Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter (26 April 2020)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:13-35 – NRSV)
This story of the two on the road to Emmaus is unique to Luke’s Gospel. Along with two other stories unique to Luke, namely the Good Samaritan and the Lost Son, the Emmaus story stands out as one of the most recognizable stories in the Christian tradition.
In the longer ending to Mark’s Gospel – 16:12-13 – reference is probably made to this event: “After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” Apart from this, there is no connection with any of the other post-resurrection appearance accounts in the other Gospels.
“After the episode of the visit of the women and Peter to the empty tomb, Luke adds in his resurrection narrative accounts of the appearance of the risen Christ. In the remaining four episodes three appearances of Christ are mentioned: one is reported at third hand, not narrated (the appearance to Simon, v. 34); the other two are narrated, one at some length in a dramatic story (Christ’s appearance to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, vv. 13–35), and the other at less length (his appearance to the Eleven and others gathered in Jerusalem, vv. 36–53: Christ appears to them [vv. 36–43], commissions them to be witnesses of him [vv. 44–49], and then leads them out to Bethany for his final leave-taking, his ascension [vv. 50–53]). Thus the second narrated appearance, when finally completed, becomes almost as long as the first narrative story (vv. 13–35), with which we begin.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1554.)
“‘In this story Luke’s artistic powers are seen at their height’ (J. M. Creed, The Gospel, 290). Every reader senses the suspense and the excitement of the account, which develops in four parts: (1) The meeting (vv. 13–16). Two dejected disciples set out from Jerusalem to return to their home village three days after the crucifixion; they are met by Christ, who joins them, but whom they fail to recognize. (2) The conversation en route (vv. 17–27). When Christ inquires about the topic of their conversation, Cleopas exclaims, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who has not learned what happened there these last few days?’ When pressed further, Cleopas and his companion tell of Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet who they had hoped would deliver Israel, but who was put to death by Jewish authorities. In their gloom they would not give credence to the reports of women who had gone to the tomb and found it empty and who told of angels who declared that he was alive. For some of their group had gone to the tomb, found it empty, but ‘him they did not see’. Then the risen Christ catechizes the disciples, teaching them the import of the Scriptures: that the Messiah was destined to suffer all this before he entered into his glory. So he sought to turn their dejection and gloom into faith and hope. (3) The Emmaus meal (vv. 28–32). Coming to Emmaus, they realize that their companion would go on further, but they prevail upon him to stay with them. When Christ reclines at table with them, he takes bread, utters a blessing, breaks it, and offers it to them—and their eyes are finally opened. They recognize him in the breaking of the bread. Then upon reflection they recall how their hearts were afire on the road as he opened to them the sense of the Scriptures. (4) The return to Jerusalem (vv. 33–35). Even late in the evening, they set out to return to Jerusalem. There they find that the Eleven and others have gathered and are already aware that ‘the Lord has been raised and he has appeared to Simon’ (v. 34). Then they explain what happened ‘on the road’ and how he became known to them in the breaking of the bread. A similar sequence, though less obvious, will appear in the next (composite) episode: an appearance that is not comprehended, a revelation through exposition of Scripture and a meal, and the departure of the risen Christ.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1559-1560.)
“If the story has a basis in tradition, does it have any claims to historicity? In the nature of the case, it is impossible to provide proof of its historicity, but at least it may be claimed that the objections raised to its historicity are weak. To categorise the form of the story as ‘legend’ is in no way to prove its fictional character, since a form-critical verdict of this kind cannot affect historicity. A characterisation of the contents of the story as legendary rests on a prior rejection of the possibility of the resurrection. The fact that parallels to features of the story can be cited from pagan legends does not alter this verdict; in reality none of the alleged parallels is sufficiently forceful to suggest that motifs from folklore have played a vital part in the development of the story. (The parallel in Philostratus, Vita Apoll. 8:11f. (30f.), may even be dependent on the NT; cf. A. A. T. Ehrhardt, 195–201.) The most puzzling feature is perhaps the initial blindness of the disciples, but this is more theological than legendary in character, and it has parallels in some of the other resurrection appearance narratives; the motif that the risen Jesus looked ‘different’ is widespread. (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Paternoster Press, 1978, 891.)
a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem: there is no certitude about this village or its location. Modern day tour guides are the only ones who seem to know where it is! The important fact as far as Luke is concerned is its proximity to Jerusalem. Each of Luke’s post-resurrection accounts takes place near Jerusalem, as do all the major events starting at Chapter 19 in his Gospel and running through to Chapter 8 of Acts.
talking with each other: The Greek verb is homileō, which means to be in conversation with someone. This Greek verb also gives us the English word “homily”. Homileō is then complemented with another verb, syzēteō, meaning to explore or even debate together. This is an intense exchange the two are pursuing.
