The Questions of Jesus: "What are you discussing as you walk along?"

Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, "What are you discussing as you walk along?" They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?" And he replied to them, "What sort of things?" They said to him, "The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one do redeem Israel..." (Luke 24:13–21)

Drawing near to two disciples as they walked seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the first morning of the Resurrection, Jesus asks the troubled travelers, What are you discussing as you walk along? (v. 17). They are discussing what had happened in recent days, how the one to whom they had dedicated their lives had been put to death, how their hope died with him, how they were downcast and sorrowful, but also how they were strangely confused by the nonsensical news they received of an empty tomb and an angelic announcement of new life.

The irony is remarkable as they tell their story to the only person who has absolutely no need of an account of the things that have taken place. But Jesus asks, and he listens.

Only after listening does Jesus tell them who the messiah really is — the one they were really hoping for, in the secret depths of their hearts and well beyond the limits of their imaginations. They thought they knew the scriptures, but he himself is the light by which they can see what they were not capable of seeing before.

And though Jesus is the one who knows fully, he still gives them yet another opportunity to speak; and they use that opportunity to invite him inside, to dine with them (v. 29). It is there, inside their home, that he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them, making himself known to them as the one they always desired but never fully knew. Their eyes had been prevented from seeing him because they were blinded by their own expectations, they had hoped in the wrong things, and their imaginations were too small to see what God had been doing in those days—and so they had been doomed to suffer.

But they came to know him, Jesus — their love, their hope — as the one who asked them what they were going through, who let them invite him in, who took their bread to bless and break and share as the gift of himself. It would not have been enough for Jesus to broadcast an announcement of the saving mysteries of those sacred days because the whole point is that he himself is the Word of God who asks humanity wounded by sin, “What are you going through?” And he listens by entering in; he heals by sharing in that pain; and he blesses by making that wounded old thing something new in his love.

This single episode is the Gospel, whole and entire. The Good News is that God asks us “What are you going through?” — and he listens, he understands, and he does something about it, in person.

This does not mean, of course, that we always have the right idea about what we are going through — after all, the Word that created heaven and earth rightly exercises the authority to call us “foolish” from time to time (see v. 25). But even then the Lord gives us the chance to speak, to put into our own words what we are going through. Apparently, it matters to God that we speak and, even more, God is willing to listen. On the authority of Jesus and all the scriptures that, as one, testify to who he is as God-with-us, we come to recognize that God always listens to what we are going through, always sympathizes with our weakness, and always acts on our behalf (see Heb 4:14–16).

In the weeks since the pre-synod gathering of young people at the Vatican in March, there has been a strange debate afoot about whether or not the Church should listen to young people for the purposes of the upcoming synod. This is a ridiculous debate. It is ridiculous not because it is obvious that the answer lies on one side or the other of the purported dichotomy, but because the question itself is so ill-conceived. The question presumes that either young people have the truth or the Church has to teach it to them. The question is mired in a consumer-provider mindset.

On air, a commentator recently caused a stir by pointedly asking, "Why are we listening to young people, who really haven’t experienced a lot of life, or God, frankly?" This line of thinking calls into question the entire effort of a pre-synod meeting of young people, and the surveys that were open to young people around the world to gather perspectives, and even the reports from dioceses that were generated, in part, from discussions with young people. Young people, it would seem, are consumers of what "the Church" provides. And hidden in this kind of accusatory question is the assumption that those who are older already posses and thus can supply what the young people need. 

In response, one of the more measured commentators observed that "Jesus began many of his most profound evangelical encounters by asking questions." This is true, but as I have been trying to show in this series on the "Questions of Jesus", Jesus' questions almost always (if not always) serve to upset the commonplace thinking of his listeners, to reveal the hidden secrets of hearts, and to reset the whole encounter on another level – namely, one that he himself establishes. His questions provoke an examination of conscience and demand a greater openness to his divine mission. No one is on secure ground when Jesus starts asking questions. 

We see this play out here in this scripture passage on the way to Emmaus, where Jesus’ questions are actually rather humorous. Jesus is asking these travelers to tell him about what he alone knows in full detail – that is, about what happened to him over the course of the past three days. And yet he does ask, and he does listen, and it seems quite obvious that it matters that they speak. He wants to know what they are discussing as they walk along (v. 17, 19). What they have to say and how they tell things matters to him and, we may assume, it matters for them, in the long-run. After listening, Jesus then gets to work and his work overturns the whole dialogue and he cures them of what ails them, filling them with the food he alone can give and setting them free to proclaim the good news (vv. 30–35). 

This would seem to be the better, more Gospel-like approach to the upcoming synod on young people. In the name of Jesus, the Church should and must ask young people what they are going through. It should and must listen to what they have to say. And it should and must correct them when necessary, teach them when necessary, cure them when necessary, and overturn things when necessary.

At the same time, no one in the Church is himself or herself the Lord, and therefore even the most mature of disciples must be willing to be corrected and taught and healed through the witness of young people. None of us is master of the Eucharist or of Divine Mercy. The Lord himself walks among us and oftentimes we do not recognize him. But if we speak and listen to each other – humbly and without suspicion – and even more pray together in his name, then he himself will take in what we have to say and give us back what we need, which is always far more than we could have expected.

What will that look like for the upcoming synod? It will look much more like treating each other charitably, listening patiently to one another, responding skillfully especially when we disagree, teaching generously, and witnessing to the faith in all that we do.

If we want to attract young people in the Church, then we have to show them the power of charity. If we want to offer to them the riches of the Church from her entire tradition, then it is our responsibility to display the beauty of those riches by renewing our commitment to them, including but not limited to devotions, works of mercy, and acts of proclamation. And if we who are older and more experienced want to be renewed in love ourselves, then we must also allow ourselves to be surprised and perhaps even transformed by what young people may themselves bring forward. In some instances, they may in fact know better than we who are older how the Lord is walking with us.

Prayer: Lord, help me to speak to you honestly and listen to you with even greater openness.

Note: The first part of this piece is taken from a section of chapter 1 of my book, What Matters Most: Empowering Young People for Life's Big Decisions (Ave Maria, 2018),