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26 October 2012

Was Jesus ever naughty as a child?

This year’s ChurchAds Christmas campaign pictured on our front cover raises the issue of Christ’s full incarnation. Theologian Steve Holmes answers whether that incarnation includes the terrible twos or the stroppy teenage years…

The Christmas carol service. We will sing my all-time, number one, top-of-the-charts, worst Christian song ever - we always do. Not some 70s charismatic chorus; no, they were just poor; this is magnificent in its awfulness. It is Once in Royal David’s City

The carol is remarkably bad. Its lowest point is not the unutterably feeble ending, astonishing though that is (all in white will wait around - there’s a vision of heaven guaranteed to get the heart pumping!). No, it is in the third verse, where we dispense with the gospel completely, and replace it with sentimental saccharine Victorian moralism of the very worst sort. 

As the rest of the congregation sing out “Christian children all must be / Mild, obedient, good as he,” I always want to shout: ‘They can’t! That’s the whole reason he came! It’s about grace and forgiveness for broken sinners, not about making your kids feel guilty about not tidying their room!’ 

(I don’t shout it of course. Such behaviour is frowned upon, particularly from the preacher. And anyway, my daughter’s room needs tidying...)

Was he, however, ‘mild, obedient, good’? Jesus was sinless, perfect in goodness and holiness, but does that mean he was never naughty as a child? It depends, of course, on what we mean by ‘naughty’. Jesus was, I’m sure, never disrespectful or deliberately disobedient to his parents - he never sinned, so we can be sure he never broke the fourth commandment - but the meaning of ‘naughty’ seems a bit wider than that. 

As children grow up, we teach them how to live in the world. Some of what we teach is about staying safe and healthy - good hygiene practices, for example; a lot more of it is about the way we do things in our society: we sit at a table and eat food with cutlery which we hold in a certain way. Not because there is something universally ‘right’ about that - in other cultures food is eaten with chopsticks, or fingers; Jesus ate formal meals reclining on a couch - it is just the way we do things. We teach by example and instruction, but also by correction: seeing a child do something potentially dangerous, or just culturallydeviant, we tell them not to. 

Is it ‘naughty’ to eat with your fingers? I think many parents would unreflectively use the words: ‘Don’t do that - it’s naughty.’ Jesus had to learn these things - it’s a part of growing up as a human being. He had to be told about them. Probably, he had to be told about some of them several times - that seems to me to be natural for a human child as well. Did Mary ever say ‘Jesus, don’t do that’ (or its Aramaic equivalent, which probably sounds less like a Joyce Grenfell skit?). I’m sure she did: Jesus would have been more than human, which means less than truly human, if she had not. 

And this is important - it’s at the heart of the gospel. A bishop from Turkey around 380 AD put it best: “He could not heal what he did not share.” If Jesus was not really, properly human, just as human as you and me - only without sin - then he could not save us. We would still be “dead in our trespasses and sins”. If Jesus had not had to learn how to behave well, just the way our kids do - if Jesus was never naughty as a child - then there would be no gospel left. 

How far does this go? Did Jesus ever complain that the journey was boring when he was eight, or think his parents hated him and slam the door as a teenager? I don’t know; he lived a perfect human life, and it is sometimes hard to work out which bit of normal childish behaviour is imperfect and fallen and which bit is just human. I suspect he found the journey boring, but found a politer way of saying so; and felt misunderstood by his parents, but never slammed the door on them - human, but perfectly human. The gospels don’t tell us enough, though, to be confident about where to draw those lines. 

Steve HolmesSo to this year’s Christmas advertising campaign, pictured on the front of this magazine with a tamer headline than the one which will feature on billboards around the UK: “He cries; he wees; he saves the world”. The saving the world depends on the crying and the weeing and the rest of being human - including being a bit naughty sometimes.

Steve Holmes is a Baptist minister and senior lecturer in Theology at the University of St Andrews. He chairs the Evangelical Alliance’s Theology and Public Policy Advisory Commission

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