I had a very amusing conversation recently with a man who had grown up in a family that practiced no religion. He married a woman who was brought up in a very devout Catholic family, and he had to make some adjustments to his life.
His wife attended Mass regularly; he began to join her on a weekly basis, but this was a new experience for him. At one point, his wife gave him a Bible to read; this was another new experience.
Being a dutiful husband, he began to read the Scriptures even though he had no understanding of what he was reading. One day, he asked his wife, “Who is this Jeneesus person I’ve been reading about?” She didn’t understand the question. He pointed to the name in the Scriptures; it was “Genesis.”
All works of literature take on a life of their own. All literature is produced by an author who intends to communicate a particular set of information. After a piece of literature is published, however, the author no longer has any control over the information that readers gleen from the text. The information gained from a text depends at least as much on the reader as it does on the author.
The man who told me the funny story about himself had no understanding of the Scriptures when his wife gave him a Bible. When he read the Bible he was reading his own lack of understanding rather than the intent of the Biblical author. The same result can occur when reading any (Scriptural), text.
The story in today’s Gospel passage was composed with the intention of being a very compelling case study about coming to faith in the Resurrection. The story draws us into the disappointment of the two anonymous disciples as they walked away from Jerusalem. They had turned their backs (literally), on the place where Jesus died. They had all but turned their backs to the possibility of faith.
While they walked away from the cause of their disappointment they were joined on the road by a stranger who seemed to be ignorant of the tragic events witnessed by everyone attending the Passover feast in Jerusalem. Their astonishment at the stranger’s ignorance turned to astonishment at his wisdom about the Scriptures.
The stranger, though not a stranger to us, was as incredulous over the two disciples’ lack of faith as they had been over his apparent lack of awareness of the sad events at Passover. The stranger said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)
Passages of Scripture such as this one turn my mind to the various interpretations of religion that are popular today. Contrary to the promises made by preachers of the “Prosperity Gospel” the Resurrected Jesus offered no one a get-rich-quick scheme or a pledge of a comfortable life. Completely missing from the statements of the Risen Lord are the enticements of those who see Christianity as a self-help program. The Jesus whom the two disciples met on the road to Emmaus was no social worker or psychotherapist; he seemed to have had no interest in bolstering the disciples’ self-esteem. He called them foolish because of their unbelief.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus had not witnessed the Resurrection; instead, they had witnessed their own lack of understanding. Those who see the Scriptures as describing a plan for financial gain are not reading the Bible; rather, they are reading their own avarice. Those who use religion as a self-help program, or a therapeutic intervention, are reading their own self-concern. Not coincidentally, the Pharisees in Jerusalem who crucified Jesus had not read God’s will in the Scriptures; they had read their own self-righteousness.
The foregoing raises an obvious question, “What do each of us see when we read the Scriptures?” Kant’s critique of pure reason still has a certain degree of validity. When we read the Scriptures, we might be reading only what was previously in our own consciousness.
Happily for us, there is the possibility of understanding the Scriptures rather than reading our own meanings into the Scriptural texts. The two disciples came to faith in the Resurrection only after they came to terms with their lack of understanding. Jesus’ less than sympathetic statement, “Oh, how foolish you are!” (Luke 24:25), woke the two out of their torpor and despair.
The goal of faith in Jesus’ Resurrection is not to confirm our opinions or prejudices or desires or fears or convictions. The goal of faith in Jesus’ Resurrection is for us to enter into a new life, one not of our own making. The man I spoke with had to make some adjustments to his life after marrying a Catholic. In a similar manner, we have to make some adjustments to our lives as a result of the Resurrection.
Jesus’ Resurrection is, among other things, proof of our lack of understanding. It is a statement about the foolishness of human wisdom. It is the possibility of seeking salvation from a more reliable source than our personal experiences and opinions.
Relying on our own efforts, understanding or wisdom for salvation is equivalent to turning our backs on the Resurrection. On the other hand, encountering Jesus is a matter of acknowledging our own foolishness, and turning toward Jesus’ offer of a new life.
Jesus said to his two disciples, “Oh, how foolish you are!” (Luke 24:25) What do you see in those words? Do you see a rebuke? Does Jesus’ statement sound like an insult? Like the two disciples, do you see an offer of relief from your lack of understanding? What we read in the Scriptures has a great deal to do with who we are and where we expect to find salvation.
When we bring our worries and concerns, our wants and needs, our personal opinions and prejudices to the practice of religion, or the reading of the Scriptures, we are destined to encounter nothing more than ourselves. When we bring our lack of understanding to the practice of religion we have the possibility of encountering God’s will and the new life promised by Jesus.