Opening the Word: Lost and found

Being lost isn’t always what it seems. People usually end up lost when they take a wrong turn. Or we sometimes speak of “losing ourselves” in some pleasant diversion: reading a book, watching a movie, or taking a walk in a park.

Yet it takes a unique person and perspective to be lost without actually being lost, in order that those who seek you will not only find you but will find you more deeply and more truly. It takes the 12-year-old Incarnate Word to be lost in such a way. It is rather humorous, in fact, to think that today’s Gospel reading, which is the only story about the youthful Jesus between his first weeks of life and his adulthood, is sometimes said to be about Mary and Joseph seeking the “lost” Jesus. Is he lost?

To them, yes, he is lost; they are as anxious as any parent would be. But the young Jesus was not lost. He purposefully, St. Luke writes, “remained behind in Jerusalem.” And when he was found after three days of frantic searching by Mary and Joseph, he did not express the relief of a frightened child. Rather, he matter-of-factly asked two questions: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49)

As Msgr. Ronald Knox observed in “Lightning Meditations” (Sheed and Ward, 1959), these responses leave us “puzzled, perhaps faintly disconcerted.” Surely the young man spoke with a smile, Knox suggested, “otherwise the remark would be intolerably priggish.”

What is clear is that Jesus’ words do not directly translate to a “house,” but more obscurely to “the things of the Father.” Msgr. Knox muses that “the sight of Joseph hard at work makes him want to be a carpenter already, at twelve; but then, the thought of his heavenly Father, tirelessly at work all the time, makes him impatient to begin his real ministry.” After all, his words “I must” are as urgent as they are puzzling.

What was the work of the Father? A central part of it was teaching, especially to “the teachers.” The Son of God, the author of the Law, would both explain and fulfill the Law to the teachers. This focus on teaching is especially emphasized as the Passion approaches: “And every day he was teaching in the temple area” (Lk 19:47; see 20:1; 21:34-39; 22:53).Jesus taught by asking questions. This was, Origen observed in a homily, befitting his youth. Jesus “interrogated the teachers not to learn anything but to teach them by his questions,” he wrote. “It is part of the same wisdom to know what you should ask and what you should answer.” But Jesus also astounded the teachers, St. Luke writes, with “his understanding and his answers.” Having come to seek and save the lost, he revealed man’s need for the Messiah by both asking and proclaiming, prodding and eliciting. “For the Son of Man has come,” he told Zacchaeus, “to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10).

When Joseph and Mary spent three days seeking Jesus, they were being drawn deeper into the mystery of salvation. They knew Jesus was the Messiah, but how could they not be astonished that he was teaching the teachers? This required further contemplation. And so, also, for us. In seeking him, we will not only find him, but will find that we are the ones who have been found.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of