“These have no ears”

The following was prepared by Devon Miller for April 26, 2020

Over the past week, we have sat with the work of different artists depicting the disciples’ supper with Jesus at Emmaus. Each of these works of art have their own take on what that moment might have been like; but they also share certain similarities. Some of these images invite the viewer in on the larger scene around the supper: van Rijck’s kitchen or slaughterhouse, Comba’s lair of a rock band, Garibay’s dinner with a stranger. Others, such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, block out all distractions and focus our attention entirely on  Jesus breaking the bread with the disciples. Some are everyday depictions, others, like the image in Macklin’s Bible romanticize the moment. Each of the works, except perhaps for the ecstatic drawing in Macklin’s Bible, rely on the artists’ contemporary context to help bring this moment to life. Caravaggio is known for depicting his biblical figures in 17th-century attire and surroundings. This is Comba’s nod to Caravaggio. I have a feeling that van Rick may have had a particular “kitchen” in mind when he drew his scene of Jesus eating supper with the disciples.

“Kitchen Scene with the Supper at Emmaus” by Pieter Cornelisz van Rijck

The story of Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus and then eating supper together has long been a favorite of mine, or at least I have been intrigued by it. Judging by the volume of artistic works of these two scenes, the road and the supper, I’m guessing that many others have been drawn to it as well, perhaps due to the mystery within the mystery. There is the mystery of the breaking of bread, but there is the simultaneous mystery of the opening of the eyes.

“Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio

Their world must have seemed strange to them. Just three days earlier, their teacher, who they thought was going to be their political deliverer, had been brutally and publicly executed. The disciples’ hopes had been dashed. But then, just that morning, some women from Jerusalem reported that Jesus had come up missing from the grave. These two disciples—we know one of them was named Cleopas,  and I’m thinking that the other one must have been a woman since she is not named, for Luke is known to recognize the women who followed Jesus—these disciples decided to make the two-hour journey to Emmaus. It doesn’t say what they wanted there. Was this their hometown? Were they trying to distance themselves from this strange series of unfortunate events? Were they going to shelter in place until the danger blew over? Surely, they had not planned to travel those seven miles just to eat a good supper. There must have been plenty of good establishments to eat at in Jerusalem! Or were they all closed? But in the end, that seems to be all they did there before returning to hang out with all the rest of Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem.

The text seems to suggest a sense of fear in the disciples as they journeyed to Emmaus. If not fear, at least suspicion of anyone who had not heard about the ominous events of the past few days. And we know they were sad. The writer tells us they tried to explain to this stranger what had happened, but all he was interested in was going off on theological and political rants about Messiahs. He seemed oblivious to the situation. 

Macklin’s Bible, 1800

Maybe they felt sorry for the stranger. Maybe they were inquisitive. Maybe they felt drawn to the composure and frankness with which this man spoke. How could anyone remain unshaken during this time? Whatever the reason, they invited the man to eat with them and he accepted.

Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt van Rijn

I can’t explain what happened next. Many have tried to paint it, draw it, sing it, write it . I’m mystified by it. The stranger took bread, and when he broke it open, he gave some to the two disciples. At that moment, their eyes were opened, they recognized Jesus, and he promptly disappeared. Vanished! Gone! 

But he everything he did, everything he said, was burned into their memory!

I’m not even going to attempt to explain what happened the moment Jesus “had been made known in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). What was it about breaking the bread that triggered the disciples’ recognition of Jesus? I’ll leave that question to others, or for you to discuss among yourselves in the comment section. The mystery I continue to be fascinated with is the opening of the eyes.

This is not an unfamiliar phrase in biblical texts. Jesus repeatedly accuses his listeners of “having ears, but not hearing…having eyes, but not seeing” (see Matthew 13:15; Mark 8:18; Luke 19:42; John 9:1-34). Nor is it unique to the New Testament; it carries over from the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures (see 2 Kings 6:17; 2 Chronicles 7:15; Isaiah 6:10; Jeremiah 5:21). Even more scathing, these accusation are usually directed toward those who are considered “foolish,” “senseless,” and “dull of learning.” Such references go all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when God tells the man and the woman that when and if they eat the forbidden fruit, “your eyes will be opened” (Genesis 3:5).

It is easy to draw conclusions about what such statements might mean. Most simply, it can be understood as a statement meant to describe people who “just don’t get it.” However, (though I have no way to prove this at this point) I suspect there are deeper meanings to such phrases that do not easily transfer across culture, language, and time. Take for example the phrase we use in English—“You drive me up a wall!” How would you explain that to someone who doesn’t speak the English language two thousand years from now?

