Bible Study | March 20, 2018

The Road to Emmaus

Painting by Ceri Richards © Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes. The Methodist Church Registered Charity no. 1132208

In their book Jesus Speaks: Learning to Recognize and Respond to the Lord’s Voice, Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola write that we all need “Emmaus moments,” because “faith is activated by events and experiences, not by theories and theologies.”

The original “Emmaus moment” occurs in Luke’s story of an encounter between the risen Lord and two disciples as they share a meal in Emmaus, a small village located not far from Jerusalem.

Luke’s story divides into two main sections: the journey of two disciples from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24:13- 27) and a meal in Emmaus that results in a new way of seeing (Luke 24:28-35). There are three characters: Jesus and two disciples, one of whom is named Cleopas. The story takes place just after Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and burial. Jesus’ death stuns his followers. They did not expect their leader would die.

A few women go to the tomb in order to anoint the body of their teacher and friend, but they discover the tomb to be empty (24:1-12). Two men tell them that Jesus “is not here, but is risen.” When the women tell the disciples about their discovery, their news is not well received but, rather, is viewed as “nonsense” or “an idle tale” (24:11). Only Peter responds by running to the tomb to see for himself.

Why is anyone surprised? Why do they consider the women’s report of the empty tomb to be nonsensical? The disciples’ surprise has two parts. First, they did not expect Jesus would die before accomplishing his mission. Second, they assumed that Jesus’ death ended his mission. Their belief did not prepare them for either Jesus’ death or Jesus’ resurrection.

Shift scenes now to a road that leads from Jerusalem to Emmaus, where two people are traveling. Who are these two people, and why are they interrupting the story about Jesus’ resurrection?

Cleopas is a minor character as characters go in the Gospels. He appears only once, here in this story set on the road to Emmaus. I should note that there is some disagreement on this point. Some people identify Cleopas with Alphaeus, the father of James, who was one of the twelve (Luke 6:15). Others identify him with Clopas, who is the husband of a woman named Mary (John 19:25). Catholic and Orthodox traditions further identify this individual as a brother to Joseph (the husband of Mary, Jesus’ mother), which would make Cleopas a member of Jesus’ extended family.

Even more intriguing is the identity of the unnamed disciple. Although illustrations of this story usually portray the two disciples as men, some interpreters suggest that the two travelers on the road to Emmaus are Cleopas and his wife. This makes sense to some readers, since the two disciples invite Jesus to a meal in their home.

The precise identity of the two disciples is less important than the story of their Emmaus moment. These two travelers have been in Jerusalem and they know about the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. The phrase “two of them” tells us that these are two of Jesus’ disciples, not from the inner circle of twelve, but from the larger group of Jesus’ followers. As they walk, they talk about recent events. Then, a third traveler joins them. We readers of Luke’s Gospel are told that this is Jesus, but the travelers do not recognize him. In fact, Luke says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16).

We may wonder about this. What prevents them from recognizing Jesus? Perhaps their despair over Jesus’ death prevents recognition. Or, perhaps their assumption about Jesus’ mission blocks their ability to see clearly who walks with them. They explain to the stranger, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21). To complicate matters further, they are confused by the women’s report of the empty tomb. Clearly, the events that transpired conflict with what these two disciples had expected would happen. Reality and theory collide.

There is more than a little irony in Luke’s storytelling. When the disciples encounter Jesus, they are shocked that this new traveling companion does not know about recent events. In reality, Cleopas and his companion are the ones in the dark.

Another surprising turn of events in the story occurs when Jesus calls them “foolish” (v. 25). Many of us in their situation would have looked for the first opportunity to ditch a stranger who insults us, but fortunately they do not. In fact, they invite Jesus to stay with them in Emmaus.

Hospitality is a key virtue in the Bible, and the letter to the Hebrews instructs its readers to practice hospitality: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (13:2). The theme of “entertaining angels unawares” appears early in the Scriptures when Abraham and Sarah prepare a feast for three mysterious visitors who show up at the door of their tent (Genesis 18:2- 15). It occurs again in Luke’s story set in Emmaus.

The artist Barry Motes has interpreted the meal at Emmaus in the contemporary setting of a food court. His Supper at Yummaus takes place over a meal of KFC.

As I age, I become more and more certain that I know it all, that I have seen it all, and that nobody can tell me anything really new. I become more and more resistant to Emmaus moments. But viewed in the light of Luke’s story, Supper at Yummaus prompts me to open myself to the surprise of the ordinary. It reminds me that insight can occur anywhere and at any time, even over a fast food meal in a shopping mall food court.

In the Gospel story, the two disciples cling to their theory of what was supposed to happen. They struggle to reconcile recent events with their assumptions. They had hoped for a certain future that has not come to pass, and they don’t know what to make of it. Enlightenment breaks through at the moment the two disciples receive bread from the hands of their Lord. A Welsh artist, Ceri Richards (1903- 1971), paints the moment of enlightenment in his Supper at Emmaus. Jesus nearly dissolves into a yellow background that forms a cross of light (or enlightenment). The two disciples respond physically, but in different ways. One rises up from his seat. The other appears pensive, in a pose suggesting prayer. Luke does not distinguish between the two disciples’ responses, but Richards’ painting suggests that we react differently to revelatory moments. Some of us jump up ready to act on new information; others need time to process.

Richard Harries, who discusses this painting in his book The Passion in Art, interprets the large hands and feet of the figures in Ceri Richards’ painting: “The moment of recognition of the risen Christ is also the moment of realisation that his work continues through human hands and feet.”

An Emmaus moment: Jesus’ ministry does not end with his death, but rather, it begins something that he calls his disciples to continue. Simply. Peacefully. Together.

Christina Bucher is professor of religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.