The lectionary readings for the Third Sunday in Easter ignore the particular gospel for the year, and instead cycle round Luke 24 and John 21: in Year B we have the second half of Luke 24, Jesus meeting the group of frightened disciples; in Year C, the miraculous catch of fish in John 21; and in this Year A the story in the first half of Luke 24 of the disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The narrative is long and detailed, and (like the long detailed narratives at the start of Luke) contributes to this being the longest of the four gospels, a good 1,000 words longer than Matthew (even though it has fewer chapters).
But it is also wonderfully engaging, not only beautifully structured, but full of irony and humour as well.
The story of the road to Emmaus is one of the most powerful stories in the Bible and certainly one of Luke’s greatest achievements as a storyteller (Mikeal Parsons, Paideia commentary, p 349).
The story has a clear sense of movement, which we can see by noting how many times travelling, walking, stopping and journeying on is mentioned; the idea of the disciples being on a journey fits with a large theme of Luke’s gospel, in which he has organised the whole central section of Jesus’ teaching and ministry as part of a journey to Jerusalem from Luke 9.51 to 19.48. But there is an implied ironic reversal: in the main part of the gospel, Jesus is on a journey, and the question is whether the (potential and actual) disciples will join with him; here, the disciples are on a journey, in many sense in the wrong direction, and it is Jesus who joins them, the result of which is a change in their direction of travel.
Most commentators notice the chiastic structure of the story (a pattern of inverted parallelism), but Joel Green’s (in his NICNT commentary) is the most detailed:
If Green is right, then though the recognition by the disciples is a key moment for them, the story in fact pivots around the fact that Jesus is in fact alive and comes to join them on the road.
For many readers, the story seems to bring together the classic pairing of word and sacrament, as Jesus both opens the Scriptures and then is ‘recognised in the breaking of the bread’. But reading the story carefully, in the context of Luke’s whole narrative, suggests something different.
The previous episode, in the first 12 verses of Luke 24, correlate quite closely with the account of the empty tomb in John 20, though with different emphases. Luke and John agree that women went to the tomb first, that they reported what they had found to the male disciples, that Peter ran to the tomb, bent down, and saw the linen strips. But Luke emphasises the role of the group of women (as he has done earlier in his account), and the negative response of the men; they think that what the women say is ‘utter nonsense’ using the very strong word leros, and they ‘disbelieved them’, using the verb apistueo that is cognate with the description of Thomas’s response in John 20.27.
Luke is quite careful in his identification of the time and the place. The journey takes place ‘on the same day’ as the previous events, that is, on the Sunday when Jesus was raised. The village of Emmaus has never been confidently identified from either archaeology or manuscript evidence, but Luke specifies that it is 60 stadia, or about seven miles, from Jerusalem. It is perfectly possible to imagine that, for disconsolate disciples, wearily trudging along, this journey could easily take the best part of the day—but that the return journey could be completed in less than two hours by them when excited and motivated.
The story unfolds carefully. The two disciples are unnamed at the beginning, and then, as the story progresses, we learn in Luke 24.18 that one of them is called Cleopas. This appears to be the same person whose wife (or possibly daughter, ‘Mary of Cl[e]opas’) remains at the cross in John 19.25, and that has led to speculation that the other disciple is indeed this Mary. This would fit with Luke’s repeated use of male-female pairs throughout his gospel—but he does not specify this, which would be odd if it were the case. Perhaps the second person remains unnamed deliberately, so that you, the reader, can put yourself in the story alongside Cleopas.
We are told that they were ‘talking and discussing’ ‘all the things that had happened’. The emphasis here is that they are debating with each other, and trying to puzzled out what they cannot yet make sense of. It is only in the conversation with Jesus that we learn the content of ‘all the things’ in summary form.
Luke is emphatic: it is ‘Jesus himself’ who draws near; interestingly, the language of ‘drawing near’ is exactly the same language Jesus has used about the ‘drawing near’ of the kingdom of God at the beginning of his own preaching (Mark 1.15). That they ‘were kept from recognising him’ doesn’t suggest that Jesus changed his form in any sense; again, it is a common theme in Jesus’ resurrection appearances (compare Mary Magdalene’s experience in John 20.14).
At this point, the text is full of vivid detail, pathos and irony. Jesus’ enquiry appears to the discussion which is holding their sense of grief, and it all pours out—so much so that they are stopped in their tracks and look downcast. And the wonderful irony is that they ask ‘Are you the only one who does not know…?’ when of course they are addressing the only one who really does know!
The summary of what has happened is characteristic of Luke; throughout Acts we find a range of summaries of the events around Jesus and the meaning of the gospel. This summary has several interesting features.
First, Jesus is described as ‘of Nazareth’, which is his consistent title when referred to as a miracle worker. The language of ‘powerful in word and deed’ expresses the common expectation of a leader in the Roman world—but also expresses Luke’s particular interests in describing Jesus. He has a distinctive interest in questions of the exercise of spiritual power in ministry, and consistently emphasises the combination of words and deeds. His second volume summarises the gospel as the account of ‘what Jesus began to do and teach’ (Acts 1.1), and then offers an account of Jesus’ continuing action and teaching through the apostles and the early Christian community.
