By Dr. Jeffrey K. London
Every now and then, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, and I’m not thinking straight, I stop and ask myself, “Is all this really going to matter in ten years? How about five? How about next year? How about next week?” Nine times out of ten, this simple exercise in separating the most important from the not-so-important gets me back on track and I can refocus on the things that are most important.
And just what are the things that are most important things?
There are so many things in our world that conspire to distract us, to keep us from being mindfully aware and attentive of the important stuff that it’s no wonder we can feel so confused and overwhelmed. We’re inundated by advertising telling us that we need everything from credit cards to cruises just to survive. Our world has powerful forces alive and at work that push and pull us away from faithfulness and toward an obsession with the self. Good old Martin Luther defined sin as, “The heart all curved in on itself.” If that’s true, then we may be in danger of a whole culture of inwardly curved hearts.
So how do we learn to focus on the important stuff, the faithful stuff, when we’re not always sure what is important and faithful?
Following the crucifixion and death of Jesus, our Gospel lesson from Luke takes us with a couple of disciples traveling out of Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus. Now right away there’s a hint about the state of mind of these disciples and whether or not they were cognitively aware of the what’s important. The hint is that we’re told they were headed out of town. The question becomes, are they going in the right direction?
Right direction? Wrong direction? We don’t know. But then along comes a stranger who joins them on their trek out of town. But is it a stranger? We know it’s not, we’re on the inside track as readers of Luke’s gospel. We know it’s the risen Jesus, but these disciples don’t recognize him. Why not? Did he look differently? Or, is there something else going on here? We’re told, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (24:16). What does that mean? Did God blind their eyes? Or were they just plain dense? Dull? Thick as a brick?
Patiently, Jesus walks with them and asks about what they were discussing. Shocked that this “stranger” is unaware of the events of the last few days, these disciples begin to share with the stranger how Jesus, whom they had hoped would redeem Israel, had been crucified, dead and buried. But some women were now telling an amazing story about not finding his body in the tomb and seeing angels who claimed Jesus was alive. Not so patiently, Jesus says to them, “Foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Christ have to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?” (24:25-26). Next, Jesus gives them a run-through-Scripture Sunday School lesson. Jesus goes on to interpret the Scriptures for them and show how the prophets had foretold all that had occurred.
Now, let’s pause here to clarify something very important. When Jesus scolds these disciples for being “slow of heart to believe,” what he’s referencing is not the “heart” as we think of it (seat of emotion), but a Hebraic understanding of “heart” as “mind.” Our good friend and resident expert in all things Hebraic, Dr. Steve Bell, helped me to make this interpretive jump by leading me to see that Jesus’ explanation, his walk-through-the-Scriptures, was a cognitive, intellectual act. Jesus was addressing the minds of these disciples, together in community. Faith seeks understanding — and Jesus was attempting to lead them into cognitive understanding. This is not to suggest that the emotional has nothing to do with believing. Remember, we’re called to love the Lord our God with our whole person: with all our heart (which means “mind”), and all our soul, and with all our might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
But here, as the risen Jesus walks with these disciples, the important thing for them to understand is why it was necessary for these things to have happened to the Messiah; to understand that all of Scripture and the prophets were leading up to and pointing to the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately, even after this lengthy teaching moment, these disciples still didn’t understand. Jesus must have wanted to reach over and knock their heads together, but that wouldn’t have been very Christ-like.
When they finally get close to Emmaus, their destination, these two disciples invite the stranger to come and eat with them. And then, and there, at the dinner table, it happens. Jesus sits down, takes a loaf of bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to them, together in community. Suddenly, in an instant, these disciples recognize Jesus, even as he vanishes from sight.
In the breaking of bread, leavened bread, they recognize Jesus. Sometimes the way to understanding occurs best through action. A great educational principle is, “Do it and then talk about it.” And that’s exactly what Jesus does here. He does something that is uniquely Him. He does something that causes those synapses to finally start firing and in the blink of an eye they get it. It all comes together. They understand. And they say to each other, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?” (24:32). This makes more sense to us when, again, we remember the Hebraic understanding of “heart” as “mind.” There are even some other renderings of this passage that read, “Were not our minds dull and dense while he was talking to us on the road…”
All very interesting, don’t you think? But what does this story have to say to us? What is it that we are supposed to understand?
I think, more than anything else, the story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus offers us some guidance in staying focused on the important things, together in community. Jesus’ question to the disciples is an appropriate one to hear Jesus ask us everyday: “What things?” “What things are the important things?” Too often we just go about our day without prayerfully, critically reflecting upon what is most important. Do I spend my days in a quest for self-gratification? Am I doing things that make a difference? Am I fulfilling God’s intention for me? Am I using my gifts to the fullest? Am I going in the right direction?
Now that last one (“Am I going in the right direction?”) is an interesting one, because these two disciples were headed out of town — literally and metaphorically. They were going home, giving up, throwing the towel in. But Jesus doesn’t scold them, at least not at first, but he walks with them. Which ought to tell us something about the patience of a God who would be willing to walk with foolish human beings like you and me even when we’re headed in the wrong direction. Our God does not abandon us even when we’re determined to leave Jesus behind and get out of town. Jesus stays with them on their walk — in the wrong direction — and prods them to reflect not only critically on the “things” that have happened, but reflect Biblically on those things.
When these two disciples eventually give Jesus a blank stare, Jesus interprets the Scriptures for them, together in community, and shows them why it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, die, and rise
What this says to us is that we cannot always figure it out for ourselves. Especially when we’re traveling the wrong way — we need help in identifying the important things. We need to be together in community. It can be difficult enough to learn how to be prayerfully self-critical, but to learn how to receive constructive criticism from others is an even more rare discipline. Yet, it is a necessary one and a thoroughly Biblical one. We never know when we’re walking with Jesus. God continually works through different people in our lives, speaking to us in ways that are meant to help get us back on track. The problem is, we don’t often like what we hear, especially if it’s coming from a stranger, or someone we don’t much care for. So we disregard it as the counsel of an idiot or rationalize it away because we are certain of our own “rightness.” Even when our critics are our best friends it’s often tough to get around our human pride to hear the truth within the words.
Someone once said that the real reason we don’t read the Bible more is not because we’re afraid we won’t understand, but because we are secretly afraid we will. And understanding calls for change, for transformation, for greater faithfulness. The hard truth to hear is that many of us may often choose to remain ignorant. We may choose to take a cognitive vacation out of town so we won’t be called upon to put the pieces together. We choose denseness over diligence, dullness over depth.
Friends, faith does indeed seek understanding, unless we get in the way. Our faith seeks to understand, to make sense of God’s action in Jesus Christ, and God’s active presence in our own lives. Understanding this is an important thing!
The challenge we’re left with today is one that calls us out of our self-imposed dullness, and into an inquisitive state of being that not only seeks understanding but that welcomes constructive criticism such as, “You can do better. We can all do better.”
The truth of the matter is we desperately need Christ’s presence, and the presence of one another in our lives. Do we understand this? In unapologetic contrast to what our society tells us about being an individual, the Church proclaims our desperate need for Jesus Christ and for one another. One of the primary purposes of the Church is to help people identify the important things. We are not here as individuals, but as one Body to grow in our understanding.
So do we dare give it try? Do we dare to listen for words of truth in the mouths of our critics? Do we dare bring our dull, dense lives before God and one another and say, “I’m not sure if I’m on the right road. I’m not sure I understand. I think I need some help.” The challenge of the gospel is to dare to do just that.
The call of the Church is a call to be vulnerable before God, self, and others. “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, everyone to whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:39) Everyone for whom important things matter.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2012, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.