My older daughter had a paper due this week in her “Mosaics” class — which is what Temple calls its version of Western Civ. 101 (or Not Only Western Civ., actually, which is nice). The paper was a short, basic compare-and-contrast deal between any two of the figures/works on the professor’s list. My daughter chose to write about Jesus and Socrates.
The challenging bit was that her prof required they draw only from the primary sources on their reading list. In the case of Jesus, that meant the Gospel of Luke — and only Luke.
That became an interesting exercise. Jesus’ story is one we Christian types can — and often do — recite without thinking. It’s Holy Week, after all — a time of year we devote to retelling and pondering this very story. That intimate, ingrained familiarity makes it tricky to talk about the Passion without including all sorts of stuff that can’t be cited directly from Luke’s Gospel.
I found that it’s actually pretty tricky even to read Luke’s Gospel without thinking about all that other stuff as well — importing it into what I’m reading and reinterpreting accordingly. The comparison to Socrates meant that my daughter’s paper had to address the questions of why Jesus was executed and why Jesus was willing to submit to being executed. When you’ve spent years reciting “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate …” it’s difficult not to fall back into those creedal formulations, or to answer those questions with ideas from John or Paul or Matthew’s Gospel, or from any of the great theologians who have followed after them.
So I was surprised to realize that Luke’s Gospel doesn’t actually say much about “for our sake he was crucified.” Luke’s account of Holy Week portrays all of Jesus’ followers as bewildered by his arrest and crucifixion — as wholly unable to explain or understand what they were witnessing. They don’t understand it until Sunday, until Easter. The way Luke tells it, Jesus’ disciples might never have been able to answer those “why” questions if Jesus himself hadn’t returned to them to repeat what he’d told them earlier, back in Luke 9 when he first predicted all of this.
The final chapter of Luke is all about that explanation. It gives us three versions of it, each one presented in a somewhat chiding tone. First the angels at the empty tomb explain this for the women there, then Jesus explains it to Cleopas and his buddy on the road to Emmaus, and then, finally, back in Jerusalem, Jesus shows up and explains it to the disciples themselves.
But here’s the odd thing — and the thing that’s tricky to notice unless you’re consciously forcing yourself to stick exclusively to what only the Gospel of Luke has to say — there’s not a whole lot of explanation in this explanation. Here’s what we’re told in Luke about that encounter on the road to Emmaus:
“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
And here’s the slightly longer version a few verses later with the disciples in Jerusalem:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Not much there in the way of “for our sake he was crucified.” Not really much there, even, in the way of an answer to those “why” questions. We’re told it was “necessary,” and that it was “written,” but neither of those is actually an answer.
The frustrating thing here in Luke is that we’re told Jesus had a longer explanation, and that he shared this with his disciples. “He interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Might have been nice if, you know, someone had written that down. Instead what we get is Luke just seeming to assume we already know what Jesus likely said in this survey of “all the scriptures.” It’s almost as though Luke is saying, “And then Jesus explained everything, you know, yada yada yada.”
Here, for example, is Richard Beck discussing “The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.” Following N.T. Wright, Beck urges us to first try to understand what Isaiah 53 meant “during the time of Isaiah.” I suspect that Beck/Wright are on the right track here, but I’d really love to be able to ask Cleopas about that.
That very passage in Isaiah is the same one Luke mentions when he pulls this same frustrating stunt in the book of Acts. This is the passage the Ethiopian eunuch is reading when he meets our friend Philip the evangelist in Acts 8. Here’s all we get from Luke there:
Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
You know, yada yada yada. But no, I don’t know. I think I know. I hope I know. But I’d know a lot more if I’d actually gotten to read what Philip said to the eunuch, or what Jesus said to Cleopas and his friend.
In the Gospel of Luke, we’re actually given less details about Jesus’ explanation for why it was “necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things” than we are about what Jesus had to eat on Easter Sunday. He’d arrived at Cleopas’ house in Emmaus right around dinner time, but skipped out before eating. The next time we see him is a long walk away, seven miles down the road back in Jerusalem, when he shows up among the disciples, greeting them with “Peace be with you”:
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate.
I love this detail. Imagine all the shock and tumult, all the questions and emotions that the disciples must have had. But the man was hungry.
It’s only after Jesus finally gets to eat something that he settles in and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” No explanations on an empty stomach.
Maybe that’s why we don’t know everything that Cleopas and Philip knew, and that Luke seems to assume his readers would already know. Maybe we can’t expect to “understand the scriptures” until Jesus is no longer hungry and asking for food.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?
… And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Food first, then explanations.