Luke 24:13-35, On the Road to Emmaus

[May 4, 2014] This Sunday the Gospel text is from the resurrection account of Luke: of when Jesus caught up with two people walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus and kept his identity veiled from them until, invited to their dwelling, he broke the bread at the meal and offered the prayer of thanksgiving. One can imagine his grin when they suddenly recognized him and he disappeared from their sight.

That morning—it was the day after the Sabbath, the first day of the week, during the celebration of Passover (the Biblical Feast of Unleavened Bread)—a group of the disciples—not just the eleven remaining of the original Twelve, but others too—were gathered in Jerusalem, probably bunking together, their minds and emotions still reeling from the shock of Jesus’ death two days earlier. Suddenly the women from their group, who had left early in the morning with the spices they had prepared to attend to the body of Jesus laying in the tomb, returned in a state of great excitement. Probably talking all at once, they told how when they got to the tomb, they found the stone covering its opening rolled away, exposing the Lord’s body to marauding animals and robbers, thus adding insult to injury. When they went into the tomb, however, they discovered that the body had been removed.

As they stood there wondering what had happened and what to do next, two men suddenly showed up. Their garments were luminous, radiating light, and this frightened them. Instinctively they bowed their heads to the ground, terrified. What supernatural visitation was this? With their hearts beating furiously they heard them speak, “Why look among the dead for someone who is alive? He is not here; he has risen.” (Literally, this last word is in the passive voice: it means someone—namely God—has raised him: “he has been raised.”) The words are easy enough to understand, but you can imagine the grief-stricken women trying to get their minds around them. The body is not here … he is not dead? They saw his crucifixion, they witnessed his body being taken from the cross and Joseph of Arimathea wrapping it in linen cloth and laying it in the tomb. They knew well enough that Jesus was dead and gone. There was no one around who could raise him like he had raised Lazarus. Now, he is alive? He has been raised? These two men were no ordinary messengers who said this (they must have been angels; see verse 23). They women could not scoff at what was told them. Yet, how could such news, too impossibly good to be true, be true? Dare any of them even believe it for a second, to give their hearts this brief flutter of respite, for fear that it might not be true?

The men spoke more. “Remember,” they said, “what he told you (women) when he was still in Galilee: that the Son Man was destined to be handed over into the power of sinful men and be crucified, and rise again on the third day.” (Here the verb “rise” is in the active voice.) Yes, they remembered. Luke tells us of three occasions when Jesus told his disciples that he would both be killed and rise again. The first time was in Caesarea-Philippi; the second time was when Jesus and Peter, James and John had descended from the slope of Mount Hermon; and the third time was outside Jericho. None of those occasions were in Galilee, so it is not clear when Jesus said this in the presence of these women (whether it was on another occasion or whether the northern locations were being conflated with Galilee). But in any case, the women remembered that Jesus had said this, and now they understood.

They rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the others. Probably, after the group calmed them down, the ones who mostly spoke were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The last woman named, Mary the mother of James, was probably the wife of one of the men who were present, Cleopas. It is likely that this Mary was the sister of Joseph, Jesus’ father (yes, adoptive though he was; see 2:48), and therefore Jesus’ aunt, making this James his cousin and Cleopas his paternal uncle. Alternatively, Cleopas might have been Mary’s father, not her husband, making Cleopas Jesus’ great-uncle on his father’s side.

Cleopas is spelled Clopas in John 19:25 where it is said that she is the sister of the mother of Jesus, probably meaning her sister-in-law, i.e., Joseph’s sister; so says Hegissipus, the second-century Christian chronicler. In Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40 this Mary had another son as well: there was Jacob (James) “the younger” and also Joseph (or Joses). Jesus had probably chosen James “the younger” to be one of the Twelve, if he is the same as the one also known as “James the son of Alphaeus” in Matthew 10:3; Luke 6:15 and Mark 3:18. Cleopas and Alphaeus are two different Greek spellings of the Aramaic name Hilfai (or Hilfi in Hebrew): in transliteration the “H” was commonly dropped or replaced by a “K.”

The Eleven and the others with them, of course, did not believe what the women told them. “This story of theirs seemed pure nonsense.” Luke used a medical term that refers to “the wild talk of delirium.” In other words, having found the tomb empty, the women became hysterical and imagined this craziness. Men can be dismissive of women because women tend to be more emotional, not realizing that their own insecurities make them just as (or more) likely to imagine things that aren’t there or to distort what they see.

