Part 3 of series: Missional and Formational?
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It’s always risky to try and speak of the forces that formed Jesus and his ministry. Partly we face the problem of his uniqueness as someone who was both fully human and fully God. But efforts to account for Jesus’ own formation necessarily stumble over the lack of historical evidence for his life before his ministry. The gospels provide us with so little to go on here. (To be accurate, I should say that the canonical gospels offer scanty information on the early life of Jesus. The so-called “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” fills in the blanks for us. But, unfortunately, most of what we read in this gospel is more legendary than historical.)
For the most part, the early life of Jesus is best left to fictional attempts, such as the fine efforts by Anne Rice (Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana is her latest) or the wildly inventive, funny, and profane novel by Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. Most serious scholars realize that the early years of Jesus are inaccessible, and therefore shouldn’t receive undue attention.
Nevertheless, we can know some things about Jesus’ experience prior to the launch of his ministry at around thirty years of age. And we can speculate about how this experience might have formed him as a man and also his ministry as the kingdom-inaugurating Son of Man/Messiah. As long as we recognize that our speculations are, well, speculative, then I think it’s both safe and worthwhile to think of Jesus’ own formation and its relationship to his mission.
We do know that Jesus was born into a Jewish family that observed the Torah carefully. He and his parents, along with siblings (or half-siblings) would, for example, have been faithful in praying daily prayers, attending the synagogue, keeping the Sabbath, and making occasional trips to Jerusalem in order to offer sacrifices in the temple.
We also know that Jesus had a rather outstanding mother. No doubt she was chosen as the mother of the Son of God because of her character and faith. Surely she had a major role in helping Jesus to know who he was and what his life was all about.
We know relatively little about Joseph, Jesus’ human father. From the story of the conception of Jesus, we know that Joseph was a righteous and compassionate man. We also can see that he was willing to risk his honor and even his life to follow God’s call. Joseph was a carpenter, as was Jesus, who followed in his father’s footsteps. Jesus no doubt was apprenticed to Joseph, learning his father’s trade by countless hours at his Joseph’s side. It’s quite likely that when Jesus spoke of making disciples, his own experience as Joseph’s apprentice shaped his understanding and practice.
We can only wonder how Jesus’ years as an apprentice and then carpenter formed both his own personality and his ministry. A successful carpenter needs to be exacting and careful. “Measure twice, cut once,” my grandfather used to say. A skillful carpenter sees in a pile of wood a table or chair, much as a sculptor sees a masterpiece in a block of marble. As a craftsman in Nazareth, Jesus would have needed to operate with exemplary integrity as a businessman. Moreover, it’s like that his work brought him into contact with people from Sepphoris, the nearby city with strong Roman influence. Though he lived in a small village, Jesus was aware of the wider world, including the might of Rome.
I’ll have more to say about Nazareth and Jesus in my next post in this series.