I’ve read the “Road to Emmaus” passage from the Gospel of Luke for decades, but I’ve never really unpacked this phrase:
“Jesus himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”
LUKE 24: 15-16
Meditating on the Emmaus Road story this week led me to recall those four bystanders that got shot by so-called “good guys with guns, a book by Malcomb Gladwell, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Strap in, folks…
A primary insight this week was: “We are ALL bad at seeing.”
As I hope I make clear often, this is also a primary point of Jesus’ entire ministry, throughout the Gospels. It’s also a point made plain by Malcom Gladwell, in his book “Talking to Strangers.”
Gladwell reminds us how we all think we are GOOD at seeing. We think we read the motivations, actions, outer-expressions of strangers. But, in fact, we’re terrible at it, and often it leads to terrible consequences.
We commonly recognize that we can misread our friend and loved ones. But, somehow, we believe we’ve been given a superpower when it comes to “strangers” and “enemies.” Far too often, we SEE “enemies” where none exist. Far too often, we fail to see help and hope when it’s right in front of us.
Our eyes are often trapped in a prison of their own making.
Take a close look at the word “prevented” in the Gospel passage, and SEE it in a new way, friends…
The word is Krateō. And its other uses in the Bible itself are fascinating, when compared to this text. Check it out:
In early Matthew, Krateō means “arrested”
(“Herod arrested John the Baptist….”)
In later Matthew, Krateō is translated “seized” in the Garden of Gethsemane story:
(“Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him.”)
I’ll just leave you with those two, but invite you to check it out, if you’re interested.
The point is: while it’s translated as “prevented” here, the far more common usage of Krateō (occurring dozens of times, not just these two) are things like…
“To be arrested.”
“To be detained or seized by force.”
“To be imprisoned.”
The Disciples eyes were “in prison.” Their eyes were “seized up” so they could not see. My own sense is, as the text suggests, that this is because they are grief. (“they stood still, looking sad…”)
Grief is one of the many things that can imprison our eyes, allowing us to miss what’s really happening around us. So can stress, anxiety, fear, and the like. And, of course, it’s quite possible for folks to just be “out of place” and for us not to be able to place them.
Which reminds me of a story about Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Saturday, I attended the dedication of a park in his name, in Cockrell Hill…where his family lived for time, before moving to their nearby Oak Cliff home. It was a beautiful day, and I got to re-meet muralist Steve Hunter. Steve has now done two murals of my wife, Dennise (at the courthouse) along with our friend, Rawlins Gilliland (Deep Ellum) in addition to an SRV-series at this new park.
This story about Stevie Ray dates to the very late 1980s. Stevie had returned to Dallas, as a part of his seeking greater health and sobriety. Many people don’t realize this important final stop in his journey.
(No offense, Austin: But he actually *left* you, and came back here…”I’m just sayin’….”)
He moved in with his Mother in their Oak Cliff home…a wealthy, Grammy-award winning artist, back in the amazing neighborhood that all of us connected with it today know provides stability, comfort, and peace.
So…this meant you’d occasionally see Stevie Ray around town.
This happened to one of my RA staff during the 89-90 school year. She was at a yogurt place in Snider Plaza (Park Cities) when she noticed an unusually scruffy and (she said) ugly guy was in line with an absolutely gorgeous woman.
Her thought —she was later not proud of this thought— was “what is that ugly guy doing with that supermodel?”
As they walked out the door, the clerk behind with counter hyperventilated as he said
“THAT WAS STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN! THAT WAS STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN!!”
The Disciples have their own moment like this at the end of the story. Their version of “THAT WAS STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN!” is when they exclaim “Did not our hearts burn within us?!”
Suddenly, they realize this weird stranger on the Road to Emmaus was Jesus himself. Please recall also that this is STILL Easter day. Although we celebrated Easter fourteen days ago in church, this story doesn’t come to us until now. Theologically, and practically, I’m more convinced this chronological narrative separation is a mistake.
Because it allows us to OVER FOUCUS on the TOMB (Easter morning) while simultaneously “preventing us from seeing” how/where Easter day ends.
Which, in both the Gospel of John *and* the Gospel of Luke, is AROUND A TABLE. Dr. Diana Butler Bass taught me to “see” this last year, and ever since I can’t stop seeing it. On Easter Day, Jesus doesn’t “valorize” the cross. Jesus doesn’t invite folks to “meet me at the tomb.”
Instead, he visits the Disciples around the table in that locked “Upper Room.”
He visits these two around a small table in Emmaus.
