By David Lewellen
The disciples who failed to recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus were victims of their own expectations, Dr. Diane Bergant told the NACC conference.
In a fast-moving, well-received theology lesson, Dr. Bergant, CSA, pointed out that ancient Israel had different meanings for “messiah” or “anointed one,” and that most of Jesus’ followers expected a political leader and had their hopes dashed. “Jesus was a disappointment,” she said, deadpan. “But don’t we always hope that the next governor, president, superior, boss, will be better than the one we have?”
Bergant, an emerita professor of Old Testament studies at Concordia Theological Union in Chicago, IL, pointed out that “resurrection story” is misnomer, since the four Gospels describe only Jesus’ reappearances and finding an empty tomb, adding that an “empty tomb proves nothing. The body could have been stolen.” The Emmaus story in Luke suggests that the testimony of the women who found the tomb was discounted because they were women — “but that’s another workshop,” Bergant said, to rueful laughter.
“We know an awful lot of theology, but we don’t understand resurrection. It’s not resuscitation,” she continued. “It’s the essence of our faith. Jesus was a good theologian and a good teacher. He re-interpreted the Mosaic tradition.”
A patient in a modern hospital bed who asks, “What have I done to deserve this?” may require a new interpretation of tradition, Bergant said. Some people who can’t or won’t do that work give up on the Church, finding that change is coming too fast or not fast enough. But, she said, “Anyone involved in ministry is a practical theologian, interpreting the tradition for people’s lives.
“To those to whom we minister, we are the church,” Bergant said. “I am a weak, flawed human being, but look what God has done in me and through me. … (Patients) are not asking for medical answers. It’s not about a cure. All you can give is healing, so they can face the future.”
When we need advice, Bergant said, we seek it from those with wisdom, not just knowledge. “Wisdom is what you learn from life,” she said, and it often comes the hard way. “We all work with human beings. They can be very disappointing,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Religious highs, such as the ones the disciples experienced, feel good and serve a purpose. “But how long does a religious high last?” Bergant asked. “Don’t expect it to last long, because you’ll be out of commission if it does.”
What comes next? “Welcome to the real world. Welcome to death,” she said. “Jesus was a failure in this world” in the eyes of his followers, redeeming his reputation only by rising from the dead. Everyone seeks success — but that, and failure, are also subject to re-interpretation.