13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. [Luke 24:13-16, NRSV]
Many have asked why the two disciples failed to recognise the resurrected Christ on the road.
It is not just these two disciples from Emmaus who could not recognize the crucified and resurrected Lord. Mary Magdalene, all the apostles, and many other disciples at their encounter with the resurrected Christ did not at first recognize him. Why was that the case? One answer is that, while the crucifixion of Jesus is a historical fact, his resurrection is what may be called a faith-fact. We need the eyes of faith to “see” the Risen Lord. Without that faith, one does not “see”. Not all can “see” that, for not all have the faith. But without seeing and accepting that fact, Christ is not (yet) risen in one’s life.
1. Reasons for Not Believing the Resurrection
What was the cause of the two disciples’ failure at recognition? We begin with two proximate reasons: the overpowering trauma from Jesus’ crucifixion, and the lack of a cure for that trauma.
First, from the two disciples themselves, the women’s story after their empty-tomb visit seemed pure nonsense – “an idle tale” (verse 11) – to the apostles. What happened at the torture and crucifixion of Jesus were hard, cruel, devastating facts. The seeming triumph of evil in the Passion and death of Jesus was so complete and so overpowering that any message that appeared to override the harsh, blinding cold facts quite naturally seemed like “idle talk”. More than anything else, the disciples’ disbelief of the resurrection reminds us, in the first place, of the horrific harshness of Jesus’ suffering death. Despite Jesus having foretold his Resurrection, the trauma had all but vanquished what little faith they had, so that the women’s report could not make sense, and did not bring the disciples to believe, the apostles included.
Having encountered the full force of Jesus’ horrible, humiliating death, the over-powering and traumatic experience was something none of the early disciples was about to forget any time soon. That this is the case is testified to by Thomas who adamantly refused to believe all reports on Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). And so, secondly, what the disciples needed was a cure, something to neutralize that trauma. Like Thomas, what the rest of the body of followers in Jerusalem now needed was another, counteracting force to bring them back to faith again. And that counteracting force is supplied by a personal encounter with the Risen Lord himself, so that they may be overpowered by the God of life.
At a deeper level, the failure to recognize the Risen Christ has to do with, for whatever reason, a miscomprehension of the work of the Messiah and what he must go through to accomplish his work.
In their zeal for a savior to get rid of the foreign power, the disciples have clean forgotten the constant pattern of God’s assistance: the harder your work and the weightier your burden, the mightier is God’s support for you. And the darker your sorrows, the brighter will His light shine upon your feet. The real failure disclosed in the entire Emmaus narrative, of course, is not the suffering and death of Jesus, but the disciples’ inability to comprehend the spiritual truth hidden in his social and political suffering and dying.
They have shut out the constant reality that pain was always part of the path of the Messiah and pain will always be part of the path of those who walk the way of the Lord. They have yet to move on to the true Christian pattern of salvation, which is from pain to hope and from failure to glory. The Messiah’s triumph would be achieved through failure. But, “slow of hearts to believe” what the prophets had long ago foretold, the two disciples (and the others back in Jerusalem) could not possibly see this. So even though their experience of Jesus as “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” had enhanced their hope in the redemption of Israel, neither their experience nor their hope could cope with the humiliating death of Jesus. That death had become a stumbling block on their road to understanding divine prophecy, and thus on “seeing” the Risen Christ.
2. Slow of Heart to Believe
The disciples’ recollection “concerning Jesus of Nazareth” betrays “how slow of heart to believe” they were.
There are three closely-tied parts to that recollection: (a) Jesus as a prophet mighty in deed and word; (b) the rejection and death of Jesus; and (c) their hope in Israel’s redemption. Their inability to hold the first two facts together (a mighty prophet who was rejected) has led to the collapse of their hope.
- From the start, Luke painted Jesus’ prophetic mission as being Spirit-filled (3:22; 4:1). He emerged victorious against the devil (4:2ff), and began his powerful ministry of word and deed with the power of the Spirit in him (4:14).