“The table is the point,” Diana reminds us. Yes! This seems to be true.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he’s reminded folks how they are “bad at seeing.” He’s tried to call them to be BETTER at “seeing.”
He reminded his hometown friends (first sermon in Nazareth) that Prophets were sent to foreigners, not just observant Jews.
(“See them as a neighbor, not a foreigner…” The crowd tries to kill him for that…)
He reminded everyone that “your neighbor is the one you think is your enemy…”
(Parable of the Good Samaritan)
And finally, he reminds us all to SEE the poor, the outcast, the marginalized as not just “the least of these,” but as God within God-self.
Jesus desperately works for three years to break down the tribalism between people, and to break their eyes out of prison. But time and again, as I wrote about last week, we tend to “Otherize” each other. We *see* “enemies” where we should see neighbors, friends, and children of God.
We are BAD at seeing. Our eyes are imprisoned by our own tribal identities, and our own implicit bias. Malcom Gladwell’s great book, “Talking to Strangers” makes this point incredibly well. I urge everyone to read it.
But you don’t have to go there for the proof. As I noted that week, friends, you can *see* it in the four shooting incidents that I referenced in last week’s essay.
CNN has called these events “ordinary blunders.”
— A young man walks up to the wrong door to pick up his brother…
— Young people make a u-turn in somebody’s drive way, when they missed their turn…
— A father/daughter retrieve a basketball that’s rolled of the court and on to somebody else’s property…
— A cheerleader gets into the wrong car at an Texas HEB parking lot.
NONE of these are mistakes.
They are correctly called “ordinary blunders,” because they are the kinds of things all of us do as human beings.
But! Our common horror is: Somebody ELSE chose to see these as “threats” and shot at the people in question. One woman is dead. Four so called “good guys with a gun” were, in fact, completely blind to the situation. Their eyes were apparently imprisoned by their own biases, fears, anxieties, and emotions.
Because of the prison of their own eyes, they didn’t read the situations as an “ordinary blunder.”
They read “dangerous threat.”
This is incredibly, and horrifically, predictable. Because, as I’ve been saying here, we all have our implicit bias, and we all have our tribal blinders.
Unfortunately, some of us have too many poorly kept, badly deployed, guns too. It is the presence of guns that turned these four “ordinary blunders” into far more than they should be. “More guns” on our streets isn’t the answer to stopping this epidemic of “ordinary blunder shootings,” because the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough guns. We have way too many.
Our problem is too many guns, AND too little “seeing.”
I think about the story of the Good Samaritan. Thank God none of those three that “passed by” had a gun! Because they clearly weren’t seeing clearly in the moment…that this injured man needed their help.
In our day, they might have shot at him instead! Only the Samaritan, a man of a different tribe, “sees” the injured person clearly and “has compassion on him.”
It’s a very human thing, perhaps even our “original sin,” to not see others for who they really are, to react in tribal and violent ways to “the stranger.”
But at the end of the Emmaus story, the two Disciples DO see.
“Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us…?””
LUKE 24: 32-33
“They recognize him,” which is the powerful Greek word “Epiginōskō.” It would be a mistake to limit this to just “they know” him in some logical way…because this is, again, about their SEEING.
“Epiginōskō” isn’t just some logical form of “to know” as if to know some logical propositions. Tt’s a more spiritually powerful word too.
It means: “To know…to understand to BE AWARE…to be PRESENT…. TO SEE THINGS AS THEY REALLY ARE.”
This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite prayers from St. Thomas a’Kempis:
“O Lord, give me true heavenly wisdom, that I may learn to seek you and to find you, and above all things to love, and TO UNDERSTAND AND KNOW ALL THINGS ARE AS THEY ARE , after the direction of your wisdom, and not otherwise.” (Caps added by me…)
See things as they truly are, as God sees, and not just through our tribal, lizard brains…
“See the stranger on our walk” as an encounter with Jesus…
“See the least of these” as God among us…
“See the injured member of another tribe” as not a threat, but a child of God deserving compassion.
And, most of all, dear God in heaven, AVOID shooting at innocent people, who are just making “ordinary blunders.”
Even the most spiritually wise can too often find their eyes in a prison of their own making. It’s an all too human problem. But if we can see differently, sometimes we come to know that scruffy looking guy in the Yogurt line is actually a Grammy Award winning musician.
And ALL THE TIME, through God’s Spirit, our tribal eyes can be opened —our captured eyes, stuck in the jail of our anxiety and grief— can instead see “the other” for who they truly are, and not just as we fear them to be.