Monday, March 22, 2010

Emmaus: Key to the Church before Paul

I had a dream a while back about the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35), where the disciples meet a stranger on the road as they walk to this village on Easter afternoon. When the stranger, whom they don’t recognize, asks them what they’re talking about, they sadly tell of the death of Jesus who they believed would redeem Israel. My dream was in the context of my talking to people about a fundamentalist tract that came in the mail addressed to me or “Current Resident.” The tract presented literal interpretations of Bible passages and was fishing for new adherents. I wouldn’t be one because, as I asked the people in the dream, “Why do people take the Bible literally?” The Emmaus story is certainly one that shouldn’t be taken literally. It’s too important for such a reductive interpretation. It seems to me that in shorthand it’s the history of the Church before Paul who was the first to write a part of the New Testament probably in the early 50s C.E. So for about 20 years from the death of Jesus in about 33 C.E. to I Thessalonians, Paul’s first letter, we have no written records from the Church.
So what was happening with the followers of Jesus during these 20 plus years? Most likely, they were trying to understand their experience of him and going through the process of grieving, which has a number of stages, including, to start shock and denial, then pain and guilt, the stage apparently the disciples are in as the Emmaus story opens. The disciples’ sadness is a sign that they were probably moving beyond shock and denial into painful sadness about what didn’t happen, namely, Jesus’ political salvation of Israel from the Romans. So they remain under Roman rule, which is not good.
In the Emmaus story, after the disciples tell the stranger about the women’s tale of the empty tomb, he chides them for not understanding what the prophets have declared, namely, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” The passage continues: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (verses 26 and 27). This interpretation attributed to Jesus is what the late Michael Goulder pointed out was "haggadic midrash." Bishop Spong in his essay of March 18th pays tribute to Goulder and his work, particularly in two books, “Midrash and Lection in Matthew” and “The Evangelists' Calendar.” In these, Goulder argues that haggadic midrash took place over the many years after the crucifixion when the followers of Jesus spent time in the synagogue searching the Hebrew Scriptures to find Jewish stories about other people that could be retold about Jesus. Thus, Jesus’ followers felt that his spirit was guiding them to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death by interpreting the Scriptures in a new way. This is how the stranger was guiding them through scripture in the Emmaus story, which can be read as an illustration of haggadic midrash.
The revelation of Jesus to the disciples in the Emmaus meal is a sign of the central importance that the Eucharist must have had from early on as a way of experiencing the resurrected Jesus. As Jon D. Levenson has pointed out in “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life,” resurrection is a deeply Jewish idea that permeates the Hebrew Scriptures and the commentaries. It is through resurrection that the disciples shaped the last stage of their grief: acceptance and hope. So, just as death brings us sorrow, the recollection of the Resurrection can bring us acceptance and hope. Happy Easter!


Hershey said...

Peter, apparently your dream reflected your concern about people being mistaken in taking the Bible literally. I have three comments:
1) In the case of the Emmaus story, the error of the literalists is in not seeing what Michael Goulder points out: that Luke has Jesus doing "haggadic midrash." Of course, a fundamentalist would not accept Goulder's exegesis of the story because she/he is blinded by being a literalist.
2) The only way I see to confront the fundamentalist view that the whole Bible is a human construction (humans made it all up) is to show that it cannot be revelation from a supernatural god, because it contains so many internal contradictions: one author contradicting another and sometimes an author inconsistently contradicting himself, as happens in Paul's letters. Presumably an all-knowing god would not contradict god's self!
3) If there were a god who created humans, presumably that god would would want to communicate with his/her created humanity and that communication would be internally consistent, without contradictions. Since we do not have such a communication, I conclude that there is no god "out there" to make such a communication.

Pete M said...

Thanks for your helpful comments. Yes, I do have concerns that fundamentalists and other extremists seem to be calling the shots in our country: witness the craziness around health care.