Temple…
Mary: We passed through the women’s atrium, asking each and everyone about them, when we saw them leaving….
Saphed: And don’t you ever try to sneak in again, do you hear me?!… Never again!
Mary: Jesus! My son!
Woman: Samuel! My Samuel…!
Mary: Jesus, son, where’ve you been? Your father and I have been looking for you everywhere…
Jesus: We were talking with those teachers there and…
Joseph: Talking about what! Blazes!… You didn’t know how scared your mother was…!
Jesus: We couldn’t leave because those teachers couldn’t agree with one another. One said, God was this, the other one claimed He was that.
Fatso: They were arguing among themselves and they wouldn’t let us go…
Jesus: That’s right. These people make a big fuss out of nothing… They take care of God’s affairs, but I don’t think they know Him… God can’t be what they’re saying about him...
Mary: But Jesus, how can you say that about the teachers?!
Jesus: Because it is true, Mama. Look, they say that.....
Joseph: Okay, okay, let’s go. You’ve spoken a lot already... If we hurry, we still might be able to catch the caravan of Galileans!
Mary: And we did catch it. After three days, we were back in Nazareth. Life went on like the watermill and, beginning that year, Jesus would go with us to Jerusalem each year for the feast of the Passover…
Time passed by…. He was growing fast to becoming a man… And I believe that he kept on discovering more clearly that God is, above all, a Father. A Father who is very close to us and who is concerned with everything about us….
The Law of Israel required that everyone should “appear before God” in the Temple of Jerusalem, during the three principal feasts of the year. Those who did not have this obligation were the deaf, the idiots, the children, the homosexuals, the women, and the unfreed slaves, the crippled, the blind, the sick and the aged. This norm simply highlights who were considered the “outcasts” in that society, who were unworthy even to appear before the Lord. The three feasts were the Passover, the first fruits (Pentecost) and the harvest (The Tents). The Passover was the most popular of the three. The poor – who could not spend for the yearly pilgrimages – fulfilled their obligation especially during this feast. Although the women were not obliged, they usually joined their husbands and children in the trip to celebrate the Passover.
The texts of this period show that boys who were thirteen years of age should begin to comply with the obligation to join the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover. It was the custom of the people living in the interior part of Israel to bring them along at an earlier age of twelve, to familiarize them with the manner of complying with the precepts that would be required of them the following year. Participation in the feast of the Passover together with the people was a way of consecrating the “majority age” of the boy, after which he began to act like a real “Israelite,” since it was understood that “Israelite” was synonymous to “he who goes to Jerusalem.”
For the pilgrimages big caravans were formed, composed of neighbors from the same town, friends and relatives. This way, they could protect each other from the main enemy of the road: the bandits. They traveled by foot and when they could get a glimpse of Jerusalem, the pilgrims began to sing “Psalms of Ascent” (Ps 120-134). Jesus, who had never seen the capital, nor the Temple, remained dazzled by its size and splendor. Certainly, it was for him an unforgettable impression.
When Jesus went to Jerusalem, the Temple was still under reconstruction, a work started by King Herod the Great, about thirty years before. The materials used were of good quality: yellow, black and white marbles, stones engraved artistically by brilliant sculptors, cedar from Lebanon for the wonderful craftswork. Precious metals: gold, silver and bronze. The Temple was a dazzling edifice, especially for a young boy coming from a small farm village. It is not strange therefore, that Jesus, fascinated by that marvel, should have the curiosity to take a closer look at everything. All entrances to the Temple led to gold and silver-plated doorways. In the atria or patios surrounding the building were huge candelabras of gold or silver. The height of magnificence was, above all, in the edifice of the Temple. The facade was covered with plates of gold with the thickness of a denarius coin. From the beams of the hall hung thick chains of gold. There were two tables: one of fine marble and another of solid gold. From the hall of the building to the “Holy,” there was a grapevine made of golden shoots, to which were attached bunches of pure gold. In this episode, the boys were found in the vestibule (hall), when they were about to enter the place of the “Holy.” This was reserved only for priests who were assigned to offer sacrifices each day. Their entry constituted a grave mistake.
In the “Holy One” were found a candelabra of pure gold with seven arms and a table where the holy bread was consecrated. Separated from this by a double veil was the so-called “Holy of Holies,” an entirely empty space with a cubic shape, and gold plated walls where the presence of God “was.” It was a dark and quiet place. Only the high priest could go inside, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, when he prayed to God for the forgiveness of sins of all the people.
For the Israelites, that was the most sacred place on earth.
Luke is the only one who has written an account of Jesus in the Temple, when he was twelve years old. He wrote his gospel for the foreigners, for the non-Jews, the men and women whose mentality was strongly influenced by the Greek culture. For these readers, the “wisdom” understood in the master-disciple relationship fostered inspiration and respect in them. Luke wrote this narration to concretely show these readers that Jesus is the Wisdom of God, that his mission was to teach us the way of justice, that he was the Master par excellence. In this evangelical text of his, aside from giving us historical information of Jesus’ first trip to Jerusalem at age twelve, he is also transmitting a theological message and is doing catechesis for the Greek lectors.
This explains the “extraordinary” effect that a boy’s story can have, which can stun old teachers. Later on, in the remaining pages of his gospel, Luke himself will show how this “wisdom” should not be interpreted exactly the way the Greeks did, and that Jesus is not a “wise man” according to their criteria (accumulation of culture, alienation from the world, etc.), but that his is of “another” type of wisdom. In his letters, Paul will likewise refer to this topic (1 Cor 1:18-25).
In this episode, the questions asked by Jesus and his replies to the priests are not those of a “child prodigy,” neither are they of a God disguised as a boy who knows everything and who pretends to be a fool in order to catch the elders in their own mistakes. No, Jesus asks questions the way any boy in any part of the world does: with simplicity, with a little mischief, with naivete. In doing so, children always charm the elders, muddle up their arguments, proving then that replying to questions is not as easy as they believe it is. The priests appear to be dominated by law, rituals and theory. Their words were empty, and not related to life. Before the innocent arguments presented by the boys, the priests find themselves in a labyrinth from which they cannot escape. When faith is expressed solely in twisted and difficult words or in ready-made prescriptions, and cannot face up to the questions of a boy, an illiterate, of someone with another culture, it only shows that this faith is just an empty shell, with nothing inside whatsover. Sometimes “what is most profound” is identified with “what is difficult to understand.” What is truly most profound shall always be accessible to all, and can be expressed in simpler words which are closer to life.