The Emmaus story (Lk. 24:13-35) is one of the church’s favorites. It is also one of mine.
I am intrigued at the disciples walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus were joined along the way by the risen Jesus but fail to recognize him. These were people who knew him personally and had, at least from a distance, been witnesses to his passion and had heard, at least third hand, the reports that he had been raised from the dead. He was there with them but they failed to perceive who he was. Luke says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16). Why is that?
There has been endless speculation about that, of course. The text does not really say. It does, though, offer some clues.
Here’s one. When the disciples told their unrecognized guest about all that had taken place in Jerusalem over the last several days, they say they “had hoped” (v. 21) that this Jesus would be the redeemer of Israel. Had hoped. In the past. They no longer hoped. Hopelessness makes it hard to see what is real.
Here’s another. Jesus characterized their lack of understanding as a slowness of heart to believe (v. 25). The problem is not one of eye sight. It is one of heart and belief, two things that in ancient understanding are related. To believe is to set the heart on something being true. It is not to have it proven. It is not even to see it with one’s own eyes. It is to hope for it. This is the consistent message of the New Testament: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The failure to see seems to me to be directly related to a failure of hope, a failure of heart.
One more. As the group approaches Emmaus, Jesus goes on ahead a bit as if he plans to leave them behind. Due to the lateness of the hour, however, the disciples implore him to stop for the night and be their guest (v. 29). And this is what turned it all around. The disciples extended hospitality to this stranger. Then and only then could they recognize that this one unknown to them but to whom they had offered hospitality was no less than the risen Lord. It was only in issuing an invitation to be their guest that Jesus could be known to them when he took the bread and broke it with them. As Luke puts it, only then did the disciples recognize the burning in their hearts in the stranger’s presence. If I’m right about the connection between heart and hope, the disciples ended that first Easter day with their hope restored.
Once their hope was restored, so was their vision. Hope is not something that makes us feel better when there is really no reason to. In a Gospel sense, it is about restoring our vision to see what really is. What really is is what we set our hearts on. What really is is what we hope for. Hope, it turns out, is the unexpected precondition to vision.