It was the empty place at the table that sounded the alarm for the worried parents. After a day’s travel, enjoying the camaraderie of the extended family, the nightly meal revealed that their son was missing. The circumstances may be different these days, but most families know what it is to have an empty place at the table—a place meant for a son or daughter who is absent because of estrangement or because other duties have taken precedence or death has claimed them too early. During the rest of the day, the family may manage without the absent one, but it is the gaping hole at the table that is the hardest to endure. Sometimes the story ends happily. The soldier returns home in time for the next holiday; a sick child recovers; an alienated member becomes reconciled; a missing teen is found unscathed.
In the Gospel today, there is at first a note of relief that Jesus is found unharmed. But a more ominous note sounds when Jesus declares he must be in his Father’s house. We already know the end of the story. We know that as Jesus builds a new family to abide in his Father’s house, he will offend some religious leaders by filling in the empty places at the table with people whom others did not consider part of the family. Jesus claimed that all these unwanted folk were God’s beloved children.
The Gospel episode ends with Jesus returning to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, saying that he “was obedient to them” and that he “advanced in wisdom and age and favor.” We sometimes imagine Jesus as a reluctant teen, who has to continue to abide by his earthly parents’ rules even as he feels he must begin to pursue his life’s work in response to God’s call. Throughout his opening chapters, however, Luke has portrayed Jesus’ earthly parents as utterly Law-observant and completely conforming themselves to God’s will.
There is no tension between what God asks and what they choose to do. Mary assents to Gabriel, even though she does not understand everything that is asked of her. Mary and Joseph obediently have their child circumcised after eight days and then present him in the Temple in Jerusalem, as the Law prescribes. Every year, they go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. We might see, then, in the ending of today’s Gospel that there is no conflict between Jesus’ obedience to Mary and Joseph and his obedience to the will of God. Rather, it is Mary and Joseph who have taught Jesus how to recognize the call of God and how to be obedient to it.
It is in their home in Nazareth that he will continue to grow in wisdom and grace and in the ability to discern what is obedience to God. It is through his earthly parents that Jesus will come to understand how precious and beloved he is as God’s chosen one. It is from listening to his mother’s song, which dreams of the hungry being well fed and the lowly lifted up, that Jesus learns obedience to God’s inclusive love.
We too learn in our homes that we are already God’s beloved children, as the reading from 1 John asserts. It is not a privilege to be earned, but a gift already bestowed. And just as Hannah longed fervently for Samuel, so God longs to dandle each of us on her knee and wrap us in her loving arms. We already have a place at the table in God’s family and are invited to remain there.
As the second reading reminds us, we make the family resemblance visible in our shared belief in the Son and in our obedience to the command to love one another. When we gather as church, as God’s family, we find healing and forgiveness from all that is not perfect in our birth families. There are no empty places at the table at God’s family reunions, where all the lost come home and grow in wisdom through obedience to the source of love.