Is Seeing Believing?

The Twilight Zone encounter on the Road to Emmaus is one of three appearances of the resurrected Jesus in Luke’s gospel. 

Two travelers are walking together when a mysterious stranger appears.

Only one of the walkers – Cleopas – is named. The other walker is the second mystery in the story. Some scholars think  Luke either had a lousy copy editor or that the unnamed person was a woman and, by first century standards, not worth identifying.

What we do know is that both travelers had known Jesus for years and knew what he looked like. But when a stranger approached them they had no clue who he was.

That’s understandable. For one thing, Jesus probably looked a lot better than he did the last time they saw him, when he was scourged raw, his face twisted in the agony of crucifixion. The stranger may also have been wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab covering that would hide his face. Many artists and cartoonists have drawn a keffiyeh into the picture when they portray this scene on the road to Emmaus.

But I think the traumatic events of the past several days also played a role. Death is disorienting. When I was 15, my mother’s 32-year-old brother, my Uncle Maurice, died after a painful bout with cancer. At his funeral, I noticed my mother and other family members watched me intently as I approached the open casket to pay my respects. I learned later that everyone thought Uncle Maurice in the casket looked exactly like me – straight brown hair, high forehead, black horn rimmed glasses, pursed lips, a proper double chin. They thought I was going to see myself in the box and freak. But under circumstances like these, people may not see what others expect them to see. I looked at my uncle sadly and thought, “He was a good looking guy.”

We can only speculate why the two travelers – Cleopas and what’s-her-name – didn’t recognize Jesus. Not only did they not recognize him, they actually seemed to feel superior to this obtuse stranger.

“What’s up?” Jesus asked, all friendly-like, and they snap at him. “You don’t know, man? Or, as the New Revised Standard bible puts it, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

And Jesus – who could resist many temptations but not the urge to bait his friends – said, “What things?” So Cleopas and what’s-her-name immediately begin to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, which is ironic when you think about it, because their first efforts at evangelical witness were to grab Jesus by the robe and tell him about Jesus.

At the end of the story, Luke reports that “their eyes were opened” and they recognized Jesus. As soon as they did, Jesus, apparently still playing them, abruptly disappeared.

As our friends on the Emmaus road demonstrated, it’s not easy to recognize Jesus in our midst at any time in history, whether we know what he looks like or not. But one thing is sure: if we’re going to pick out Jesus in a crowd, we’ll have to ditch the blonde image of Sallman’s Head of Christ, and we’ll have to ditch our own presuppositions, the “my Jesus” that limits him to our personal biases and makes him hard to spot.

A pastor friend of mine once told the story of having a late-night visitor at the Manse. The visitor was a homeless woman who obviously hadn’t bathed in weeks. “Please, Reverend,” she said. “I hate to bother you but I’m living in my car and I haven’t eaten in days. I’m not a druggy, Reverend. I need food.”

Pastors hear stories like this all the time. But it was late at night and my friend was tired, so he went to a box in his office where he kept The Deacon’s Fund, ready cash for emergencies. The only cash in the box was a $50 bill – far too much for a meal. But he sighed, and handed it to the woman.

The woman gasped at his unanticipated generosity and grabbed my friend’s hands.

“The hands of Jesus,” she said. “The hands of Jesus.”

Embarrassed, my friend freed his hands and sent the woman on her way. But as he lay awake in bed, he had a sudden thought. “Was she talking about my hands?” he wondered. “Or were my hands grasped by a stranger I didn’t recognize as Jesus?”

In that same church there was a regular worshipper named Dick Jalopy. He started drinking as a teenager and in high school his friends called him Sloppy Jalopy. By the time I knew him, Dick was a recovering addict and more than a little eccentric. He believed too much of the national budget was being spent on the Vietnam War and too little on services to the poor, and he carried his protest to political meetings dressed in a false white beard, red cap, red jacket, Bermuda shorts and decaying high tops. He called himself “Santa Cause.” And even without the costume, he looked creepy with his pock-marked skin, long snarly hair and bandy legs. He also smoked constantly, explaining with a cough, “A lot of addicts beat the drugs but never the cancer sticks.”

I used to watch Dick come into church on Sunday mornings. He had his preferred pew (as most Baptists do) and members of the congregation tried to sit far away from him. But he was tolerated because that’s what Baptist do, or try to do. I don’t think he ever joined the church but he never missed a Sunday.

One Sunday during the organ prelude, I stared at the back of Dick’s head. What’s up with you, Dick? I mused to myself. Sure, you love God and you love people and your faith keeps you clean. But you’re strange, man, smelly, and you make people uncomfortable. And no one knows where you live.

Suddenly the organ swelled with the strains of, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” and in the process of standing I was so surprised I lost my balance.

My God, Dick, I thought. Are you Jesus, man?

Sloppy Jalopy? Jesus?

It’s the kind of thought one has when one misses the morning coffee, and I quickly dismissed it. But for years, every time I saw Dick, I’d think: that’s exactly what Jesus might look like to us. Strange. Eccentric. And he would make us uncomfortable.

Okay, probably Dick Jalopy was not Jesus. But that’s also true of the Jesi we carry in our hearts, white and blonde and holy like Sallman’s head, or glowing and red-bearded like the Holman Hunt figure standing at our door and knocking.

These images don’t make us think of the Jesus who violated religious traditions by healing the sick on the Sabbath, or by declaring to his followers that none of this is about you, but about the poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, the oppressed and those drowning in economic injustice.

No wonder Cleopas and what’s-her-name didn’t quite grasp who Jesus was when they fixed their gaze upon him.

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets declared,” Jesus told the couple, and they still didn’t recognize him. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

In a strange way, Jesus was more Santa Cause than Sallman’s head. His defiance of tradition and convention made people uncomfortable, and they turned away from him.

That’s why the Emmaus Road story can be disturbing. If I’m honest, I’ve got to wonder. Would I recognize Jesus if he joined me on a stroll through Times Square? Or would I dismiss him as a strange and eccentric figure who failed to meet my expectations. Would my heart burn within me as he talked? Or would my mind wander because he was saying things I didn’t understand?

And when this stranger went on his way, would I go with him to the judgment?

Or would I put him out of my mind as soon as possible, thinking to myself:

That was a weird dude.

And walk on alone.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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1 Response to Is Seeing Believing?

  1. anfearfaire says:

    You stated above: His defiance of tradition and convention made people uncomfortable, and they turned away from him.

    As a “seasoned ecumenist” you ought to be aware that the main reason for the fracturing of the Church of Our Lord into many denominations is due to numerous traditions and doctrines which have been birthed in the mind of man; Infant Baptism, adoption of pagan holidays vs. observance of God’s proclaimed feasts, Sunday vs. Sabbath worship, the debate on communion (transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation, vs, memorialism), worship of saints, genuflecting to man-made statues and many other traditions adopted by the various denominations through the ages.

    Jesus stated in Mark 7: 8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. 9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

    In addition, the various denominations have changed their views over the years basing their view more on current social norms and societal views of what is or not “politically correct.” This has led to changing of stance on such issues as slavery, sexuality, abortion, women in the ministry, etc.

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