I. Life in the Rearview
“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards” wrote Soren Kierkegaard. “But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” This proposition can help us reflect on the reports of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in the canonical gospels. In several of those accounts, Jesus “opens the scriptures” and describes to the disciples, and to us, how the suffering and death of the Messiah were “necessary.”
In Luke’s report there seems to be at least a mild rebuke of the disciples on the road to Emmaus for not “getting it” by themselves since they were “foolish” and “slow of heart.” That strikes me as a bit harsh. But after the small critique, Jesus then walks then through the Hebrew scriptures to note how they pointed to him.
He “interpreted” the scriptures. The verb Luke uses is a form of the Greek word from which we get “hermeneutics,” which is, according to the dictionary, “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” In fact, even for the first disciples, there is no unvarnished encounter with the written text. Rather, Christian scripture is always interpreted, first, by Jesus, and then later, through Jesus. Jesus is the interpretive “lens” through which we read any text we dare to call Christian scripture.
Kierkegaard is talking about how we interpret our lives. He knows that we always make our interpretation from our current position. We live life forward and understand it in the rearview mirror. But, he acknowledges, that’s really a sort of useful fiction. His observation, he notes, is “A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”
As we remember events in our lives, we don’t pass through our experiences since those events and then travel back in time better informed and wiser in our interpretation. Instead, we look through our experiences since those events and bring them forward as part of our experience here and now.
Our memories are not written on some hard drive in the recesses of our brains to be accessed unaltered when we retrieve them. No, every time we retrieve them, we re-write them in light of whatever we have lived through in the meantime.
Kierkegaard knows, a century in advance of current neuroscience, that “there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for to take a position” that would allow me to go backwards. Contemporary studies of human memory formation and retrieval support the Danish philosopher’s insight.
“But it is a stubborn fact, or at least is presented this way in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke,” writes Father John Behr, “that the one born of Mary was not known by the disciples to be the Son of God until after the Passion, his crucifixion and resurrection” (page 7, my emphasis). Some Christians claim to have direct access to Jesus in the biblical text. They would assert either that their reading is free from interpretation or that it is the only possible interpretation. That is self-delusion at best. There is no uninterpreted text. Instead, there is either unconscious interpretation or conscious interpretation.
“Although popular imagination is still enthralled by the idea of ‘what really happened,’” Father Behr writes, “it is generally recognized today that there is no such thing as uninterpreted history. Failing to appreciate the confessional nature of theological assertions gives much modern theology a character that can only be described,” he notes, “as an odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology” (page 7).
Those who claim direct access to Jesus in the biblical text generally claim to “believe in the Bible.” That is part of that odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology to which Father Behr refers. In the gospels, however, Jesus calls disciples to believe in him and not in some text that bears witness to him. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life,” Jesus says in John 5:39, “and it is they that testify on my behalf.” The Bible does not authenticate Jesus. Jesus authenticates the Bible.
We see in today’s reading that this knowing found in the Scriptures happened only through Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures for the disciples post-Resurrection. All four gospels are at pains to remind us that we are in the same boat as the first disciples in that regard. Jesus is the Word made flesh, dwelling among us. It is Scripture that bears witness to that one true Word of God.
Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, re-writes and interprets the memories of the disciples and of the scriptures in the light of that crucifixion and resurrection. In Luke 24:27, he “re-interprets” Moses and all the prophets through the lens of these events.
In verses forty-four to forty-seven he seems to go further in the interpretive process. He reminds them that this was his teaching all along, while he was still “together with them.” And he tells them again that it was “necessary” for all these written scriptures to be fulfilled. The NRSV misses the boat by translating this as “must be.” This is the word for Divine necessity that we find repeatedly in the Synoptic gospels.
Reminding the disciples, however, is not enough. He “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Jesus does more than provide information. Instead, he works transformation. I can’t help but be reminded here of Paul’s words in Romans 12:2. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” he writes, “so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The word for “minds” both in Luke 24:45 and in Romans 12:2 is the Greek word “nous.” The Greeks loved to think about thinking. They had a variety of words for “mind.” “Nous” might be translated as intellectual and intelligible understanding. It is not “spirit,” which would relate to deeper and even pre-verbal insight and intuition. It is not “heart,” which would relate to emotion-fused thought and action. Jesus needs to instruct the disciples so they can properly understand and then interpret for others the witness to the Messiah in the Hebrew scriptures.
This understanding is, however, more than intellectual. It is the basis for one’s view of the world, one’s framework of understanding what is true and good and beautiful. It is the faculty through which one determines what is real and possible. So, one’s mind can be “opened” to new possibilities which a person could not have entertained previously. One can be transformed by the “renewing” of the mind. This new view of the world can make one into a new and different person. One cannot really read and understand the text apart from this opening of the mind.
Luke’s account reveals what God is up to in Jesus. “As far as Luke is concerned, then,” notes N. T. Wright, “we need have no doubt: he believed in the one-off, unique event of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and he believed that the entire story of the creator’s dealings with the world and with Israel had come into new focus as a result of it. All the scriptural stories pointed this way, not that anyone had read them like that before. Israel’s story had reached its climax in the Messiah,” Wright concludes, “with him, the new chapter of the world’s history had opened, a new era characterized by divine forgiveness” (Wright, Resurrection, page 659, my emphasis).
Wright notes that this mind-opening reinterpretation of the Hebrew scriptures results not only in a new people but also in a new commission. We should recall that three of the four gospels have some sort of “Great Commission” near the end.
This is not the case only with Matthew, where Matthew 28:19-20 is often labelled as “The Great Commission.” In that commission, we have the commands to baptize and teach. For Christians, baptism is always in part about forgiveness of sins. And teaching always leads to proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
In both Luke and John, the Great Commission is even more explicit about this vocation to forgive and proclaim. We can read the Johannine version in John 20:21-23 (part of last week’s gospel text). Here in Luke, the commission is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins.
The word for repentance is, of course, “metanoia.” This is not about a moral turnaround. Rather, this is about a “change of mind” (“nous”). Just as Jesus has taught and proclaimed to the disciples, so they are called to teach and proclaim to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. That teaching and proclamation can only be done with a mind that has been completely changed, opened, renewed, and transformed.
“Because Jesus is risen, he is demonstrated to be Israel’s Messiah; because he is Israel’s Messiah, he is the true lord of the world and will summon it to allegiance; to this end, he will commission his followers to act on his behalf, in the power of the Spirit which itself is a sign and means of covenant renewal and fresh life,” Wright asserts. “And the key followers, through whom the project will be launched, are the ‘witnesses’ who have seen for themselves that Jesus really is alive again after his crucifixion” (Wright, Resurrection, page 660).
In the next post or two, we will reflect further on the nature of the bodily resurrection as recorded in the first half of our reading, the call to be “witnesses of these things” and the transforming power of the Spirit that will make the vocation possible.
References and Resources
Behr, John . The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Journalen JJ:167 (1843), http://homepage.math.uiowa.edu/~jorgen/kierkegaardquotesource.html].
Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press.