A Psychological Analysis of Strangers and Hospitality, Part 1: Why No One Recognized Jesus

My church is currently thinking through what it means to be a person and a community of hospitality and welcome. One of the key ideas we are discussing is the notion of encountering God in the stranger. It is one of the great biblical motifs that God is encountered when we extend hospitality to strangers. I could give many examples of this (Rublev's icon--the Hospitality of Abraham--depicting the events in Genesis 18 is a common place to begin) but my personal favorite place to begin is in a particular reading of the resurrection narratives.

When you read the resurrection narratives a consistent theme in them is how Jesus is never recognized. The most famous example of this comes from the gospel of Luke:

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him...As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.

Weird, huh? But this isn't the only instance of Jesus not being recognized after the resurrection. In the gospel of John Jesus is not recognized by Mary:

Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?"

"They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. "Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."

The disciples also have trouble recognizing Jesus. Again, from the gospel of John:

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. "I'm going out to fish," Simon Peter told them, and they said, "We'll go with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" "No," they answered.

He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you have just caught." Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord.

In this last account it could be suggested that Jesus was not recognized because of distance, the disciples were out on the water and Jesus was on the shore. But John adds this weird little note that, even when sitting right next to Jesus, "none of the disciples dared ask him 'Who are you?' They knew it was the Lord." Why add this curious note? Perhaps they were still not convinced it was Jesus. And yet, John states that this was the third, not the first, time the disciples encountered Jesus. So why are there lingering doubts?

This gets even more curious in the final verses of the gospel of Matthew at the giving of the Great Commission:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Why were some doubting? Clearly they doubted that man in front of them was Jesus. Why? Didn't they recognize him, even after this close contact?

So here's one way I like to think about these texts: The post-resurrection Jesus never appears to us as Jesus. Thus, the post-resurrection Jesus is chronically difficult to recognize, then as now. The post-resurrection Jesus comes to us as a stranger. More strongly, in some mystical ontological way, Jesus is the stranger.

Thus, one way of reading the post-ressurection ethic for followers of Jesus is for Christians to always find Jesus in the stranger. To live in the world as if there were no strangers, with Jesus standing in for everyone I encounter in life. As Jesus said himself:

They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

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5 thoughts on “A Psychological Analysis of Strangers and Hospitality, Part 1: Why No One Recognized Jesus”

  1. I tend to think of the sheep/goats parable as heuristic rather than ontological. Are we to trade the Trinity for an Allity, humanity for Unanity?

    My point would be that it is a lot easier to transform the stranger into a neighbor I am to love than into the Godhead... But I'm not disagreeing, just wanting to see you point as part of a larger theological perspective.

  2. I like this.

    Having started the Heim I'm also seeing the post-resurrection attitude to the stranger in a Girardian perspective - the stranger is easier to scapegoat because the chances of retaliatory violence are lessened when the victim has fewer close friends in the community, so reaching out to and including the stranger is likely to reduce the chances of sacrificial scapegoating taking place!

    I'm not sure that the statement that "in some mystical ontological way, Jesus is the stranger" helps your argument, however. It doesn't seem to be necessary. A liberation-type argument that Christ identifies with the stranger; has a close empathetic relationship with the stranger; Christ takes the side of the stranger; Christ feels the pain of the stranger and shares the joys of the stranger (therefore whatever you do for the least of these you do for me/did not do for the least of these you did not do for me) - wouldn't that be perfectly adequate for the argument, rather than having to invoke a mystical relationship?

  3. Tracy & Tim,
    I see your points. I can see how pushing the reading from an ontological stance embroils it in lots of unneeded debate and probable creates an untenable situation.

    And, at the end of the day, the more conventional reading of these stories (that people were struggling with disbelief and shock rather than having trouble recognizing Jesus) is likely to be more plausible.

  4. You totally just sparked some ideas for my next Sunday morning bible class. This fits right into many of our recent themes; thanks.

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