Commentary on Luke 24:13-35
Only Luke gives us this story: on Resurrection Sunday two disciples encounter the risen Jesus while walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. If it were possible, the passage gives preachers too many options. How can it happen that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16)? They still fail to recognize Jesus even after, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27). How may we avoid the same fate? And who could overlook the Eucharistic moments in their shared meal, “how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:35)? “If we can’t preach this,” some say, “maybe we should consider a more lucrative vocation.”
This may be the Sunday to indulge. I still hear Thomas Long’s textbook1 demand: preachers should identify one clear focus and one focused intention for every sermon. Thirty-odd years on, and I generally write down single sentence declarations for both focus and function. But it’s still Easter! Why not play all the chords?
One line provided by Jesus’ two friends holds these threads together: “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21). I offer this not as an obvious literary claim to which all should assent. Instead, this line helps me imagine why the disciples might not recognize Jesus, why a review of biblical messianic principles is in order, and why the breaking of the bread can offer a resolution for their shattered hopes.
A messiah absolutely should redeem Israel. We do not know how many ancient Judeans and Galileans were expecting a messiah. We lack survey data concerning what folks thought a messiah’s arrival would entail. But our ancient Jewish sources, among which stand the Gospels, suggest that any decent messiah would repair the world, starting with Israel.
If that’s what people thought, we can understand the disciples’ dismay. We professors sometimes overstate things in order to focus students’ attention. I often declare to seminarians and church folk, “If Jesus was the messiah, he wasn’t very good at it.” I do worship Jesus the messiah, but I mean to address precisely why the two disciples and other contemporaries would have experienced distress. They awaited Israel’s redemption. Let us remember the aged Simeon, who encountered the infant Jesus and declared,
My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Matthew 2:30-32).
Yet after Jesus’ death, the Romans remained in charge and the poor still needed good news. Even in Acts, when the disciples know Jesus is risen, their hope remains constant: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
In response to the two disciples’ hope—and to their disappointment—the Risen One lays out “all that the prophets have declared” concerning him (Luke 24:25, 27). “Was it not necessary” for the Messiah to suffer all the things these disciples have described before attaining glory (24:26)?
To the modern reader/hearer, Luke advances an unsettling biblical hermeneutic, and for two reasons. First, the Scriptures just don’t say what the risen Jesus purports them to say, not on any pre-Jesus reading. Scholars have long discussed the Gospels’ “post-resurrection perspective,” how the experience of and conviction about Jesus’ resurrection transformed their understanding of everything. Paul, for example, persecuted the church until he received his own revelation of the risen Jesus. Luke’s post-resurrection perspective generates a certainty that “Moses and the prophets” were speaking about Jesus. We moderns cannot find the details of healing, exorcism, crucifixion, and resurrection in the text of Israel’s Scriptures. That information would not have dissuaded Luke.
Second, Luke’s hermeneutic can be dangerous. Very early on, Jesus’ followers developed the notion that Jews who did not worship Jesus had failed to understand their own Scriptures. That has been the traditional Christian view through the centuries. In my experience it prevails in most churches. And it still nourishes anti-Judaism, most commonly kept among ourselves. Yet theological anti-Judaism also motivates those moved by hate to commit violence. Preachers bear the obligation to dismantle anti-Judaism from the petty to the most despicable.
Only in the breaking of the bread are the disciples’ eyes opened to recognize Jesus (Luke 24:31). But what prevented them this whole time? Many interpreters understand Luke’s use of passive voice—“their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (24:16)—as a divine passive. That is, they credit God with preventing the disciples’ comprehension. That is certainly possible. I find it more compelling to believe it is the disciples’ expectations that prevents their recognition. This is not the context they expected for an encounter with Jesus.
One note: Wise preachers will minimize the metaphors of “seeing” and “perceiving.” This language can marginalize people whose vision is impaired, persons who have likely developed modes of “perception” the rest of us have not.
The meal redefines the disciples’ understanding of Jesus. Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to them (Luke 24:30), the same sequence of actions we recall from his final meal (22:19). The pattern also recalls Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand (9:16). Meals so characterize Jesus’ ministry that Robert J. Karris2 concluded, “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.” Meals will shape Christian gatherings in Acts and on to today precisely because believers recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread (24:35).
We should not alienate ourselves from Jesus’ disciples. We have our own misconceptions about what a messiah should be and do. Easter preachers may well name some of those, for too many Christians entertain a Jesus who grants us political “dominion,” shows us how we can succeed in love and in work, or wants to “bless” us with wealth. These two disciples have something to teach us. Jesus the messiah offers blessings far deeper than any we can imagine on our own. Luke sets the terms for this messiah by handing down a story.
- Long, Thomas. The Witness of Preaching, Third Edition. (WJK Press, 2016).
- Karris, Robert J. Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel. (Liturgical Press, 2006).
April 23, 2023