Commentary on Luke 24:13-35
The walk to Emmaus must have been a dry walk indeed.
A friend in our church had us over to her home recently. Her recently deceased husband had commissioned an artist to paint a picture of Jesus, but he did not want the “sentimental” Jesus, eyes full-to-the-brim with affection and warmth. He explained that he wanted to see Jesus against a barren landscape and a blue sky.
When I looked at the painting, I saw that, indeed, the artist had composed the painting in this way: three figures walked together, one of them using his hands as if teaching. They were coming down from a mountain, following a long road; they did not occupy the center of the picture. Yet the defining feature of the painting was to be found in the three walkers. There was a kind of quiet intensity with them, as if the desert itself were listening. The painting almost invited its viewers to lean into the painting, to make out this conversation, to catch the discourse between teacher and companions.
I have no way of knowing whether the artist had the walk to Emmaus in mind, but it strikes me as an apt image for Luke’s second resurrection appearance.
There are some walks that are longer than others — not because of the miles or even because of the landscape, but because of the burdens. I suspect this was one of the latter type. It was a seven-mile walk, a walk you would notice in your ankles and calves. But the real path they were walking was vastly longer and more difficult — it was the walk of hopes in shambles. It was the walk taken through the valley of disillusionment. It was a walk burdened with perhaps accusation or shame.
The Greek terms used by Luke suggest the intensity of the talk between the two disciples, according to David Lyle Jeffrey. For the conversation, the narrator uses three terms: homileo (from which we get homiletics or homily) and antiballette (a term from rhetoric and forensics, literally, “to put” or “place against”), translated in the NRSV in its gerund form, “discussing” (reflecting in its etymology the sense of a “concussive” exchange of words), and an “emotional” syzeteo (dialogue).1
Now, if you’re reading this commentary, you know this kind of conversation! There have been more times than I care to remember when a theological conversation (and perhaps a sermon or two) felt more like combat than communion. But it doesn’t need to be theology. In our arguments, many of them necessary and important, human beings risk losing sight of each other. The more heated our “discussions” become the more likely we are to disregard the human dimensions of our common journey.
In other words, it is not accidental that Jesus appears in this text as a stranger, with all the ethical obligations this would recall for those who live under Torah. With whom are we walking? Who overhears and who is overlooked when we “exchange words”? How might the testimony of the resurrection — through the witness of a stranger (e.g. undocumented person) inform our seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus?
Luke uses this setting, two disciples engrossed in a conversation while they walk, as one of the contexts for Jesus’ resurrection. Most often, we think of resurrection as the flash of God’s triumph over death dealing powers. And yet Luke gives us a different aspect of this resurrection event, which is less “flash” of light and more the gentle probing of our heart’s entanglements on the road to our next chapter.
Luke’s narrator employs irony to begin that gentle disentanglement: “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them” (verse 15). Readers “recognize” Jesus but the disciples, of course, do not. And then, perhaps without them even knowing he was walking alongside (stranger or otherwise), Jesus questions them: “What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?” (verse 17).
Drawn up short by this question, which seemed perhaps impossible to imagine, Cleopas answers Jesus’ question with a question of his own: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” (verse 18).
A hint of sarcasm in Cleopas’ response? Anger? Perhaps. In any case, Jesus doesn’t take the bait and simply repeats the question: “What things?”
Some might describe what follows as a therapeutic discourse, as Jesus’ question helps them name, in a succinct way, the bare bones of their struggle. A therapist stands as a stranger to our inner troubles — and thus acts as an “uninitiated” and “neutral” party that must be introduced to the dimensions of the problem. The “patients” in this case disclose disappointment and perhaps deep sickness.
For instance, the disciples characterize the resurrection report of the women as unbelievable, perhaps reflecting their view that the women were suffering from a psychological disturbance. Jeffrey notes that the term translated as “idle tale” in the NRSV and as “nonsense” in the NIV is a physician’s term to describe “the delirious babblings of very sick persons.”2 Given the inability of the disciples to recognize Jesus, it would stand to reason that they would regard the women’s testimony as nonsense. Stated more sharply: it is not the women who are delirious.
One problem you might find in the translation of this text, especially if you follow the “therapeutic” trajectory suggested here, is Jesus’ entry into the dialogue: “… how foolish you are” (verse 25). Jeffrey believes it would be more accurate to translate the Greek here as “foolish” (NRSV and NIV) to something like a term of endearment: “You sweet dummies! How could you miss this?”3
Luke’s narrator fills this account of the resurrection with the paradox of the Christ who is stranger and companion. Two quotes from Augustine convey the beautiful paradox: “The teacher was walking with them along the way and he himself was the way.” “And because they observed hospitality, him who they knew not yet in the expounding of scriptures, they suddenly know in the breaking of bread.”4
What does it mean to meet the resurrection on the road, as a stranger, when we are between places and perhaps beside ourselves? What are the ethical dimensions of this text, especially the encounter with Jesus as a “stranger in a strange land”? Do we take this “resurrection” — this homeless one — into our homes? Argument, whether theological or otherwise, is often a struggle for triumph; by contrast, acts of mercy speak the quiet word of communion.
1) David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), 284.
2) Ibid., 283.
3) Ibid., 285.
4) Augustine, Sermon (235.1-2) and Harmony of the Gospels (3.25) as quoted in Jeffrey, Luke, 286.