Exploring the Road to Emmaus

The following piece is a short exploration of the narrative around the Road to Emmaus written for a Symposium on Scriptural Reasoning which took place in late January 2020  in Jerusalem.

Luke 24 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

24 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The account of what happened on the road to Emmaus gives an opportunity to look at the revelation of Jesus from an unusual perspective. We follow Cleopas and an unknown other as they walk away from everything that had just occurred in recent days to hide away in the small village of Emmaus. A village, that on first glance may seem insignificant, it only has this one small mention in the Gospel of Luke and none of the other Gospel writers mention it. However, Emmaus historically seems to stand as a place with a reputation for homegrown resistance: in I Maccabees 3:40-4:15 it is the site where greatly outnumbered Jewish guerrillas heroically defeated Syrian invaders, and Josephus notes that the Roman Emperor Vespasian made a point, after the Judean Revolt of 70AD, of settling 800 military veterans at “a place called Emmaus.”[1]

Although the disciples knew who Jesus was, they did not recognise Him. They knew a lot about him, and they had been witness to everything that had happened in Jerusalem. They had heard, no doubt, on many occasions the things which Jesus had testified about Himself. But even after all of this they were unable to recognise Jesus as they met Him. There are a variety of reasons why they did not recognise Him as they walked along:

The use of the Greek word ekratounto (κρατοντο) (Lk. 24:16) conveys the sense that they were prevented from recognising Him because God had a purpose in blinding their eyes from reality. Jesus’ gradual revelation of himself allows them to learn certain lessons about trusting God’s promises. The disciples had been told about these events many times but had not believed.

They had a preconceived idea about who Jesus was, what He had come to do, and how He should do it. When events did not occur as they thought they should, they dismissed the whole thing as a failure, believing they had misplaced their hope and trust. They were clearly discussing reality deeply as they walked along – not merely having a philosophical discussion. The word used in Greek is homīloun (μίλουν)[2] which is only used otherwise in two places in the Book of Acts (Acts 20:11 and 24:26) where it is clear that this is a discussion of real occurrences rather than philosophical points.

They had heard the reports of the women who went to the tomb. They had seen the empty tomb for themselves and yet they had not believed. The supernatural working of God to raise Jesus from the dead was outside their sphere of understanding. They did not have even the slightest thought that this ‘stranger’ standing in their midst and talking with them would be Jesus. In Luke they are described as “foolish” (Lk. 24:25), the Greek word anontoi (νόητοι) is used here referring more simply to those who do not quite understand, those who find the truth as yet unintelligible.[3] Jesus knows that their hearts are “sluggish” because they forever refuse to embrace the counterintuitive wisdom of the Hebrew prophets.

This refusal to notice an occurrence or the inability to see the reality in front of your eyes is captured in a famous photograph by Joseph Louw of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. where three men are standing over the body of King pointing towards the assailant whilst another kneels by his side, it was later confirmed that the man kneeling was Merrell McCullough, a government agent who had apparently infiltrated the group surrounding King. One can imagine that those Martin Luther King spent the next few days trying to work out what had really happened , why and how their leader had been killed, who was behind it, what it means for the civil rights movement, and whether they might be next on the list. The discussion on the Emmaus road would have been very similar. It is in this world that Luke’s narrative lives, a world where everyone is trying to figure out what is going on from their own perspective.

Joseph Leow photo showing the aftermath of the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr

Jesus, on the other hand, embraces this trauma. He doesn’t scold Cleopas and his companion for mixing religion and politics, nor does he offer them a simple word of consolation. Instead he walks with them for a while and then begins a Bible Study. As Ched Myers puts it, this is

“the first recorded Bible study in the life of an Easter church that hasn’t even been birthed yet at Pentecost. “OK, fellas,” Jesus says, “it’s a bad time, alright. So open your Bibles to the prophets and let’s reread history together under the Shadow of Death.”[4]

In the first half of the Emmaus narrative, the primary appearance of the Risen Christ is as a stranger. But, in the second half we see him famously revealed in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:28-32). In the midst of all that is going on the two disciples exclaim “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was talking to us on the road, while he was opening up the scriptures to us?” (Lk. 24:32). The only other times that the word dianoigen (διήνοιγεν) is used speak of deaf ears, closed womb, and a hardened heart.[5] This underscores the point of the conversation on the Emmaus road: our view of traumatic historical events is not ultimately a matter of rational thinking but of opening blind eyes, deaf ears, and hard hearts to the difficult truth of discipleship under the Shadow of Death.

From the narrative of the encounter on the Emmaus road we can derive a number of main points which speak directly to us leading from the revelation of Jesus to Cleopas and his compatriot. Ched Myers at the end of his chapter on Emmaus, lists 4 of these points:

  1. The resurrected Jesus appears first as a stranger – indeed, as one needing hospitality. Let this be a Christological lesson to the Church!

  2. Rather than standing idly among peaceable religious folk who are insulated and aloof from the world, this Risen Christ is moving alongside disciples who are in trouble because they have sought to change it.

  3. Jesus is pastoral, seeking to know the pain of those struggling with a specifically political context, rather than offering saccharine spiritual assurances of personal immunity from historical consequences.

  4. Yet he is also prophetic, his biblical analysis centred around a fierce prophetic hermeneutic in order to reframe the empire’s historiography with the alternative story of transformation from the margins.[6]

[1] Wars VII:6:6

[2] The base word from which the practice of homiletics is derived

[3] cf. Rom. 1:14; Gal. 3:1, 3

[4] Ched Meyers, ‘Easter Faith and Empire: Recovering the Prophetic Tradition on the Emmaus Road’, in Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel, ed. by Peter Laarman (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), pp. 51–67.

[5] cf. Mark 7:34-45; Luke 2:23; Luke 24:31, Acts 16:14

[6] Meyers.

Cover Photo: Mile posts at Nahal Ilan, the route between Jerusalem and Emmaus.

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