No matter how many times I read the story of the road to Emmaus, I always get hung up on one verse: “God kept them from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:16)
It wasn’t that the two travelers simply didn’t recognize the risen Jesus come alongside them, but that God “kept them,” or prevented them from recognizing him. It was intentional.
At first glance, that intentional obscuring of the truth seems unnecessarily cruel. After all, the followers of Jesus had certainly been through enough grief and devastation at that point. They’d witnessed the arrest, torture and murder of their beloved leader. All their expectations, everything they’d believed in and hoped for, lay smashed at the bottom of the cross. They were lost, bewildered and reeling from the shock.
Yet God kept the travelers from recognizing the risen Messiah in the moment of their deepest and most profound despair.
This, it seems to me, is the quintessential tough-love moment.
I don’t know about you, but God’s tough-love teaching is not my preferred method. I think it’s fair to say we’d all much prefer that God reveal himself to us straight up, exactly when and exactly how we need him.
But God doesn’t always work that way.
True, it would have been easier and gentler for Jesus to reveal his identity immediately in that moment on the dusty road to Emmaus. But consider this:
Might Jesus’ immediate revelation have inhibited the opportunity for greater, deeper spiritual growth in the men? Might an immediate revelation have inhibited some of the hard internal heart work that needed to take place?
Sometimes I think God intentionally blinds us to his presence, not so he can see into our hearts (after all, as an omniscient God, he already knows our innermost thoughts), but so that we might glimpse the state of our own hearts.
After all, if God is obviously present, would we do the hard work of looking into the depths of our own hearts to uncover our weakness, our lack of trust, our unbelief?
If God is immediately and palpably present, might we skip happily along, blissfully ignorant of our spiritual deficits?
Jesus understood that Cleopas and his friend simply could not get past the obvious facts of Jesus’ crucifixion. In the telling and retelling of that story, they could not move past their shock and unbelief. They forgot what Jesus had told them again and again: that his death was not the end, that all hope was not lost.
In obscuring his identity as the risen Messiah, Jesus forced the Emmaus travelers to look hard inside their own hearts in order to face their lack of trust and faith.
Like I said, it’s tough love. Jesus doesn’t always give us the easy answer. His goal isn’t always to make us comfortable or offer us the easy way out.
Sometimes Jesus prods us to do the hard work of looking inward, digging into the detritus of our hearts and resowing our spiritual soil, so that ultimately we are able to enjoy a deeper, more authentic relationship with him.