Pass Him by, if you will, on your donkey, or on foot with your loaded donkey, on the dusty path to the humble first-century Galilean building you call home—two rooms, clay brick with mud and straw for mortar, dirt floor. Two rooms and an open courtyard. You’ve worked since sunrise. Now food and rest are all you’re thinking of, not dramatic encounters with important strangers.
The Man who went by in the other direction may have been Yeshu’a ben-Yosef, a twenty-something Palestinian Jew you’ve heard of but never met—as far as you can tell. Granted, the man you just passed by didn’t look like the stuff of dramatic encounters anyway, and perhaps that’s the very reason you’ve never met Him: there wasn’t any arresting physical beauty to the Man you just passed that struck your attention.1
But to hear His mother speak of Him, you would believe that there has never been another child like Him in the little mountain town of His youth—so gracious in disposition, ready in helpfulness, and humbly charming even in painful, awkward, difficult moments. She will tell you, even now, the story of His steady blossoming into a soul of profound wisdom, even as He also matured physically.
This Son of Miryam and Yosef was one of all the cute little kids who didn’t turn into a brash teen. Or a know-it-all young adult. But there’s no denying it: He does know a great deal! Still, all He did was become a Youth of meek boldness and a kindly, sensible-looking face. I’ll grant that anybody as focused as you were on that barley bread and fish you were savoring could go by Yeshu’a and never notice Him. He misses things too, maybe: How come He didn’t get married a dozen years ago? He’s almost 30 years old and still as single as He’s ever been.
His mother, Miryam—and his brothers, too, though with much less delight—could tell you how persuasively he speaks His ethical convictions. Her heart is ever bursting with holy gratitude for His devotion to the Scriptures she so carefully and faithfully taught Him. For Him, everything has to be based on the Scriptures. He draws from Devarim (the Deuteronomy scroll): “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3, NIV).
His brothers can attest to things mother Miryam said. But the fire inside them when they speak is different from the fervor burning in her soul that shows in her transparently honest eyes. Ya‘akov or Yosef, or Shim’on, or Yehudah—or all of them at once—wonder aloud sometimes, about His impractical holiness: He’s crazy (Mark 3:21). Others think so too, and worse: perhaps He’s demon-possessed as well as crazy (John 10:20). Does He truly understand the first thing about His nation’s history and the great fathers of that history? How stable is His head? He talks with conviction about what God did for us through patriarchs like Avraham, Moshe, and David; then He goes off about misguided zeal, admonishing when everyone else is admiring—how Moshe put that Mitsri in his place (under the sand); or how David could elude both Israelite king Shaul and Philistine king Achish. How brilliant was that! He blames David for the death of 85 priests.2 Imagine that! Rather than recall their exploits—like what they did at Shechem (Gen. 34)—he chafes at the thought that the fathers of our tribes were themselves the fruit of so much contention, deception, and flames of criminal jealousy that burned just as furiously in their own time as they had in their father’s generation.3 Nobody’s perfect after all!
That, of course, is one of the worst things to say if you were hoping to silence Him. That’s what turns Him on! He’ll readily agree with you. Because that’s the problem. Nobody’s perfect: that is humanity’s problem! We need a better example, a better guide, a better model; a different orientation, away from ourselves to God our Father in heaven. We do not need to model ourselves after our fellow fallen humans when we may seek the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength—Devarim again; when we may lean on heaven’s grace and power every moment of every day. It’s not about us. It’s all about God our Father, who means for His children to value purity of soul and integrity of action more than . . . more than life! You serve the cause of your Father who is in heaven by letting Him live His selfless life through you in the service of others, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16, NIV).
