This essay is based on a baccalaureate address given at Eastern Mennonite University on April 30, 2011.
Luke’s account of the journey to Emmaus has been read in a wide variety of ways. It is a story about the Eucharist, or about hospitality, about interpretation of scripture, or about trauma and healing. All of those readings and many others are useful. But without denying any of them, today I want to read the Emmaus journey as a story about education. As college students approach their graduation they are often thinking something like, “I just spent four (or more) years, over forty classes, 128 credits and tens of thousands of dollars, and what do I have to show for it?” As one such student put it to me: You don’t know nearly as much as you thought you were going to and moreover, the amount of things you now know you don’t know has grown a lot more quickly than what you do know. It is in response to such feelings that I turn to Luke 24 looking for insight into education, even about what we teachers like to call “lifelong education.”
The events of Luke 24 take place on the day of the resurrection. Two followers of Jesus, Cleopas and his unnamed friend, are walking from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus discussing the events of the last three days, from the trial and death of Jesus to the recent report of the empty tomb. As they walk, they are joined by a third traveler who is in fact Jesus, but they do not recognize him. Jesus asks them what they are talking about. Surprised that he is unaware of recent events, they tell him the story and their shattered hopes “that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” Jesus admonishes them for their lack of understanding and “beginning with Moses and all the prophets interpreted to them all the things about himself in the scriptures.” They arrive at Emmaus, and the disciples, still not aware that the stranger is Jesus, invite him to spend the night with them. Over their meal, Jesus breaks and blesses the bread, and then they recognize him. Just as they do, he vanishes.
In this story, the disciples fail multiple times. The first failure to notice is that even though the disciples have been living and working with Jesus for three years, they still don’t get who he is. Jesus doesn’t, however, seem terribly concerned about that failure. He rebukes them not for failing to understand their lives with him, but for a second failure—not believing the prophets. But there is also a third failure; they don’t even get it when they are on the road listening to him explain it to them.
The best analogy I can think of to Jesus’ speech here is Darcy’s letter in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. You may recall that the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, cruelly rejects Darcy’s initial marriage proposal because she is convinced that Darcy was responsible for prying apart her older sister Jane and her beloved Mr. Bingley and for ruining the prospects of Wickham, the current object of her affections. The humiliated Darcy then writes her a long letter explaining and exonerating himself and exposing Wickham. The interesting thing about the letter is that he provides almost no new information. Or at least, the little new information it contains is not what is persuasive. Lizzie, like Cleopas and his friend, has all the facts, and, for that matter, so do we as readers. Darcy’s achievement is simply to renarrate those facts in a different light, to reassemble them for her into a different, more truthful pattern.
But while Darcy’s letter works with Lizzie, Jesus’ lecture to Cleopas and his friend doesn’t seem to do much. Not only have they failed to understand the scriptures they have read together and heard every Sabbath in the synagogue, but they also don’t seem to understand this lecture. They ask him to stay, not because he was captivating or convincing, but because “it is almost evening.” They finally realize who he is when “he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.” But even this, on close reading, seems like a fourth kind of failure, because a few verses later, Jesus returns to them and we learn, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” So once more, in verses 44–47 he gives the same theological lecture. And only here does it finally say that “then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
I tell the story this way not to say, “If the greatest teacher of all can fail so miserably, then my students should quit complaining about my classes.” Rather, it seems to me that the pedagogical failure is so utterly pervasive that it probably isn’t a failure so much as a redefinition of education. But on what account of education might we understand this as a success?
The conversation these two are having as they walk to Emmaus is of a kind you have all had. Perhaps during semesters abroad, in the West Bank, for example, or at the US-Mexico border. I heard some of you having conversations like this after you spent three days at a maximum security prison in an Alternatives to Violence Project workshop, or when you were doing your clinicals and came face to face with illness and injury at the hospital. Or when you were student teaching in schools worlds away from the kinds of schools some of you were privileged enough to grow up in. Or when your parents split up, or a close friend died, or when you were trying to figure out what it means to really love someone who is struggling with alcoholism, or an eating disorder, or depression. I don’t want to be gloomy. You also do this in response to the beautiful, like when you fall in love, whether with a person, a discipline, a book, a poem, a creek. But the text before us is a text of grief. They too have lost a friend. You try to sort it out, late at night in your dorm rooms and apartments, on late-night walks around campus, searching out loud for language suitable to experiences that simultaneously defy and demand words. And the lecture these two get from Jesus is also a lecture you have heard repeatedly in theology classes, but at best these lectures seemed abstract; at worst, pointless and cliché. And in the event that on some fortuitous occasion you find yourself on the road breaking bread such that you actually recognize Jesus here on earth, it is a fleeting moment and, just as in Emmaus, he vanishes from your sight and you can’t be sure if it was really him.
Why is it all so difficult? I have asked that question dozens of times, as places and faces, bodies and texts swam before my eyes. Exactly nineteen years ago, I was sitting where you are. Actually, I was sitting in the balcony. I am not sure if this was because we didn’t do a processional back then, or, more likely, because I got there late, or, more likely still, because I just wanted to sit as far back as I could. I was feeling mostly angry and bitter. The spring of our junior year at EMC was a dark one. The first Iraq war began; a freshman died in his sleep; the campus pastor committed suicide; a popular professor was caught in a phone sex scandal; a student’s parents and sister were murdered in their home. Some of us took this all pretty hard, and a year later I sat there in the balcony, apart from my classmates, brooding gloomily about God, death, and Dostoevsky, angry that all the speakers seemed so cheerful and hopeful and so unaware of how bad things were and how much worse they could get.
