Trying to understand the Scriptures : Emmaus

Events unroll very quickly in the last few chapters of the Gospels.  The Sunday readings are going backwards slightly, as the Emmaus story happens about a week before Jesus’ reappearance in the upper room and his discussion with Thomas, but it’s worth looking closely at this story.

Two men journeying to a village called Emmaus

We have two unnamed disciples (we learn later that one is called Cleopas, but he’s not someone we have come across before), heading out of Jerusalem. They are talking sadly about recent events.  It’s so easy to imagine this conversation, just going round and round in miserable circles, the sort of conversation you can’t seem to stop having after someone has died, especially if it has been traumatic.

Encounter with a stranger

Jesus, unrecognised, draws near and falls into step with them, and asks an open question: what are they talking about?  They are so startled that they stop walking and just stand there looking sad. Then they ask him how come he doesn’t know what the whole city has been buzzing with the last few days, and they give him a pretty good summary of events (including the women’s testimony, still being discounted). Then Jesus says,’O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe,’ but he must have said it very gently, because there are two of them and they don’t just push him over and walk off, they listen as he explains to them how it was foretold ‘in all the scriptures’.

Explaining the Scriptures

And here I have a confession to make. For years I thought this meant that he showed them, using something like the blue RSV New Testament that we used in RE classes at school, how it all made sense, and I was very envious of anyone who had the main character of the story there to explain it all. Then ‘the scales fell from my eyes’, and I realised that the New Testament had not been written at this point, not any of it.  Anyway, people didn’t walk around in those days carrying handy one-volume Bibles. Maybe this is totally obvious to everyone else, but it wasn’t to me. Jesus explains the relevant bits of the Scriptures to them, and he does it by talking about the passages which they are all familiar with (and much of it will have been out of the Psalms).  And it will all have been Old Testament.

Messiah libretto from the same Scriptures

The comparable experience for us is listening to Handel’s Messiah, I think.  It is exactly what Handel’s librettist did, but of course he also had the New Testament to choose from. Charles Jennens took different bits out of (both parts of) our sacred Scriptures, and put them together to shed light on the story of Jesus.  We Catholics tend not to be as well-versed in the OT as our Protestant friends, so we often don’t know where the bits come from, but their relevance is shocking and immediate.  They are so poignantly relevant  (‘All they that see him laugh him to scorn’‘He was despised’,Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows) that we assume that it is Jesus they were written about.  Of course, they were; but not directly, not while it was going on, although that is how it feels, like a live commentary on the Passion.  Any decent score of Messiah will give you the references, and Wikipedia helpfully also lists them.  What is striking is how much is out of only two books: Isaiah, and the Psalms.

Recognition at the breaking of the bread

To finish the story: they all reach the inn together and go in to have supper (after a seven-mile walk), and they recognise him ‘in the breaking of the bread’.  Then he vanishes.  Why did they not recognise him before?  There are various possible factors: they are part of a very loose group and may not have known him too well by sight, since they aren’t in the inner circle;  they are too tired and sad to be paying very much attention; they aren’t expecting him;  he must look totally different from the last time they saw him, if they were in Jerusalem until today; he chooses not to be recognised  — but none of these reasons is at all significant.  The point is that eventually they realise; and then, although the day is now even farther spent than it was when they used that as an excuse to keep him with them, they get up and walk all the way back to tell the apostles.

Enough witnesses, and a more informed group

Their testimony is added to that of others, the weight of evidence is growing and everyone begins to feel that it is true and they can perhaps let themselves believe it.  Then the Lord appears again and lets everyone touch him (this may or not be the same event as when Thomas meets the Lord), and now ‘they still disbelieved for joy’, but everything has changed and life is transformed.  The Lord explains the Scriptures all over again, and he actually refers specifically to the psalms (Luke 24, v44), which pleases me very much.  Just as we use the Psalms as a rich source of prayers and solace, so did he.  You are never the first person to find a psalm illuminating, apt, or comforting; and one of the people who has done so before you is Jesus himself.