Nothing ever slows His Scripture searching and learning. He sees truths in those scrolls that His mother, His principal teacher, hasn’t thought of, or garnered from conscientious conversation, or heard from the synagogue or its leaders before. Including what He really believes about His nation, God’s specially chosen people. Sometimes the brothers lean on Mary so hard when they hear Him talk about family. She feels it, but it never leads her to denounce her Son when He says, “My mother and my brothers are all those who hear God’s word and obey it” (Luke 8:21, NLT).4
The synagogue rulers have come to be aware of ben-Josef’s exceptionalism. It doesn’t make them comfortable. You can’t describe Him as hostile. Maybe He’s even modest. But modesty notwithstanding, the free familiarity with which He invokes the Torah leaves them unsteady on their theological feet. The occasions He refers to as “discussions” involve moments—rather long moments sometimes—of infuriated shouting from congregational leaders who end up feeling more like enemies than discussants. His disrespect for His elders is close to unpardonable. They’ve tried as hard as they can to summarize their claims of disrespect for authority, distortion of Torah, and disloyalty to God’s chosen nation. But they end up with little, if any, proof. Mostly they feel themselves wishing the Almighty would inflict on Him the grievous bodily harm He deserves for the blasphemies of which they can’t quite prove Him guilty. He drives them to madness, but nothing they can put down to His pitch or volume, His vocabulary or body language, or anything else about Him beyond His insufferable correctness! They simply feel intense hatred for Him—and struggle mightily to find some justification for it (see Ps. 69:4; John 15:25). They’ve known Him now for going on three decades, and share memories in abundance, of His gentle disruptions. They aren’t sure He properly defers to even the most venerated rabbis. They can’t tell what He believes about the Romans. Nor can He be counted on to denounce and repudiate the publicans who work for them. Everyone—everyone else, I guess—knows that the Romans, specifically the Roman military, are a despicable presence in our midst, cruel and evil, with no one but publicans less welcome than they.
And everyone knows that children owe obedience to their parents, and that they and their parents owe full loyalty to the wider family and the community elders. But this Man, with His most reserved yet assured manner, cites Torah—the Shema, to be precise—to the effect that God alone is due absolute loyalty, and that even breaking up families is completely appropriate for the sake of anyone’s determination to follow God: He sees people making enemies inside their own household for the sake of choosing God’s kingdom above every other dedication (see Matt. 10:34-36). And if it shocks somebody, He clarifies: “enemies” is just what He said. Then, if you let Him, He’ll hug you so tightly that you’ll know He hasn’t got a hateful bone in His body, and that He loves you just the same whether you agree or disagree. But the sum of the matter is still unsettling: generally speaking, He can’t be trusted to give the Romans their
due, or give family and community leaders the support they might need when the moment comes to act together for their people and against their enemies.
Amazingly, there are others in the community, even among the older population some say He doesn’t really respect, who speak of Him with the same awe that mother Miryam does. Now, these aren’t people ever known for malice or divisiveness: and they’ve lived long enough for you to know what they are like. And they certainly aren’t celebrated for their gullibility. It’s just that the stories they tell about Him are of monumental improbability: He isn’t originally Natsri; He was brought to the city as a toddler from Mitsrayim; His mother was pregnant before time, but his father still took her as his wife. A formidable workman, that Yosef; taught Him the carpenter trade He now practices. He’d be proud to see the infinitely meticulous work ben-Yosef is turning out. Didn’t fall too far from the block; just a great guy.
He once forsook His mother and father after Passover. They spent three days searching for Him on the way home. When it became clear that He wasn’t among the pilgrims now homeward bound, they turned back to Jerusalem in desperation. Turns out that He was in the temple, engaged in intense “discussion” with “the teachers,” sitting among them, “listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46, NIV). For all I know, it may have been the first time in her life that Miryam publicly reprimanded Him: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (verse 48, NIV).
And can you imagine His response to His mother Miryam?
No, you can’t; I’ll have to tell you: “Why were you searching for me?” He thought everything was just fine: “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (verse 49, NIV).
One other thing I should probably mention. His age at the time. He was 12 years old.
A wave of strong emotion swept over her being when Miryam heard His answer. At that moment her mind rushed backward a full lifetime—His lifetime—to when she stood alone in her room and a visitor showed up without sound or permission, bathed in holy light that drenched the room and overwhelmed her betrothed girlhood with terror, and mystery, and wonder: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. . . . Do not be afraid. . . . You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Yashu’a” (Luke 1:28-31, NIV).
Yosef, her fiancé, got his own message from heaven, his own word of reassurance. She was not to be afraid. Neither was he: “Do not be afraid to take Miryam home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Yashu’a, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20, 21, NIV).
Prophetic fulfillment, they say. And they were to be the ones through whom eternity’s ages would descend to earth, inhabit a human body, live a pure and flawless life, and die to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36): “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him ‘Immanu’el” (Isa. 7:14, NIV).
Maybe Miryam’s right: never been, never will be, another child like Him, ‘Immanu’el, God with us.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.