In hindsight, it seems that when I left I was trying to
understand something of the darkness I felt by doing two things: read as many
books as I possibly could and travel to as many different places as I could
manage with no money. So in the fourteen years between leaving EMC and
returning to EMU, in between stints in graduate school, I lived in Albania,
Burundi, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Jordan and traveled through a dozen other
countries. I ended up living mostly in countries where the violence was such
that curfews were imposed after dark, so I spent a lot of late, candle-lit
nights with novelists and poets, philosophers and theologians, grateful for
their words since I could not find my own and, as I am trying to tell you here
this evening, learning that maybe life is supposed to be difficult.
This is different from, but tangled up with, the claim I often make that theology is supposed to be difficult. Last fall semester, I was teaching anthropology of religion. Toward the end of that course I always have students read John Howard Yoder’s critique of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture because Yoder so uncannily anticipates developments in postcolonial anthropology and articulates so well the complexities of the problem of church and world. I also like the essay because Yoder makes a very complex argument about the Trinity, the gist of which is that Niebuhr is wrong about Christ and culture because he is a modalist and that a proper account of church and world requires the creedal Trinitarianism of the pro-Nicene fathers. Now your eyes are glazing over, but during the class I had more time and was proud of myself for articulating the point so well, and some of you know how important it is to me that you not skip over the theology part. So imagine how I felt when a couple weeks later, as the students were preparing for possible final essay questions and I was wandering the room, giving counsel, I stopped to glance at one student’s notes. On the day of my summary of Yoder’s argument, the page was almost totally blank. There were a couple lines of notes at the top, a brave but futile attempt, followed by three big letters: “WTF!”
I do not intend to blame this student. She is one of many delightful students in this room, and she never got less than an A in any of my classes, which she brightened with her presence. Precisely because she is an A student, I offer this story only as confirmation of how hard theology is. It has to be hard because idolatry is so easy. Theology is hard in order to make idolatry hard. Put positively, theology is hard in order to make it possible to pray well. (Which is how Rowan Williams would put it, and I invoke him here because the next couple paragraphs were inspired by him.)
And that is how I want you to understand the story of Emmaus. That is, this story is not about the failure to make Jesus familiar; it is about the success in allowing Jesus to be strange, to not allow Jesus to become an idol. I want to resist the familiar reading of this story, which is to blame the disciples, certain as we are that we know what Jesus came to do, which was to set up an Anabaptist politics of Jesus. I wonder if we shouldn’t actually honor Cleopas and his friend. For it seems to me now that the most interesting thing about them is not that they don’t recognize Jesus or that they have misunderstood the prophets and the events of the last week. The most interesting thing about them is their hospitality. They are the kind of people who make the lonely traveler part of an intimate conversation. And they are the kind of people who, unlike the innkeepers Luke began with, invite someone they do not know to stay and share a meal and a room for the night. What a profoundly hopeful thing to do! That the risen Christ, not just in Luke but in John, is a stranger means an invitation to live in habitual anticipation that any random hitchhiker, on any lonely stretch of road, any classmate, teacher or student, may be an agent of transformation, might breathe some fresh air into the stinky, smelly little caves of each of our theories and experiences.
But there is something further about their achievement, and
it has something to do with recognizing the strangeness of themselves.
I take it that is one conclusion of both this and Pride and
Prejudice. When Lizzie gets home to Longbourn to another one of those
late night bedroom conversations and recounts Darcy’s letter to her sister
Jane, she doesn’t say, “Till now I never knew Darcy.” She says, “Till now I
never knew myself.” To add one more layer of complication, part of what she is
saying is that she now knows herself as split, as doubled, divided between the
old proud and prejudicial self who inhabited the world one way and the new,
chastened self, unsure of its way, but hopeful of being loved. She is, as
Thoreau recommended, “beside herself in a sane sense.” What is implicit in
Austen is made explicit on the Emmaus road. When the risen Christ vanishes from
their sight, Cleopas and his friend say to each other, “Were not our hearts
burning within us.” That is, they admit their failure to acknowledge the
growing sense of strangeness located not in the unrecognizable companion, but
in their very own hearts, a failure to be a neighbor to the stranger in
I have tried on occasion to teach you close reading, not so that you might get these texts “right” whatever that could possibly mean, but so that you might cultivate intimacy with the scriptures. So let me push just one step further in order to coax yet another elaboration of the point. Stanley Cavell once suggested that what Lizzie interprets to Jane as self-knowledge might actually be better understood as “the reality for the first time of being known.” Jesus and Darcy spot the stranger within us even though we fail to, and they coax that stranger out into the open, give us the option of neighboring her or ignoring her.
A college campus is no Longbourn or dusty Palestinian road, but part of what it means for you to have been educated here over the last four or more years is to find the courage to show us and your classmates and yourselves your strangeness, sometimes in spite of yourselves, in your papers, presentations, newspaper editorials, in your poems and photographs, plays and concerts. Now the task is to go on from here with the courage to continue to listen to the companions who awaken the stranger in yourself, to be the sort of companions who spot the stranger in others, and to present yourselves to the world in all your own strangeness because of the belief that, in spite of all, the risen Christ is still appearing and vanishing over simple meals with friendly strangers and strange friends.
Peter Dula is Associate Professor of Religion and Culture at Eastern Mennonite University.