“Jesus himself came near and went with [the disciples], but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Lk 24:15-16).
Stop and think about that. “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This was the man whom these two disciples had chosen to follow, the man for whom these disciples had given up their jobs and left their families. His good news defined their reality. And suddenly he was gone, brutally executed, his body now missing from his tomb. Imagine how they must have felt.
I can imagine these two disciples, shocked and confused by the recent events, walking down the road. I can imagine them praying the words of our psalm this morning: “The cords of death entangled me; . . . I came to grief and sorrow” (Ps 116:2). I can imagine their eyes, taking in their surroundings but not really seeing them. Is it surprising, really, that they perhaps failed to see what was right in front of them?
But is there something more going on? After all, their eyes were kept from recognizing Jesus. The word translated as “kept” can also mean to hold, to seize, to restrain, to arrest. It’s a forceful word. The disciples don’t just fail to recognize Jesus; they are actively hindered from knowing that this man walking and talking with them is their Lord and teacher, risen from the dead. Disciples in other accounts may not recognize Jesus immediately, but only here are they kept from recognizing him. Only here are the disciples’ eyes made to be closed, to be unable to perceive the reality in front of them.
So what’s happening here? In the way the evangelist distinguishes seeing from perceiving, I am reminded of how Jesus, quoting Isaiah, explains the purpose of parables: “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand’” (Lk 8:10, quoting Is 6:9-10). This seems to be what is happening here. These disciples look at the man accompanying them, but they do not perceive him.
What a change this represents. After all, hadn’t Jesus assured the disciples that they weren’t like those others, the ones who required parables? These insiders have become, if only temporarily, outsiders. They may have had an idea of what it meant to follow Jesus when he was alive, but the truth of Jesus’s Crucifixion and Resurrection means that everything has changed.
We can all become comfortable with who we are, what we do, how we relate to others, and what we believe about ourselves. We can create a narrative about ourselves. But occasionally something comes along and upsets that narrative, and suddenly the ground shifts beneath us, challenging all those comforting assumptions. Can you think of a time in your life when that’s happened to you?
That something for the disciples was the truth of Jesus’s Resurrection. Even though Jesus had foretold it, the disciples misunderstand and doubt it. Their explanation to Jesus of recent events shows how out of sync they are with this fundamentally new reality. The death of Jesus, they explain, is the death of their hope “that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21), rather than a necessary step for Jesus to enter into his glory. Those who went to verify the empty tomb “did not see him” (Lk 24:24). The irony, of course, is that now these disciples do see Jesus. They are seeing him now, but they don’t perceive him. At least, not until their eyes open.
And they do open. The do open, because Jesus takes the initiative, the first step toward his followers. He takes the first step so he can bridge their seeing and perceiving, so he can bring them back inside, so he can establish a new relationship grounded in the new reality of his Resurrection. On the road, Jesus interprets to the disciples “the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27). Later, over a meal, he takes bread, blesses, and breaks and gives it to them. Immediately, like a switch reconnecting an electrical current, the disciples recognize him. And no sooner do they recognize him than he vanishes from their sight.
What a reversal. On the road, the disciples saw but did not perceive. Now, over a shared meal, they perceive but do not see. But something else has changed. After that shock of recognition, the disciples are also able to remember, and in remembering to understand how Jesus had already been revealing himself: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32). Jesus was always there, reaching out, waiting for them to notice.
In one of my favorite poems, “Staying Power,” poet Jeanne Murray Walker describes the experience of God’s reaching out to us, persistent despite our best efforts to ignore it. Because this is the truth—God reaches out to us again and again and again, in myriad and unexpected ways: through our senses, our experiences, our dreams and imagination, even our fears and anxieties.
“Oh, we have only so many words to think with,” Walker writes.
Say God’s not a fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is. It rings.
God’s reaching out may come to us slantwise, in unexpected and, frankly, unsought after ways.
It rings. You don’t know who it could be.
You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings.
Despite our willing blindness and carelessness and preoccupations, God continues to reach out to us.
It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery
metal bits. It rings again.
Despite our violence and hate and sin, against others and against ourselves, God still reaches out to us. Again and again. Until we respond.
It rings again. You pick it up
and a voice you love whispers hello.
Jesus reaches out to us—to me, to you—and waits for us to respond. He waits for this or that invitation to be the one that opens our eyes, that causes us to pick up the phone. He waits for this or that invitation to be the one that allows us to look and perceive, to listen and understand, the one that will establish a relationship with him. Because once we accept that invitation, we recognize who it is standing before us, we recognize the beloved voice at the other end of the line . . . and we know ourselves to be loved, and we remember all those times our hearts were burning within us.
 From Poetry (May 2004); available online at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/42166/staying-power
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