- Soon enough, Luke pointed to a pattern of prophecy and rejection (4:24), which carried over to the travel narrative to Jerusalem (13:33, 34).
- The two disciples brought together their experience of Jesus as mighty prophet (24:19) and the messianic hope of Israel (24:20). That was because disciples had expected someone mighty like Moses to act as leader and redeemer (Acts 7:35), with the additional expectation that he would now be functioning as end-time (or “eschatological”) redeemer. Two examples, amongst others, showcase how Luke paints a link of Jesus’ prophetic activity with messianic hope. One is the message to John the Baptiser (7:18-23) after raising of the widow’s son at Nain (7:11-17). The other is the preview (9:1-50) to the travel narrative. This preview includes Jesus posing question about his identity (9:7-9), miracle of the loaves (9:10-17), Peter’s confession (9:18-21), Jesus’ first passion prediction which stresses rejection and death (9:22), and the Transfiguration (9:28-36). The Transfiguration also features a parallelism between Jesus’ and Moses’ exodus, both men facing the same career pattern of severe suffering so that through their rejection and death, they enabled Israel to know redemption as God’s plan was accomplished.
- Then, after another miracle, this time the miraculous healing of a boy with unclean spirit (9:37-43), Jesus made the second passion prediction which underlined rejection and death alongside the fact that “they did not understand him when he said this; it was hidden from them so that they should not see the meaning of it” (9:45).
In outline and some details then, we see that Luke takes pain to establish: (i) a Mosaic-like prophet who is mighty in word and deed, (ii) who is destined to suffer in public rejection and death, and (iii) a destiny which is beyond the comprehension of his disciples.
That incomprehension by his disciples contributes to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and other disciples left behind in Jerusalem, failing to recognize the Crucified but Risen Christ.
3. The Emmaus Story Is Everyone’s Story
In Telling Stories, William J. Bausch suggests that as an eternal and timeless story, the Emmaus story is very much our story as well. In particular, he selects three elements to make his point.
- Emmaus is a story saved by the early church in order to remind us and encourage us that in life’s journey we do not walk alone. A supernatural guide is on the road with us.
- However, often beset by human blindness, we fail to recognize the supernatural guide in our lives. This results in disappointment and bewilderment. “It is okay to be disappointed and okay to complain and okay to talk about hopes that have been dashed and okay even to wonder if anybody cares.”
- At some point in the journey of life, people recognise that they are not alone. There is a caring presence even when we did not recognize it. This revelation usually comes on hindsight. But how do we break through to a sense that we are not alone in life’s journey? How may we come to recognize that walking with us is a God who is madly in love with us and who does care? In the Emmaus story, the telltale clue is hospitality. Revelation came precisely at the point where they forget about themselves and start to focus on the needs of the other – an anonymous fellow traveler who needs human care, food and shelter.
And so, a key takeaway from the Emmaus story is that while we wait for things to get better, we ought to embark on humanitarian charity – that work of reaching out to our neighbours in need. These deeds of basic human love, according to the Emmaus story, promise a point of entry to finally recognizing that Christ was there all along. And, lo and behold, it may be subtle but it is certainly there: the ones performing the basic human love are rewarded – their basic human goodness is affirmed, their hearts are warmed, their faith gets refreshed, and their hope is renewed.
That sounds a familiar ring as we begin the Lenten season when the Church calls us to serious prayers, fasting and alms-giving. In preparation for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord, our Lenten journey is both personal and communitarian. At the personal level, we are each to turn back to the Lord with all our hearts, in sincerity and with remorse for our personal failures. As the People of God, we are to accompany each other in this journey in mutual support and in reassuring confidence that the Lord is journeying with us always. That Divine Presence will no doubt urge us to choose life, but will also tell us that paradoxically it is in giving up our life for Jesus’ sake that we gain life. That will involve carrying our cross through conscious sacrifices in giving up things that we treasure but which hinder our life with God. What is the most “treasured concept”, “precious idea” or “cherished hope” that the two dispirited disciples on the Emmaus walk are expected to give up before they can “see” the presence of the Risen Lord and have life?
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, February 2021. All rights reserved.
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