Simon, called “Rock” by Jesus (Peter), however, thought that their report of the empty tomb needed verification, or, in any case, he wanted to see for himself. He got up, tightened the cincture around his waist, and—along with some others (see verse 24)—ran to the tomb; and, stooping to look in, sure enough, he found it empty except for the linen cloths. He returned and told the others. Everyone was now astounded and confused (thauma in verse 12 and existēmi in verse 22), but it seems that no one, except the women who first went to the tomb, believed that the explanation for the empty tomb was that Jesus had risen and indeed was alive.

That happened in the morning. At some point Cleopas and a companion left Jerusalem and headed for Emmaus, a village about seven miles away (or a two-hour walk). We do not know who his companion was nor what the person’s gender was. It has been suggested that it was his wife, even though Cleopas spoke of the women who had gone to the tomb in the morning as “they” and the rest of them as “we.” He could have spoken that way, though it would seem rude to us; but it is unlikely that Mary would have been “downcast,” “gloomy” or “sad,” which is how Luke describes both of them in verse 17 (the word he used is skuthrōpos, meaning having a sullen look). Probably, then, it was a male companion.

They were walking on the road talking about what had happened that morning, especially as it related to all that had transpired in the last few days. They were still in a state of shock from the surprise and the utter horror of the crucifixion. It was utterly devastating for them, annihilating their entire mental landscape that they had been building over the last few years with respect to Jesus and their expectations about the future. They were at a complete loss. That the tomb had now apparently been violated, and the body of Jesus taken, was one more thing to add to the tragedy, unless what the women had said was true, but that couldn’t possibly be. The women were understandably hysterical, and “like women,” they imagined what they wanted to see.

The emotionally exhausted companions talked like this when another traveler on the road caught up with them and began walking with them. They spoke more quietly to keep their conversation private, but this fellow obviously wanted to be in on whatever they were talking about, even though it must have been obvious how sad they were. “What are all these things that you are discussing as you walk along,” he said. That was when they stopped walking. Obviously he had overheard them. Okay; they were willing to explain.

It is interesting that they did not recognize Jesus. They knew him well, yet they only saw a complete stranger. Luke tells us “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” The verb is in the passive voice, so again, the implication is that God prevented them from doing so. The addition to Mark’s gospel, which was probably added later by Mark to the gospel he himself had composed based on Peter’s reminiscences and conflation of Matthew and Luke, says that Jesus “showed himself under another form to two of them as they were on their way into the country” (16:12). I do not know if this is helpful, since I have no idea what it means. Obviously there was no mistaking this stranger for a ghost as in Luke 24:37. And Jesus obviously did not look like somebody else. Yet they mistook him for an ordinary traveler.

From Jesus’ perspective, he is playing with them. He knows they do not recognize him and he maintains the ruse until the last minute (I’m assuming that he had intended the revelation in verse 31). He pretends that he is someone else the whole time. Someone might call that a deception. If, however, he is doing it playfully, we do not regard it so. Later, when they got to Emmaus, he acted as if (pretended) he was going to keep going. He let them press him to stay, which seems as if it was what he had intended in any case. The deception is a ploy, intended only for the sake of unveiling what was true.

We get a glimpse here of Jesus’ personality, which is consistent with how Jesus is often portrayed. He is unfailingly self-confident and sure of himself, and he likes to play with people, leading them on and speaking enigmatically, only to surprise them with his point. One can often imagine a gleam in his eye, or a grin. (Other times he can be just as self-assured in his writhing criticism or scolding.) What is interesting here is that Jesus is being playful like this on the day of his resurrection. In our time, 48 hours ago he was on the cross. For him it may have seemed less, possibly much less, depending on what passing of time he was conscious of when his body laid dead in the tomb. He was in unimaginable agony. Yet here he is, completely recovered from what he had gone through. To me, that seems far more miraculous than the fact that they did not recognize him. I am, in fact, reminded of C. S. Lewis’ Aslan arising from the dead, fully maned and powerful and letting out that awesome roar that could be heard from miles away. Jesus is not now letting out such a roar, but he in any case seems none the worse for wear!

For those of you who believe this story is all just made up, I ask you to still follow along with the narrative, for this is still the “fiction” (if you will) that Luke is trying to convey.

When Jesus intrudes himself into their private conversation and they decide to let him in, knowing that he had overheard some of what they had been saying, the first thing they say is, “You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.” They say “staying” with reference to all the pilgrims who were temporarily lodging in and about Jerusalem for the Passover festivities. It could also be translated as a question, “Are you staying [somewhere] alone as a visitor to Jerusalem [that] you do not know …” etc. The difference is between, “Are you the only one staying?” and “Are you staying alone?”

In either case, Jesus plays along. “What things?” he asks, pretending to be completely ignorant so that they will recount everything from the beginning.