Then this summary is clear that Jesus’ death is the responsibility of the leaders, and not of the people as a whole, whose response to him was divided. There is a consistent focus on the redemption of Israel, something that marked the beginning of Luke’s gospel (‘the glory of your people Israel’ Luke 2.32; ‘the falling and rising of many in Israel’ Luke 2.34, ‘the consolation of Jerusalem’ Luke 2.38) and continues into the beginning of Acts (‘Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Acts 1.6). The women went to the tomb, found it empty, and saw angels; the men went, checked for themselves, but saw no-one.
Jesus’ response and rebuke to them is key: he does not refer to the evidence they have seen; nor does he refer back to the predictions he himself made that this would happen. Instead, he turns to the Scriptures of Israel. Although many English translations simply say ‘He explained to them all that was in the Scriptures concerning himself…’ as if either his name was somehow hidden, and just needed pointing out, or that his listed the supposedly 365 prophetic texts that he fulfilled (as I was once told), something more profound is going on here. The verb used is diehermeneuo, a compound verb from which we get our term ‘hermeneutics’. Jesus is interpreting the Scriptures of Israel in the light of his own story. The gospels are consistently emphatic (in their different ways, as is Paul) that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Scriptures of Israel—something that sets them apart from the other, non-canonical and ‘gnostic’ ‘gospels’. So the Scriptures make sense of Jesus—but Jesus is also the only way to make sense of the Scriptures. His own life calls for a reinterpretation and a re-reading of the Old Testament. Joel Green puts it like this:
Evident above all, then, is the need for revelation, which comes for Luke not so much via angelic intervention (but this is hardly out of the question—v 23), but through a hermeneutical process of comprehending the purpose of God in the correlation of Jesus’ career with the Scriptures of Israel. What has happened with Jesus can be understood only in light of the Scriptures, yet the Scriptures themselves can be understood only in the light of what has happened with Jesus. These two are mutually informing. (NICNT p 844)
And it is this revelation—not just of Israel’s story, but of the way that Jesus fulfils it (as he first claimed at the synagogue in Luke 4)—which has caused their ‘hearts to burn within’ them (Luke 24.32).
There is further irony and drama in the next section of the story. Jesus makes as though he is travelling on, as though perhaps testing the reaction of the two disciples. They invite him to stay, meno, to ‘abide’ or remain, an idea that is present all through John’s Gospel which begins with disciples asking ‘Where do you abide’ (John 1.38) and ends with Jesus inviting the disciples to ‘abide in me’ (John 15.4). It is widely suggested that the events at the meal table have strong ‘eucharistic’ overtones, and that Jesus being ‘made known in the breaking of the bread’ is a pointer to Jesus’ continued ‘real presence’ in Communion (the Eucharist, or the Mass).
The different emphasis of Protestant and Catholic readings is expressed well in this post, contrasting the depiction of the story in the art of Robert Zund and the better-known picture of the supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio:
Caravaggio’s incomparable painting captures that precise instant of the disciples recognizing Jesus just before he vanishes, that sudden astonishment. They have had a supernatural experience. Christ himself is present.
Robert Zund’s painting depicts the experience of a Protestant worship service: a sermon, a teaching from Scripture. It has a certain careful comfort to it. Caravaggio depicts the experience of the Mass.
He captures the sacrament, the miracle of the Eucharist.
It was not Christ’s teaching about himself as the fulfillment of Scripture that astonished the disciples, even though they admitted that their hearts burned within them while he spoke. It was his presence. But they did not recognize his presence in the Scripture teaching. They recognized it “in the breaking of the bread.”
But is that really what Luke is suggesting? Luke does not show very much interest in eucharistic theology within his gospel, and the actions of taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking it and giving it to them corresponds not to Luke’s account of the Last Supper, but to the feeding of the five thousand in Luke 9.12–17. It is striking that, for Luke, it is that event which is associated with the recognition of Jesus’ identity; immediately after it, Peter makes his declaration ‘You are God’s Messiah’ (Luke 9.20).
That ‘their eyes were opened’ parallels the action of Jesus on the road in ‘opening the scriptures’, and it is back to this that they immediately refer. When Jesus meets them again in Jerusalem, the same pattern is repeated: ‘He opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures’ (Luke 24.45). Seeing here a theology of eucharistic revelation is to read later theological concerns back into the story.
Immediately, they leave the place they were intending to stay, and return to Jerusalem. The impulse to share good news needs no command or training, but simply flows from the excitement of their new discovery; ‘the inward journey must always lead outward’ (Parsons, Paideia, p 357). Malcolm Guite expresses the transformation of the encounter beautifully in his two sonnets on Emmaus:
And do you ask what I am speaking of
Although you know the whole tale of my heart;
Its longing and its loss, its hopeless love?
You walk beside me now and take my part
As though a stranger, one who doesn’t know
The pit of disappointment, the despair
The jolts and shudders of my letting go,
My aching for the one who isn’t there.
And yet you know my darkness from within,
My cry of dereliction is your own,
You bore the isolation of my sin
Alone, that I need never be alone.
Now you reveal the meaning of my story
That I, who burn with shame, might blaze with glory.
We thought that everything was lost and gone,
Disaster on disaster overtook us
The night we left our Jesus all alone
And we were scattered, and our faith forsook us.
But oh that foul Friday proved far worse,
For we had hoped that he had been the one,
Till crucifixion proved he was a curse,
And on the cross our hopes were all undone.
Oh foolish foolish heart why do you grieve?
Here is good news and comfort to your soul:
Open your mind to scripture and believe
He bore the curse for you to make you whole
The living God was numbered with the dead
That He might bring you Life in broken bread.
(The mosaic in the picture at top is yet another of the ones from Ravenna.)
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