Compare and contrast: the Individual. Choice. Self-discovery. Now we’re back into happy modern territory. Surely happier, at any rate, than the 1950s, that mythical decade wherein Guardianistas fondly sneer that Mail readers all wish to dwell, in saecula saeculorum. After all “family,” we are repeatedly told, is the primary locus of emotional and sexual abuse; “authority” is never to be trusted, since everyone is out on the make; and “obedience” is sheep-like and undignified, because nobody could possibly know better than I. So it is the individual trumps the wicked family, personal choice overrides all authority, and nobody deserves the obedience which would impede my personal voyage of self-discovery.
People who argue against infant baptism and religious education in schools often argue along these lines. The young, they say, should be able to make their own minds up about such things when they get older. On what grounds they will make their decisions when all information and reasoned debate is withheld from them, I do not know; and if we take the principle to its logical extent, presumably the kiddy winkies will be allowed to choose to eat rusty nails and bubble-wrap if they like, and left until later in life to debate the relative merits of stabbing each other with scissors or playing on motorways.
Yet there is much that children do not choose, such as their nationality, their sex, their sleeping patterns, or for that matter to be born. One of the points of being a parent is that you make certain choices. Sprog may reject those choices in due course, but the parent still makes the decision in the first place: and choosing to make no decision is a decision in itself. So, like it or not, the family is a unit of authority and obedience.
What a remarkable counterexample to an age obsessed with self-empowerment that the all-powerful God submitted to the authority of mortal parents. I could bang on about the horror that the almost joyous dismantling of the family and the pathological contempt for authority have wreaked over the decades, but anyone without ideological blinkers or myopic optimism can see that for themselves. Better to think about what kind of authority Jesus was submitting to in his family and community, and what hope it might bring.
His community’s authority was not simply for authority’s sake, the authority of “because I say so:” Jesus was debating with his elders and religious superiors when Mary and Joseph found Him. The gospel here commend an authority secure enough to allow dissent, knowing enough to answer questions, mature enough not to resort to anger when challenged.
Jesus’ family had given him the freedom to go off on his own. At first, Mary and Joseph were not worried, certainly not wrapping him in cotton wool. So theirs was the sort of authority that inspires freely willed obedience rather than forces it. Obedience which is unreasoningly enforced is really not obedience at all, but a kind of enslavement. There are times when you do have to enforce it – you can’t reason a toddler out of sticking her fingers in the electric socket. But the emergency exception should not set the rule. Good authority sets the boundaries needed for independent flourishing.
Most importantly, Luke describes a family interrelationship which helped Jesus reach wisdom. Wisdom resides in truth, a concept dismissed by the modern cult of self-fulfilment. The absence of moral truth becomes an excuse for people to use and abuse one another, to break off and start up successions of “relationships” without an afterthought for the detritus they leave behind, and they are bolstered in this by online “friends” who just happen to support them without challenge in everything they do or say or think. Since the wealthy and the middle-aged can afford to make mistakes, the fallout of this indiscipline and folly tends to hit the poorest and the youngest hardest.
Where many people have found wisdom is in those who have submitted, like Jesus, to the rule of a person or community in which they find the love and knowledge of God, and who have stuck with it; in those who pray often and plenty in a disciplined routine and who give themselves in loving service to one other. If we can offer to our biological families and to our greater family of the Church anything like the nurturing authority Mary and Joseph gave to Jesus, then we will be doing God’s work.