For them, as for most of the disciples, Jesus was the prophet from Nazareth whom they hoped was the Messiah, the one who was going to set Israel free (i.e., redeem Israel), presumably from its historical contingency under the judgment of God. They felt sure—even before the events of Palm Sunday when Jesus allowed and even encouraged his disciples to acclaim him as the “son of David” and “king of Israel”—that “the kingdom of God was going to show itself at any moment” (Luke 19:11). Maybe it would be during the Passover itself. Yet within hours of the Passover Seder Jesus was arrested by the Jewish leaders (the Temple chief priests and the elders of the Sanhedrin, the powerful people of Jerusalem) and dragged to the high priest who handed him over to the pagan governor. There was no trial (the bullying and harassment during the night and the mockery of a trial before the governor at dawn had nothing legal about it, either by Jewish or Roman standards), and by nine o’clock in the morning Jesus had been beaten and scourged and was hung naked on a gibbet to die by torture. People were still sleeping. There was hardly enough time for even all of Jesus’ disciples to have gotten word. Yet in a few hours all Jerusalem was aware of the injustice that had been done in their name, and whether they liked Jesus (like the majority of the pilgrims) or found him a public menace (the attitude of a lot of people in Jerusalem), it was shocking and appalling—everyone hated Roman oppression, which this surely represented to everyone. How could this stranger, whom Cleopas and his companion were talking to, have missed all this? Two days had gone by for the news to have reached him.

Then they told him what had happened that morning concerning Jesus’ tomb: the insult upon injury. How sad that the hysterical women had gotten their hopes up.

Now it was this stranger’s turn to talk. “You foolish men!” he exclaimed. “So slow [are you] to believe all that the prophets have said!” Literally he said that they were stupid and “slow of heart to believe the thing” on the basis of (epi) all that the prophets had said. What thing? “Was it not necessary that the Christ [the Messiah] should suffer before entering his glory?” They clearly understood the association of the Messiah and “his glory.” God would glorify him and he would rule over all, not only Israel but also over all the pagan nations, after he had delivered Israel and vanquished all of Israel’s enemies. This much they had learned from the writings of the prophets and been taught in the synagogue. What was new to them was what until that moment they could not grasp: that the Messiah would have to suffer.

Yet if they had been paying attention to Jesus all this time they should not have been so surprised. But like all of us, they were so caught up in their own assumptions and expectations that they heard from Jesus what they wanted to hear. Like us, no one is prepared for what is radically new and unprecedented.

Yet this was neither new nor unprecedented. It is patterned time and again throughout the Scriptures: the Torah, the Former and Later prophets (the historical books and the books of the prophets, excluding Daniel), and the Writings (including the Psalms, other chronicle and narrative books, and Daniel). It is patterned and sometimes the words seem practically explicit, that yes, the “Coming One” would suffer. Jesus (still a stranger to them, and one completely out of the loop on current events) then spent the remainder of their time on the road explaining to them passage after passage in the Bible (from memory of course) that demonstrated this, and that spoke about himself.

What was going on in Cleopas and his companion while this very erudite “stranger”—probably a rabbi—spoke to them? They did not even realize it at the time, but later they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”

This was more than the Scriptures coming to life for them. Think of the Hebrew Scriptures. They are mere consonants on the page. The aspirations and vowel markings were added later. The consonants are not intelligible words until the consonants are lifted off the page and given voice, given aspiration and vowels, until, that is, they are spoken aloud by being given breath. There is the speaker who speaks forth (giving breath to his or her words), and a scribe captures the words on the page with letters. But the letters are dead until they are spoken and given breath again. God is the speaker of Scripture. The Spirit of God is the breath of God. And the text of the Scriptures are the dead bones of the words once spoken that need to be given life again by the Spirit of God. This is what Jesus does: he breathes into the words of Scripture with the Spirit of God and they come alive again as the Word of God—always revealing himself.

When, now, Cleopas and his companion took in these living words, the words set their hearts on fire. This fire was different that the smoldering that the psalmist spoke about in Psalm 39:3. It was more like Jeremiah 20:9-11, where it is YHWH’s word that was the occasion for the prophet to say, “There seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not do it. I heard so many disparaging me … but YHWH is at my side like a mighty hero!” Jesus said, “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!” It awaited the “baptism” that he had to complete (namely, his death; Luke 12:49-50). This fire was symbolized by “the tongues as of fire” that arrived on what sounded like “a violent wind” and “separated and came to rest on the head of each” of the 120 disciples assembled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3-4). This burning in their hearts, ignited by the Holy Spirit giving life to the words of Scriptures, revealing the truth about Jesus, was transformative and prepared them to have their eyes opened when Jesus took the role of the host and, having said the Jewish prayer of thanksgiving, broke the loaf of bread before them.

