“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.
Learned people were already impressed by the knowledge of this precocious Jesus by the time he was age 12, maybe earlier.[i] Now there is something more. He is age 30 or so, and now people are asking, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”[ii] In the New Testament epistles, Jesus is named “the wisdom of God.”[iii] He is called the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”[iv] Wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is about one’s breadth of information; wisdom is about one’s depth of understanding. Jesus had become wise.
The English words “wisdom” and “vision” come from the same etymological root. Wisdom is a kind of deep seeing, an “in-sight,” what Saint Paul calls “the enlightening of the eyes of the heart.”[v] Wisdom is not a skill, nor is wisdom learned from a book. Wisdom is a gift from God, a seedling implanted in our soul at birth that needs to be cultivated. Here are two practices that cultivate the gift of wisdom.
“By this we know.” We hear this phrase four times in our reading from the first letter of John this morning. Knowing is fundamental to this letter, as are three interrelated questions: what we know, how we know it, and what we are going to do with that knowledge. As we begin this season after the Epiphany, as we recall God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, these three questions can guide our own discovery of God in and among us now.
First, what do we know? From this first letter of John, quite a lot. We know that God is light. We know what love is. We know we belong to the truth. We know God lives in us. This is big stuff—the foundation of our faith, of our relationship with God and with each other. So big, though, that these truths can feel remote from our daily lives. What does it mean for you, here and now, to know that God is love, and that God lives in you?
Reflecting on how we learn, how we come to know, can help bridge these eternal truths and our daily, particular experiences. For John, we know by sense—by what we see, hear, and touch—by example, and by assurance from someone we trust. Each of these modes is familiar to us, and I’m sure each of us learns better in one way than another. I know I learn best by touch, by moving my body, and by holding, tinkering, and manipulating.
To know something is, in our imagination, an intellectual endeavor. To know something is to study it, to ascertain its dimensions, to come to conclusions about it, to test those conclusions, always refining your conclusions based on that testing, and to be able to articulate what you’ve learned to another. This is a valuable and useful approach, and it’s consistent with the general standard of knowledge that Western culture has adopted in the modern era.
But I find it lacks. I find it unsatisfying. It, perhaps, can sate my intellect, but I find that that’s not enough. As much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not merely an intellect. And as I learn to have less fealty to my intellect and more loyalty to my full humanity, I increasingly find this approach to knowledge to be somewhat sterile. Helpful, useful, yes, of course. But after this meal of the intellect, I often walk away feeling undernourished.
It is reassuring to find, then, that this is an incomplete understanding of the idea of knowledge in Christianity. St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian deacon and hymn writer, put forth the idea that there were three ways to attempt to know something.1 The first, the crudest, the most rudimentary, is a pursuit of knowledge that seeks to dominate the subject that is to be known. This is knowledge merely as a means to an end. There is nothing inherently wrong with coming to know something purely in service of some other goal, but it is no full depiction of Christian knowledge