A Teenager in the Holy Family

December 30, 2012

Luke 2: 41 – 52

Today’s gospel is the only place in the New Testament where we see Jesus as a teenager. It should not surprise us, then, that in this passage we find the holy family in turmoil. Now, I am not picking on teenagers. Teenagers deserve our respect. It is hard being a teenager. So many things are changing. There are new expectations, new fears, new feelings, and oh so many hormones! Many of us here wish that we were younger, but few of us wish that we were fifteen. It is hard being a teenager, and that is why the teenagers in our community deserve our support and our love. Now having said that, living in a house with a teenager can be challenging—challenging for both parent and child. On both sides it is difficult to communicate. It is difficult to understand. On both sides emotions can explode and feelings can be hurt.

All of this is reflected in today’s gospel, as Mary and Joseph attempt to relate to their teenage son. There is poor communication. Mary and Joseph do not even know that Jesus was staying in Jerusalem. There is hurt and anxiety. Mary says to her son, “How could you have done this to us?” And, of course, there is the confident belief that it is never my fault. Jesus says, “Why were you looking for me. I was in my father’s house.” It’s not my problem.

We see in this passage something very important: the stresses in family life should not be considered sinful. How can they be? Jesus was the Son of God. Mary was born without sin. Yet they still misunderstood one another and ended up hurting one another. This Gospel is telling us it does us no good to tear ourselves apart because of family stress. Our failure to connect with one another is less a sin and more the price we pay for living with one another.

Having said that, all of us want to hurt one another less. How do we do that? Today’s first reading from the book of Sirach shows us a way. Sirach says that families need to relate to one another with honor and kindness. This is especially true when things become difficult. A number of years ago there was a television special about the Babemba tribe in South Africa. This tribe had a particular way of dealing with people who were out of order. When someone did something wrong or was antisocial, the tribe would place that member in the middle of the village and form a circle around him or her. Then one by one each member of the tribe would shout out something that was good about the person, some way in which the person brought honor to the tribe. Each person took their turn, and no one said anything negative or even referred to the negative behavior. This process would take several hours. But, when everyone had spoken their piece, they considered the person in the middle of the circle to be “corrected,” and they began a celebration. The African tribe was convinced that when someone is out of order, it is more useful to treat that person with honor and kindness than with anger and criticism. There must be some truth to this practice, because it is said that they needed to use this “correction” very seldom.

Now I do not know if we could take this ritual from Africa and apply it to twenty-first century America. But if we tried, it might look something like this. Your teenage son has been sitting in front of the computer screen for two hours. You’ve asked him four times to take out the garbage and as of yet there is no movement. Now you could go into his room and explode. Or you could go into his room and say this, “Dominic, here are a few things I know to be true about you. You are a good student. You work hard for your grades. You are a good athlete. Other people look up to you. You are a loyal friend, generous and caring. I remember last month when your friend Mary’s uncle died how you found the time to be with her and to support her. You bring honor to this family, and I am proud of you.” You could say that and then walk out.

Now, would this work? Is it practical? I am not sure. But I am sure of this. What holds a family together is love and respect. Therefore, we should not abandon those qualities when things become difficult. We cannot go far wrong by telling the other members of our family what is best about them. It is always good to speak to one another with honor and with kindness. And—if we are lucky—it might even move someone to take out the garbage.

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