Well, the companions arrived at their destination and Jesus “made as if” (pretended) to go on. “But they pressed him to stay with them saying, “It is nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” The rules of hospitality, unlike the cruelty of our own culture, impelled them to make this invitation. They no doubt wanted him to stay so they could continue their conversation. Whether they could believe yet what he was telling them, it gave them hope. Perhaps all was not as meaningless as it had seemed. Since this stranger began to explain the Scriptures to them, their sense of defeat had lifted and they wanted to believe him, they wanted to believe that that was what the Scriptures taught. After a moment of hesitation, Jesus gave in to their urgings and agreed to stay with them, as if he had any other intention.

Surely this erudite stranger, who not only knew the contents of the Scriptures but could cull them all together and interpret them, was either a rabbi or a scribe. Naturally they asked their guest to give the Jewish blessing over the bread. He accepted and took the loaf, raised his eyes to heaven, and in Hebrew said the thanksgiving (the Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharistia) before he broke the loaf and gave it to them—which was when he looked at them and (I imagine) grinned.

Suddenly they recognized him. It was at the moment when he broke the loaf. Their jaws must have dropped. They were floored, but before they could get any words together to say, he disappeared from their sight. He vanished; he became invisible to them. Where did he go? Where was he? He was, in fact, everywhere.

Of course, they raced back to Jerusalem to the others, to tell them that, after all, the silly women were right. He is alive; he has been raised; he is risen and they have seen him! By the time they got back to Jerusalem, about five hours had passed; but during that time Jesus also appeared to Simon (Peter). Perhaps he had seen Peter first and then met them on the road. Or perhaps he saw Peter at the same time he was walking with them. For someone who was no longer bound by space or time, either was possible. Where will he appear next? (He was going to appear to them within minutes.)

“He was made known to them in the breaking of the loaf.” It is doubtless that there is no coincidence that the order of this narrative follows the order of Christian worship. The disciples gather, hear a range of scriptures, hear the scriptures expounded whereby they remember Jesus, and then break the bread and bless the cup. It follows the order of worship in the synagogue: the scriptures read and then expounded, followed by the blessing of the cup. Christians neither invented this nor did they acquire it from the pagans. It followed the pattern of what they were used to.

Notice, however, two differences: as the scriptures are read and expounded, the disciples remembered Jesus (the scriptures are not expounded for their own sake and what can be learned from them, but are “about” (peri) Jesus; the scriptures are in this way “opened up” (dianoi) by the explanation.

And when the disciples thus remembered Jesus, their eyes were opened (the same word, dianoi) and they recognized (epigiskō in verse 31; he having been made known to them—giskō, in the passive voice—as they said in verse 35) Jesus’ actual presence among them in the breaking of the bread. It is not that he was suddenly present, but that he had been present and is still, whenever we gather in his Name. But the action of remembering Jesus as we break bread opens the eyes of our spirit so that we can recognize his real presence. This gathering unto Jesus and beholding him becomes an act of worship that reconstitutes us as his body until we meet again.

Jesus began from the Torah and went through the former and later Prophets (he adds the Psalms in verse 44) to explain the things concerning himself. In the synagogue gathering there is always a reading from the Torah which is followed by a reading from the Prophets. In the Christian gathering we ought to read from the Old Testament (if possible from both the Torah and either the Histories or Prophets), the Psalms (which are the prayers of the church), and from both parts of the New Testament, the gospels representing the reminiscences of Jesus’ witnesses (the Gospel being the story of Jesus) and the apostolic writings reflecting the Gospel on the life of the churches. My observation is that there is far too little scripture reading in the public worship of our churches. Churches that have a daily morning and evening office do better.

In addition, the preaching (or sermon) are not about Jesus and his spiritual significance for us and the world (and the whole creation) but tend to be on ethical and political problems. Joseph Campbell rightly calls this “a betrayal of the human race.” He says, “This substitution of social work, or heavy involvement in regulating the intimate decisions of family life, has nothing to do with the real calling of the clergy to open to their people the dimensions of the meaning of the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus.” I cannot say it better, except to point out that this responsibility falls not only on the “clergy” but on all those who share the Christian message with others. Our preaching ought to be on another level than our ordinary discourse on the world’s problems; it ought to be about the “mystery” of Jesus so that we may know his presence among us and what that means. For if we grasped that, surely we can no longer be the people we were. We will have become grounded in reality, at last.

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