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Two underestimated apostles

A mixed group

The apostles are a fascinatingly mixed bunch, when you look at them closely. Some of what we think we know about them evaporates like morning mist when you actually investigate, which is what you would expect, as the first people to read the gospels might well have known them directly (so didn’t need much information). It’s the same difficulty that you encounter trying to sort out the women following Jesus, where all you get are scraps of information that work in a small community – so-and-so’s mother, or the person with that nickname, and so on.  But we do know that they included fishermen, a tax-collector, possibly a doctor and people who had been following John the Baptist;  so actually very mixed for such a small group.  And the carpenter’s son in charge, of course.

Most of the time they seem to have managed to get along with each other without trouble, even though the group was often under a lot of strain, with no fixed base, a leader who would not worry about the next day and would stop and talk to any unsuitable person just when everyone else was trying to move on. There’s the odd spat, between brothers, like James and John, probably a hangover from relations as little boys, possibly egged on by their mother who wasn’t sure that the Lord realised quite how exceptional her sons were (like any other mother, then).

Peter a man of authority, not a bumbler

Another pair of brothers among the apostles who don’t squabble, though, are Peter and Andrew.  I keep hearing sermons where Peter is chidden for putting his foot in it, for saying the wrong thing, for missing the point, but his own brother, who has known him all his life, defers to him; Jesus chose him; and he’s the one that the Lord leaves in charge of the brethren after he goes to heaven.  And I don’t think that this is because Peter is meant to encourage us all by being more hopeless than we are and still a saint, which is another ingenious theory I’ve been offered.  I think he is very often underestimated.

He gets so much absolutely right (‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’), and he stays faithful for longer than any of the other men, even making it into the Praesidium and loitering by the fire. His instinct is always to defend and protect Jesus (even against Jesus’ own ideas, ‘You shall never wash my feet’ ).  He is simple and direct, much easier to understand and much less given to boasting than Paul, and indeed, amazingly patient with Paul, who must often have been intensely irritating and wasn’t even there when the Lord was.  He is generous, humble and very lovable.  He must have told the others the stories which don’t reflect well on him, because often they take place when no-one else is there.  I don’t think anyone should underestimate or belittle Peter.

Thomas using his brain

The other apostle I think is underestimated and misconstrued is Thomas, and for most people he is defined by the story in the Gospel this week, where he has an unusually high-profile role.  He is starkly honest, and he’s not afraid to stand out against the group; he wants to know the truth, and when he does, the truth does indeed set him free.  People describe him as sceptical and hard-hearted, but I disagree.  Yes, Jesus says to him,’You believe in me because you have seen me….blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,’, and yes, this is a pat on the back for us now, but the situation is different for Thomas.

He’s lived with the Lord for some time.  He knows he’s a real person.  He knows that he was cruelly killed, and he knows that all the other apostles have been hiding in the upper room afraid to go out, while Thomas has bravely gone out, maybe for supplies, and he knows they have all been fretting and panicking, so he wants some evidence.  Also, they still do not understand that Jesus is coming back, unlike us, reading this with the benefit of hindsight.  They are terrified, confused, bereaved and alone in a hostile society ready to turn on them.  Healthy scepticism is a sensible attitude.  God gave us our intelligence.  He expects us to use it.  We take off our shoes in the presence of the Almighty, we do not put our brains into neutral.

As soon as Thomas sees Jesus, however, his capitulation is total.  He does not ask to touch the wounds – that comment sounds to me like the final answer of a goaded man, after a week where everyone else has been trying to bully him.  As soon as he is directly convinced by a personal encounter, he simply says,’My Lord and my God’, and that’s it.

I admire these two men so much that it saddens me when people dismiss them as inept, stubborn or cowardly, and I think it’s a lazy reading of the narratives.  I paid them the biggest compliment I could: I named two of my sons after them.

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