Emmaus Road

The walk to Emmaus continues the empty tomb narrative.

April 7, 2013

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Commentary on Luke 24:13-35

The walk to Emmaus continues the empty tomb narrative.

The women encounter “two men in dazzling clothes” who tell them that Jesus has risen (24:4). They tell this to the others (verse 9) but they did not believe them (verse 11). Peter did check out the tomb, and though amazed, he went home (verse 13). The account of Easter morning is incomplete without the travel to Emmaus and the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ.

The Emmaus journey appears only in Luke and is sometimes called “the journey of every Christian.” It has all of the elements of the Christian life: discouragement, disappointment, doubt, risk, times of deep faith, the spirit of companionship, interpreting the scriptures, the presence of Christ in the sacraments, profound wonder and incomparable joy in telling others the good news of God made known in the risen Christ.

The gospel of Luke was written sometime in the 80s CE, and this journey narrative from Jerusalem to Emmaus seems to address followers of Christ in every generation — from the first who heard the story to those of us who hear it this year on the second Sunday of Easter.

The Anonymous Disciples
“Now on that same day …” the story continues and connects us to what has just occurred. Two of them are walking away from Jerusalem discussing the things that happened that day (verse 13). One of them is not named. The other, Cleopas, is not mentioned anywhere else among the disciples. The anonymity seems intentional. It is reminiscent of “the women” at the empty tomb, not named but referred to simply as “they.” They were among those who were with Jesus in Galilee and came to Jerusalem with him.[1]

These two travelers belong to this group. The storyteller invites us to identify with the un-named and unknown disciple. They could be any disciple — even you or I. The destiny, Emmaus, is interesting in that it is not mentioned in the scriptures nor is it confirmed by archaeological evidence. Perhaps the destiny is less important than the journey itself. Of course, the final destiny is Jerusalem (verse 33)!

The narrative introduces irony when Jesus joins the two travelers, “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (verse 16, italics mine). They are not being obtuse. They do not recognize Jesus because they are prevented from recognizing him. There is a bit of humor in the irony, when Cleopas suggests that Jesus is the “only stranger in Jerusalem” who doesn’t know what has happened in Jerusalem (verse 18).

The irony functions as a literary device for the reprisal of the events of Holy Week and Easter. We hear them from the experience of the disciples who do not yet know what we know. They tell their story: of Jesus, the prophet before God and all the people; their sense of betrayal by some of their leaders; the crucifixion; and their own devastated hopes. They tell the stranger the astonishing story the women told: the body gone, and the news the angels told that he was alive. The women did not see him, however.

Jesus, the stranger, chides them for their lack of belief (verse 24) and proceeds to interpret the scriptures for them (verse 27). He teaches them that the news the women told should not be surprising. The words here echo what the angels told the women in the tomb: “Remember how he told you…” (verse 6). The repetition and reminder what they were taught may cause us to wonder how they could forget so quickly. Or it might provoke our own awareness of the need to hear what we have heard again and again. The repetition may be for us.

There is an element of risk on this journey. We might miss it because we know the stranger is Jesus, but to the un-named and unknown travelers, he is still a stranger. It is night and it is late. They offered hospitality. No, it is stronger than that. They urged him to stay with them (verse 29). The stranger and guest then becomes Jesus the host. The words Jesus speaks echo the words spoken at the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples (Luke 22:19). We know them well, too, in the sacrament of bread and wine in which we experience the presence of Christ.

In the breaking of bread, the travelers recognize the stranger, and at that very moment he vanishes from their sight (verse 31). They are not disturbed, as we might expect, but rather become fully aware that the stranger who was with them on the journey was indeed the risen Christ. On that very night, they returned to Jerusalem — all seven miles — to tell the others what had happened “on the road” and “in the breaking of the bread” (verse 35). With great joy they tell the good news the women had told them earlier that day. He has risen!

Entering the Story
Where will we enter into the story? Where do our own faith stories resonate with the travelers on the walk to Emmaus? Perhaps we recognize the possibility of seeing the face of Christ in every stranger we meet. We might relate to the disappointment and loss of hope that Cleopas expresses. Or we might take some comfort in hearing that those closest to Jesus faced challenges in sustaining belief just as we do at times.

We might consider the risk of extending hospitality. Or, we could spend some time reflecting on the common bond we share with others in every time and place in the breaking of the bread. We might consider what it would be like to reclaim our love to tell the story of Jesus.

It occurs to me that we are often observers of the gospel stories as if they are a record of events that happened to people long ago. This week we are invited to use our imaginations and hear the walk to Emmaus as a prototype of our own faith journey. As we move through this Easter season, are there some insights we might find in the journey of the two travelers that guide us?

[1] Readers may wish to refer to the Easter Sunday commentary for the Narrative Lectionary.