Christmas thought experiment on children

Lieberman Jesus In The Tempel
Max Lieberman, “Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel”, 1879

“…But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man
(See Luke 2:41-52 NIV for the whole passage)

Let’s try a little thought experiment. Let’s assume, for a moment, that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person. After all, he might have been. There might have been a person at the core of those fantastical stories. probably was, even. Someone who became amazing, who astounded crowds and scholars alike with his thinking. Some of which was centuries ahead of the ethics of the time. Whatever else he was, he was a nonconformist.

How did that happen? Assuming he was born poor, how did he, you know, become what he became?

We get the impression he was a bit of a mamma’s boy. Scripture doesn’t record any interaction with his father. In fact, in this passage, he displaced his father in favor of a mythic one. But his mother was there right to the end. They didn’t always get along, but she “treasured these things in her heart.”

What things?

A TV personality once had a show called “Kids say the darnedest things.” Mostly they were examples of charming naiveté. But if you raised children, you know that every once in a while, they really cut through all the grown-up crap with a serious zinger. The grown-up reaction might be anything from ignoring them, to a condescending smile, or even “Go to your room!” And that’s before they go to school.

What if, instead of that reaction, such moments were encouraged? What if they weren’t hit with a sense of disapproval every time they switched on the conversational lights? What if he were not carefully steered away from the more radical prophets? The Saul Alinskys and Malcom Xs of that day?

As parents, I’m sorry to say, most of us put a lot of energy into making sure our kids will be as unsurprising as possible. We encourage conformity, exerting a lot of pressure on one side of them, with a mold on the other side. We are worried for them; it is natural to do this. It is a source of regret, later in life, to think that we saddle them with hang-ups we might ourselves spend a lifetime trying to shed.

Our kids feel not only the pressure we put on them, but our approval and disapproval of other adults who don’t fit the mold. This is not lost on them. We steer them in tiny course corrections away from nonconformity, to the point where some of them grow up wishing they could be somebody else.

Not Mary, though, apparently. She ‘treasured’ these differences. Young Jesus could see the approval on her face when he asked counter-cultural questions. She probably didn’t have answers, but he could tell it was OK to ask. So he kept asking.

You could make the case that Mary should have thought a little more about how Jesus would get along in society. After all, his story (discounting the parts of it that violate the laws of thermodynamics) comes to a grisly end. I don’t know where to draw the line.

But maybe listening carefully to our kids would help us find it.


  • Einstein attributed his insights to refusing to grow up. “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives,” he said.
  • Carl Sagan often remarked that grade-school children were full of wonderful and insightful questions. By the time they got to high school, they were unfolding little pieces of paper and reading canned questions for the visiting scientist.
  • Edison’s mother home-schooled him, when the school principal said he was “addled”.  Today we still use the first three letters of that word to describe children with restless minds.
  • This post is just what was running through my apostate head last night as I attended a Christmas Eve service. It was a lovely occasion, surrounded by people who actually do believe all that Peace On Earth jazz. Not all Christian denominations want to Make The World Safe For Capitalism Again.  Some of them want to make the world safe for people.
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Older technology guy with photography and history background