Jesus himself came near and went with them: This is an emphatic statement – Jesus himself! There is no mistaking who it is. Jesus travels with them. This echoes the golden thread that runs through the Bible: “I am with you”. In this instance it is particularly significant because the two are actually going the wrong way – they should be heading towards Jerusalem, not away from it.
their eyes were kept from recognizing him: This is reminiscent of John’s use of the verb “to see” being a metaphor for faith. The same Greek verb – epiginōskō – is used in v.31, but there it represents the reversal as they have been enabled to recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Luke has used this same word earlier in 1:4 (“so that you may know (ie recognise) the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”); 1:22 (“the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized (ie recognised) that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary”); 5:22 (“When Jesus perceived (ie recognised) their questionings, he answered them”). We find something similar in 9:45 – “they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying” – and 18:34 – “they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.”
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas: This is the only time Cleopas is mentioned in the Christian Scriptures. We do not know who he is.
Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem: There are three references to Jerusalem in this story, emphasizing its place in Jesus’ life and teaching.
The things about Jesus of Nazareth: There is a gentle irony here, as the two begin to proclaim to Jesus himself the fundamental message or kerygma which they have not yet come to believe.
mighty in deed and word: The English word “mighty” translates dynatos. At the beginning of the Gospel Luke tells us that the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be visited by power from on high (1:35) and at the end of the Gospel he tells as that Jesus announces to the disciples that they too will be visited by power from on high (24:49). In between there are several references to this power being manifest in Jesus – see 4:14, 36; 5:17; 6:19; 8:46; 9:1; 10:13, 19; 19:37. Then in Acts 2:22 we hear Peter makes reference to this power in his Pentecost speech. Moses in Acts 7:22 is described in exactly the same terms as powerful in words and deeds.
our chief priests and leaders handed him over: These words recall similar words of Jesus in 9:22 & 44 and 18:32. The words are again recalled in the story of the empty tomb – see 24:7. Notice the contrast between “our leaders” and “we”. It is clear who they think is responsible for Jesus’ execution.
we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel: There is probably no other statement in the Christian Scriptures that is so ironic! Israel is not an ethnic or geographical or sociological or cultural group but a spiritual grouping. Jesus has died for everyone – “Israel”, the restored people of God. The freedom he brings is for everyone, the New Israel! This theme is begun in Luke 1:68 and 2:38. See also 1:16, 54, 68, 80; 2:25, 32, 34; 4:25–27; 7:9; 22:30; Acts 1:6; 2:36; 4:10; 5:31; 7:23, 37, 42; 9:15; 10:36; 13:17). See especially Acts 13:23: “according to his promise, God brought to Israel a savior, Jesus”.
some women of our group astounded us: The testimony of a female was not accepted in a court of law in either Jewish or Roman society of the time. The dependence on the witness of the women is therefore quite remarkable. If you wanted to make up a story about the empty tomb and Jesus rising from the dead you certainly would not have the message brought by women. Indeed, these two on the road to Emmaus did not accept their testimony.
Was it not necessary: Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “The form of the question demands the affirmative answer. For Luke’s use of dei (‘it is necessary’) as a shorthand reference to God’s plan in history, see 2:49; 4:43; 13:14, 33; 21:9; 22:37. With reference specifically to the suffering (paschein) of the Messiah, see 9:22; 17:25; 24:7; Acts 17:3. Although the Targum Jonathan interprets Isa 52–53 in terms of the Messiah, it does not make the critical connection to the suffering of the Messiah, and Jewish literature contemporary to the NT (the Targum may actually reflect considerably later tradition) lacks the notion of a ‘suffering Messiah’. The ability of Christians to find this in the texts of Torah does not derive from a standard view within Judaism but from their experience of a crucified and raised Jesus.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 395-396.)
Today’s Gospel – Luke 24:13-35 – is the well-known story of the two who encounter the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus. This story – like the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son – are unique to Luke. It has rightfully gained a place of significance in the canon of Western literature. Apart from being a beautiful depiction of our faith in the Risen Lord, it is a delightful short story in its own right. Perhaps one reason for its wide appeal is its ability to say something both wise and practical about human beings and how we mature: It reminds us that, at the core of our growth is the changing capacity for recognition. There are times in life when we “just do not get it” and then there are times when, inexplicably, the light dawns and “we get it”. The “it” being something of importance, perhaps life changing.
“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” We find something similar, earlier in the Gospel, the second time Jesus prophesies his Passion: “They did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying” (9:45). And again the third time Jesus prophesies his Passion: “They understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (18:34).
Jesus does not chastise them or give up on them. He walks with them. He listens to them and gently reiterates the truth with compassion. Their moment of recognition, however, does not seem to be a moment in which the data or the logic finally hit home. It is rather the moment they paused long enough to listen to what was happening within them: “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” This exposes even greater complexity: Their hearts were burning within them but and they did not know it at the time.
This opens up the complexities of religious belief and, more specifically, the complexities of conversations intended to explain or defend the reasonableness of what we believe. St John Henry Newman dealt at length with this question in “An Essay in aid of a Grammar of Assent” (1870). The conversation with the other person – or indeed with oneself – should respect his/her “large outfit of existing thoughts, principles, likings, desires, and hopes, which make” them what they are. (See Part II, 10, §2). Newman then goes on to say: “I do not want to be converted by a smart syllogism; if I am asked to convert others by it, I say plainly I do not care to overcome their reason without touching their hearts. I wish to deal, not with controversialists, but with inquirers” (Ibid).