About ten years ago, I realized that I was squinting a lot. It was my first year in seminary and I saw a couple of advantages to wearing glasses. Being able to see would help me stop squinting, which according to my mother, would minimize my future wrinkles. She reminded me of this often. I also thought that having glasses would make me seem smarter. Maybe if I looked the part, I would be a convincing graduate student. So, I headed off to the optometrist for my first pair of glasses.
The issue that I have found with glasses is that I mostly forget to wear them. Even ten years later, I probably only wear them once a week though I am supposed to always wear them while driving. My eyesight is good enough that I can get by. But, I am not sure that “getting by” should be my goal. It is curious to me that I have a way to see better, and yet I don’t choose to take advantage of it.
When I read the gospel passage earlier this week, the theme of sight and vision kept jumping out at me. Jesus shows up to these two followers, and we are told that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” It’s an interesting turn of phrase which leaves a few questions unanswered. What exactly keeps these disciples from seeing that the stranger on the road is actually Jesus? Is God behind their blindness? Is this some kind of grand God plan?
Another option, the one I am a lot more inclined to embrace, is that these men, like I do so often, simply forgot to wear their Jesus glasses that day. So, in effect, they blinded themselves. Perhaps this was an unintentional move. We can give them some benefit of the doubt. They didn’t want to be blind to Jesus. They just were not looking for him there on the road. Maybe they could have seen Jesus if they had been paying closer attention. If they had been practicing what Jesus had taught them, maybe they wouldn’t have been blinded in the first place.
It’s easy to criticize these two for their blindness, to look on from a distance and think to ourselves that we wouldn’t ever make the same mistake. But, the more we sit with this story, the more it gets under our skin. We realize that as much as this story is about these two disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is also, just as importantly, a story about us. We are the blinded disciples on the road. We, too, spend time in the presence of Christ without even realizing that he is with us. We are all grappling with some kind of blindness, and the scariest thing is that much of the time, we don’t even realize it.
This week I have wondered about some of the biggest culprits behind our sight issues. I’ve thought about fear, and hurt, disappointment and anger, emotions that we all experience and yet don’t always realize how much these feelings impact us and our ability to see clearly. Or, how much these emotions drive us to say, or not say, things that we regret. I have also thought about biases and prejudices. I am very guilty of this in my current role as an Army chaplain, particularly when it comes to other chaplains. When I find out that one of my colleagues is a Southern Baptist or a Presbyterian from a more conservative branch of the church, my judgment starts immediately. I am blinded by it. I confess that I can be very intolerant of intolerance. I don’t merely fight against injustice, but I judge it in a mean-spirited way. This makes me intolerant rather than Christ-like.
One of the reasons that I appreciate the context of the Army is because I know I am blinded by my prejudice. Being surrounded by chaplains with whom I am in conflict, with whom I don’t agree theologically, forces me to deal with, at least of few of my blind spots. One of my colleagues this year, best described as my frienemy, is a Southern Baptist who believes women shouldn’t do anything in church but teach children in Sunday School because it is what that Bible says. For so many reasons I have a problem with this position. When I first started working with him, I wanted to kill him most of the time. His opinions hurt infuriated me and quickly I became blind to anything good about him. I would have scoffed at the idea that we could ever find common ground where faith is concerned. In fact, I would have chosen persons of other faiths or even no faith over him.
But, over the months of working with him and listening to stories of his ministry, I started to see him a little differently. Instead of only focusing on his Baptist-ness, I started noticing how well he treated staff and patients, even people who he didn’t agree with politically or theologically. One day, one of my nurse friends who is gay mentioned what a great chaplain he is in the ICU. Since she is a friend, I said to her, “Well, I mean, he is ok. But he is very close-minded about homosexuality.” And she said, “That may be true. But I can still see Jesus working in him. That’s what I care about. It’s what matters most.” This was my “Ah-ha” moment. It was as if Jesus was breaking the bread right in front of me, and I could see, clearly, God working through this man even though it was not in my way.
Part of what the gospel reminds me is that we are all blinded by something. It’s part of the human condition. We might even call it sin. I can so easily see sin in others but not always in myself. Over these past weeks, with a lot of the national debate about religious freedom, it has been easy to point at the blindness in others. But, this passage makes me face the fact that I can be blind, too. None of us are immune. This story forces all of us to ask ourselves, “Where are we too distracted or too angry or too self-centered to notice Jesus and the unexpected ways he beckons us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”
We are called deal with our biases or our emotions or whatever else is blocking our sight so that we won’t keep missing Jesus? We shouldn’t forget that Jesus offers us a pretty good pair of glasses? He taught us how to see beyond the sin we see in others, about how to dispel our prejudices… he showed us how to have relationships with lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes and others who were often pushed to the margins. He was clear about where our judgment should be… not toward others but instead right here. We should first look at our own hearts, at the planks in our own eyes before we start worrying about specs in any of our neighbor’s eyes or decide to throw any stones. Dismantling judgement of others helps take some of the blinders off.
But, the more I have thought about the ways that Jesus improves our vision, the more I decided that Jesus doesn’t merely help us to take off our blinders. He actually teaches us to see through a new lens, the lens of love, of compassion, of generosity. It’s not necessarily a natural way to see certain people particularly if we are in conflict with them. But it is the Christian way. It’s the way that Jesus taught us to see.
I am struck that as much as this passage is about us and our blindness, I think, more importantly, it is about Jesus. After the trauma of the crucifixion and all the ways that the disciples failed him, Jesus is back at it, reaching out to them, helping them to see once again. When they do the typical human thing, neglect to recognize him on the road, Jesus doesn’t get angry, but he sticks with them. He brings them back into fellowship with him. “This is my body broken for you,” Jesus says. This is my body broken for you so that you may see through a new lens, one of love. I have taught you this before, and I will teach you again… and again and again. Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you will remember my saving love for you and the whole world.
This is our story… a tale of disciples who easily and often become blind to the ways of Jesus and of a God who never tires of going after us wherever we are, sometimes gently and other times with great clamor, so that we might live in love rather than in rancor.
I know that I have been given a good pair of glasses that can do a whole lot to help me see through a new lens. I just have to remember to put them on and keep them on, pray to be shown the planks that I am overlooking. It is through the lens of love, compassion, and generosity that Jesus teaches us to see others. We can only see this way with God’s help.