Recently I reread an article for a writing project that I am working on. The article titled “These have no ears,” was written by Raymond DeMallie, a prominent ethnohistorian of the Plains Sioux Indians. In it, DeMallie argues that when historians read cross-cultural material, they are prone to read the texts out of their own experience. Using documents that were written by government officials recording the negotiation of treaties between the Sioux and the US government, DeMallie points out the frequency with which Sioux spokespersons use phrases similar to those spoken by Jesus centuries earlier, phrases such as, “these have no ears.” There are numerous variations to this phrase used in Sioux speeches, such as “Their ears have not been bored (pierced),” “opening or piercing our ears,” “I have ears to listen…” and so forth. I have always taken such phrases to mean that the person the phrase is directed toward has an inability to comprehend or appreciate what is being spoken or happening because that is what makes sense in my context.

DeMallie goes on to explain that ears play a prominent role in Sioux society. He explains that a Sioux baby was not considered fully human or a member of society until the child had its ears pierced or bored, or little slits cut into their earlobes. Thus, a reference to “having no ears,” or “not having one’s ears pierced” went deeper than simply meaning one was not able to understand what something meant, though, that certainly was part of it. It was a reference that the person the phrase was directed toward had not reached full human maturity. It was a lack of human maturity that prevented the person from comprehending their situation, not their ignorance. This might seem like a minor point, but I think it is an important one to make, because it has ramifications on how we perceive world around us.

As I read DeMallie’s article, my mind kept being tugged toward the mystery of today’s text. Could it be that this was the kind “opening of eyes” that occurred the moment Jesus broke the bread? Was it a “coming of age” for these two followers of Jesus? Had they had become fully human in that moment? Were they now full and prosperous (peaceful) members of society? If so, what does that mean?

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, just prior to Jesus’s trial and execution, Jesus laments the crisis facing the city of Jerusalem, telling his disciples, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” 

We are living in a perilous moment in time. We are becoming weary of many things: being kept apart; being cooped up with people we thought we loved; not being allowed to go to work; not being able to go out to eat at our favorite restaurant; not being able to go boating (though now we can); being required to wear masks in public places; and the list goes on. Our endurance is being tested and there are those that are pushing back. We hear cries for freedom; we hear cries to liberate. These are the same cries Jesus’s followers heralded. They are ironic. They are prophetic. Speaking of Jesus’s death, the high priest Caiaphas unwittingly advised the Jewish leaders that it would be “better to have one person die for the people”  (John 18:14). 

We hear the cry to liberate. Easter is called that “beautiful day.” Slaughterhouses are being closed down. Are our ears “bored” by all of this? Do we have our “shades” on to protect us from the glare of what is happening around us? 

Late last week, Kirstin Vander Geissen-Reitsma gathered many of the thoughts expressed above into a poem about the world, about the Michigan that many of us call home. It speaks of freedom for humanity rather than selfishness cloaked in patriotism. It cries out for things that bring peace, not division. I would like to conclude with the words of her poem. May our eyes and ears be opened to the bread that is being broken around us—to our shared human experience, to a world waiting for the things of peace.


I know what he meant by it,
And I know what I mean:

Liberate Michigan from poverty.

Liberate Michigan
--michigame, "big water"--
From poison water,
And privatized water.

Liberate Michigan from the plague of prisons
And prisons with the plague.

Liberate Michigan from hungry kids:
From kids who dread Christmas break
Because the feast in their 
Is always famine.

Liberate Michigan
From want,
From inequality,
From inaccessibility.

Liberate Michigan from “why we can’t”
And open our borders wide to “how we can.”

The liberation of which he tweets 
Is a small freedom for some, not all;
A tiny battle cry of desperation
Punctuated (lest no one notice) by a gun,
And as your friend, I feel I should let you know: 
Your roots are showing.

We have roots, too,
That we’re not ashamed to show,
And voices in multitude
Amplified by homemade masks.

If we have safe homes, 
We’re working on behalf of those who don’t.

If we have the energy to get out of bed,
We’re phoning our neighbors to check in.

If our bank accounts are in the black,
We’re redistributing the wealth. 

And if we don’t have—
And if we can’t do—
Our cry is the same as it’s always been:
Liberate Michigan.

Because true liberation is for all of us, friends:
Them, too.

-written by Kirstin Vander Geissen-Reitsma

Published by Florence Church of the Brethren Mennonite

We are an Anabaptist community that welcomes all people to join us in the work of local, national, and international peace and justice.

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