Immaculate Mary and the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple

Some say that the Blessed Virgin Mary sinned when Jesus was 12 by either being anxious, or rebuking Jesus, or both. Here’s why they’re wrong.

Carl Bloch (1834-1890), “Jesus Is Found in the Temple”
Carl Bloch (1834-1890), “Jesus Is Found in the Temple” (photo: Public Domain)

The finding of Our Lord in the Temple is recounted in Luke 2:42-50:

And when he was 12 years old, they went up according to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. After three days they found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him, they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.’ And he said to them, ‘How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.

Some argue that the Blessed Virgin Mary sinned here by either being anxious, or rebuking Jesus, or both. I’d like to take a closer look at the passage and offer a response to such (outrageous) claims.

Along these lines, one Protestant debate opponent cited commentator James Edwards, who wrote in The Gospel According to Luke:

She addresses him not as pais (v. 43, ‘boy, young man’), but with a more juvenile and subservient term, teknon (v. 48; ‘child,’ NIV ‘Son’).

According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, teknon in this passage meant “specifically, a male child, a son … in the vocative, in kindly address.” “Kindly” doesn’t exactly suggest a supposedly “negative reaction” from Mary, does it?

Luke 15:31, which Thayer sees as a parallel to Luke 2:48, is part of the parable of the prodigal son, and it applies teknon to the prodigal son’s brother. Both appear to be fairly grown up, since they can possibly — or actually do — inherit property (2:12).

Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines teknon as simply “‘child’ (or ‘son’) in the sense of progeny ...” Kittel doesn’t see some big or significant difference between teknon and pais, as Edwards above does, since it defines the latter almost identically: “‘child’ (usually ‘boy’ but also ‘girl’), and with reference to descent ‘son’ ...”

Teknon is also used to describe “children of God” (i.e., all Christian believers) in John 1:12 (cf. Romans 9:8; Galatians 4:28). It’s a distinction without much or any difference. Moreover, if Mary had “more juvenile” in mind, Kittel notes three words for “small child” that could have been used: paidion, paidarion and teknion. So it’s much ado about nothing.

Mary saying, “why have you treated us so?” is not necessarily an accusation of sinfulness on Jesus’ part at all. Mary and Joseph were simply (undeniably) perplexed, but it doesn’t follow that they were accusing Jesus of sin. After all, all Christians believe that God the Father is sinless, yet we are often perplexed by his words or actions or lack of answers to prayers, etc. We’re simply confused and lack answers and full knowledge, while we accept certain mysteries in faith and the fact that God’s ways are much higher than ours. They didn’t understand.

Jesus was routinely misunderstood by almost everyone, including (quite often, before Pentecost) his own disciples (Mark 4:13; 6:52; 9:32; Luke 9:45; John 12:16). And I’m sure Mary and Joseph would have been the first to admit that they wouldn’t always fully understand God the Son.

Mary and Joseph were simply worried about the whereabouts of their son. If parents didn’t worry in some strong sense about their children, when there was sufficient cause, I submit that they would be negligent, irresponsible parents. The passage doesn’t show Mary as a sinner but rather as a very human, normal, concerned parent, as all parents should be. Nor does it necessarily follow at all that Jesus’ usual provocative and rhetorical (indeed, even “socratic”) questioning is implying sin on Mary’s part. He was simply challenging her to realize that he was anticipating his mission to come.

Some argue that Mary’s lack of a response to Jesus’ reply implies that she knew she was wrong and was being rebuked. That doesn’t follow either. This weak “argument from silence” is not at all the only plausible one: as if a response of silence must be an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. The actual text states that “they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.” It says nothing about alleged sin. That’s merely read into it. But they may very well have asked further questions that simply weren’t included in the narrative. They had to talk about something, walking back to Nazareth (Luke 2:51). The Bible records that which it considers most important for its purpose, not absolutely every word and conversation.

In what I think is a desperate, absurd, grasping-at-straws argument (worthy of atheist cynicism), one Protestant maintained that because Mary and Joseph were referred to together several times in Luke 2:43-51 and (so he supposed) were “in the same category.” This implies that Mary wasn’t sinless and essentially different from Joseph.

But Mary and Joseph were both his parents, and both had been (absolutely “normally”!) looking for him. By this sort of weird and simplistic “reasoning”, Jesus’ disciples must have been equal to him, too, since the Gospels mention “Jesus and his disciples” together three times (Matthew 9:10; Mark 2:15; John 3:22)!

Mary being sinless or Jesus being God doesn’t make her understandable, utterly normal reaction as a mother looking for her child (for three days!) any different. She was a human being with the usual emotions, just like we all have.

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