Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Prophetic Road

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him...Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures...When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem...
Luke 24

It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have - otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)

At the end of an online exchange recently, my good friend Trevor asked sincerely, "Tommy, outside of your thought provoking small circle of thinking people (including thinking Christians) you don’t actually believe that most people think about the bible often, do you?" That's an appropriate & challenging question. Especially since so many Christians proudly label their lives "biblical."

If we think about this text (Luke 24) often this week (and next), what might it do in us and to us and through us. How might it serve as a Script for our lives? Here are 5 possibilities:

1. Those of us who audaciously claim belief in a risen Lord must honestly and humbly ask, "When and why are our eyes kept from recognizing what is Real & Transcendent in our midst?" This is especially true, I've experienced, during times of pain, confusion and catastrophe. Our pain cycles perhaps become an obstacle too large to experience Jesus among us. We are locked into solo acts, guided by expectations and roles manufactured and ingrained by social, political and family systems. These powers become idols, claiming the place of God, demanding our full allegiance. Or else. They crucified Jesus then and continue to do so now.

2. Historically, prophetic action tends to end in death. Think: many of the Hebrew prophets, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and many other leaders who spoke out against the powers that be were killed for their faithful witness to the truth. This canonizes Jesus within this prophetic strand. Earlier in Luke's Gospel, there are other allusions to Jesus as a "prophet," participating in typical prophetic work and calling his disciples to "take up your cross daily and follow me." See also Luke 4 when Jesus preaches a sermon from a text in the prophet Isaiah as his hometown hero status becomes subverted and his fellow Nazarenes are driven to kill him.

2a. Ultimately, it's not just about how often we think about the Bible. It's how we think about the Bible. A prophetic interpretation of the Script is warranted. The Greek word dei ("Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things...") in verse 26 is better translated "Was it not inevitable..." This interpretation, backed by solid literary & historical work, has profound implications. Instead of Jesus' death primarily being "necessary" to appease an angry God or as a sacrifice that wipes away the stain of sin so we can all go to heaven when we die, the cross calls us to consider the gritty reality of our real world: what people in power & prestige do to people of faith & conscience committed to prophetic work. Consider these sound bites from Christian theologians:
Ched Myers: …the significance of Christ’s cross must always first be grounded in history: Jesus was executed as a dissident by the Roman Empire. The primary meaning of ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is that he was killed because of sinful humanity…the inevitable consequence of prophetic practice in a world of violence and injustice.

Stanley Hauerwas: Jesus’ death was not a mistake but what was to be expected of a violent world which does not believe that this is God’s world.

And Richard Rohr's beautiful portrayal of the overlooked spiritual discipline of gazing: I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward God, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.
This is a more compelling and challenging Way.

3. Speaking of spiritual disciplines, notice how this text animates the common meal ("When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.") and Bible study (Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures."). These are offered as consistent practices for us to coherently experience the risen Christ: we recognize and remember Jesus and something happens deep within us ("our hearts burning within us"). The earliest Christians didn't "take communion" as a wafer & wine in a set-aside religious service. They ate a simple meal together, sharing the love of Jesus through food and conversation. And they read the Hebrew Scriptures through a prophetic lens, keeping the focus on how God prioritizes the weak & the vulnerable in our world. Just like Jesus did.

4. The risen Jesus, experienced in solidarity with other people of faith and conscience, gives us hope and courage to return to the site of pain and injustice: Jerusalem. We must go back and engage with the places where imperial power continues to terrorize. We can be liberated from our tendencies towards evasion, denial, apathy & indifference. But we must also go back to the places of our own individual pain and woundedness as well. Jesus gives us the power and the grace to experience this healing, to address the source of our destructive & addictive copings. As always, Jesus calls us to the challenging & confrontational work of both personal inventory (a whole new mentality) and prophetic imagination (a whole new world).

5. Lastly, we must recognize and prioritize a reading "from below." This simply cannot be overstated. True biblical study reads from the same place as the very first readers of Luke's Gospel: oppressed religious minorities with low socio-economic status and no political power (in Luke 6, Jesus called "blessed" the poor, the hungry, those who weep & those who are excluded & defamed because of their prophetic way-of-life). They were survivors. And this Story transformed their identity and vocation into one of trust, hope & humility. American followers of Jesus, by default, read from the perspective of the triumphant opposing team: Caesar, Pilate and the rich young ruler. After all, we benefit greatly from imperial policies that extract resources & exploit labor all over the globe. This story scripts us into arrogance & entitlement.

We must somehow figure out how to be in true solidarity with these disciples on the road to Emmaus. Most importantly, the challenge for us is to possess the desire and discipline to take this Story with us wherever we go. If this Story doesn't guide us and shape us, various counterfeit stories--taught by the media, the military and the market that breed addiction, abuse & anxiety--most certainly will. And so, the question continues to haunt us: you don’t actually believe that most people think about the bible often, do you?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the thought and response to this Tommy. You said, "Ultimately, it's not just about how often we think about the Bible. It's how we think about the Bible." I agree with you on this, and quite frankly that is a HUGE problem that I have with the religious, or, the "religiously devout." Perspective and conviction to their own truth is detrimental, not only to themselves but to others. With perspective in mind, it is ones’ own perspective that makes this so complicated, because we each have our own. For all of the Christians out there, I mean, with all of the different types and different kinds of Christians out there (the approx. 41,000 different denominations from, it is impossible to get a general consensus on the most basic of scriptures. Each person’s own interpretation will contradict or be askew of another Christians.
    As I have said many of a time;
    In regards to the First Commandment and the Great Commission. The First Commandment; there is the admittance of other gods and the Great Commission forces true believers to convert others to be Christian, be it through missionary work, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, by Christian slave owners or the conversion of a thief at Calvary. Then what is your take on the Great Commission, whereby God has created a wedge between all of the (other) religious. Meaning this, a true Jew will always be a true Jew, just as a true Muslim will always be a true Muslim as a true Christian will always be a true Christian. There are forces within each of the religions of the world that will make your differences from others (religions) an absolute. So, if you couple The Great Commission along with the first commandment your differences as well as your indifferences you get, or rather you will create hell on Earth or, what is known as religions.
    #4. What if “grace” is not really given from Jesus? What if you don’t accept it? What if you don’t want it? What if it is not there? What if it is not available, or available to only Christians? What if grace is given by other people – just ordinary “normal” people? What if grace does not exist? What makes the grace given from Jesus different than the grace given from anyone else?
    This is a good post, I have so much more that I would like to say, note or mention on all of these points. Thank you for sharing Tommy.