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The road to Emmaus: changing expectations a narrative-critical study.

Luke 24:13-35 (1)

Now on the same day, two of Jesus' disciples were going to the village of Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about the things that had taken place.

While they were talking, Jesus himself came near and started walking along beside them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Jesus asked them, "What are you talking about as you walk along?" They stood still, looking crest-fallen.

Then one of them named Cleopas answered him, "Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening these days?"

He asked, "What things?"

They answered, "The things about Jesus the Nazarene. He was considered by God and all the people to be a powerful prophet in all that he did and said. And our chief priests and leaders had him condemned to death and crucified. But we were hoping that he was the one who would liberate Israel.

"Besides all this, it's the third day now since all these things took place. Moreover, some of our women astounded us; they went to the tomb early this morning, but they didn't find his body. They came back and told us that they had seen a vision of angels; the angels said that that he is alive. Then some of our men went to the tomb and they found it just as the women had said, but they didn't see him."

Jesus said to them, "How foolish you are and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets said! Wasn't it necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"

Then he explained everything written about himself in the Writings, beginning with Moses and all the prophets.

As they approached the village where they were going, Jesus acted as if he would continue on. But they urged him, saying, "Stay with us; the day is almost over and it is getting dark." So he went in to stay with them.

When he sat down at the table to eat, he took some bread and said a blessing; then he broke it and gave it to them. Just then, their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but Jesus vanished from their sight.

They said to each other, "Weren't our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road as he was opening the Writings to us?"

They got up at once and returned to Jerusalem, where they found the eleven apostles and their companions all together. They were saying, "The Lord has truly risen, and he has appeared to Simon!"

The two then explained to them what had happened on the road and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

In this essay I examine Luke 24:13-35 from a narrative-critical approach. (2) The Emmaus episode reveals the purpose of God's work in Jesus: a plan to liberate Israel. (3) Through the character of Cleopas, the reader hears the disciples' view of Jesus' role in God's plan. Through the character of the stranger (Jesus), the reader hears God's view of Jesus' role. By means of the dialogue between Cleopas and the stranger, the reader is given an overview of the main elements of the entire narrative of Luke. When the disciples have understood the proper role of the Messiah, they recognize the one who serves them a meal as the risen Jesus. The proper role of the Messiah in liberating Israel is not to demonstrate superior power by conquering Israel's enemies but to serve by breaking bread for them. Luke presents two critical notions of Jesus the Messiah: the role of one who must suffer, and the role of a servant, as revealed in the sharing of a meal.

Setting: time and place

A story is always recounted within a specific time frame and location. The Emmaus episode is linked with the previous episodes that share the same time frame by the use of the phrase "on the same day," the day in which the empty tomb is discovered. In fact, all the events of Luke 24 occur on one day. The day starts early in the morning with the women going to the tomb. Later, after the women have astounded the others by relating the empty tomb and a vision of angels, the men verify the empty tomb. Sometime that same day the two disciples start the journey to Emmaus.

A prevalent setting throughout Luke is the journey. Jesus teaches and proclaims his message as he travels to Jerusalem (9:51-19:44). The setting of a journey also depicts the journey of faith of the disciples. (4) There is a progression of learning from the day the disciples are called to when they are sent out in mission (24:47). This progression is depicted through the activity of walking on a road.

For Luke, Jerusalem is the primary geographic setting for the story. Beginning with 9:51 ("he set his face to go to Jerusalem"), we discover that almost two-thirds of Luke's Gospel is spent with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem or staying in Jerusalem. Although we find our travelers in the Emmaus episode walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus, we are told that the village is nearby--about seven miles away, within the environs of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem is central to the narrator's story. Jesus laments over the city, and yet he navigates throughout Luke's account the story with the goal of arriving in Jerusalem. As Jesus himself states, "I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem" (13:33). Jesus' disciples also show the centrality of Jerusalem. After Jesus' crucifixion, they remain in Jerusalem. This is where Cleopas and his unnamed companion find them after they have encountered Jesus. After the Emmaus episode, Jesus instructs all the disciples to remain in Jerusalem to await the Holy Spirit. Luke's sequel in Acts begins with the disciples still in Jerusalem.

Meals are also often the setting of encounter between Jesus and those who are in relationship with him. At times they are scenes of confrontation (with Pharisees), of experiencing Jesus' power (healing, compassion, or forgiveness), or of solidarity and revealing who Jesus is (Passover, Emmaus). Meals connote hospitality, and hospitality is an important value in Luke's Gospel. Luke connects meals and God's reign with revelation of Jesus as Messiah in that the reign is revealed through meals (cf. Peter and his confession after the feeding of the 5,000). (5) The meal setting at Emmaus becomes instrumental in both the revelation and discovery of the true identity of the stranger.

Literary devices that illuminate the episode

Three stylistic devices are important in the understanding of the Emmaus episode: irony, pathos, and prophetic fulfillment. Dramatic irony occurs when there is a discrepancy between what a character thinks to be the case and what the real situation is, or between what a character expects to happen and what actually happens. (6) As the two disciples walk along the road, they encounter a stranger. Although the identity of this stranger remains a mystery to the disciples throughout most of this episode, the narrator takes the readers aside to let them know clearly and emphatically that this stranger is Jesus himself. Such a gesture by the narrator confirms what the readers have experienced elsewhere when they are given special insight.

In this episode, such a gesture allows the readers to appreciate the irony of the situation as Cleopas unwittingly tells the story of Jesus to Jesus himself. Cleopas calls the stranger a visitor to Jerusalem, even though a week earlier Jesus had entered Jerusalem as a hero (19:37). The readers want Cleopas and the other disciple to recognize that Jesus is no longer dead, but they do not. Their eyes are kept from recognizing him. Instead of joy at seeing the resurrected Jesus, they stand there looking crestfallen.

Another example of Luke's use of irony is connected to the expected hope of liberation. In the birth narratives, the promise of imminent liberation is made through trust-worthy spokespersons (Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna). However, the Lukan reader has experienced the reality of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 C.E. by the Roman forces. Ultimately, the narrator uses irony in the main plot of the story: God sends Jesus the prophet-Messiah to liberate God's people, Israel. Despite Israel's rejection of God's messenger, God ironically incorporates this rejection into God's overall purpose. (7)

A second stylistic device of the Lukan narrator is pathos. Pathos is an artistic attempt to evoke compassion in the reader or to make the reader become emotionally involved with the characters and events in a story. The narrator had created the expectation that the Messiah would liberate Israel from her oppressors. But now, as Cleopas and his companion halt on the road, the narrator draws attention to their faces, crestfallen. They are pitiable travelers who sadly leave Jerusalem without their hopes being fulfilled. The narrator has captured the reader's emotions.

A third stylistic device is the narrator's use of prophecies and their fulfillments. Early on in the story words from God's spokespersons describe what is intended to take place later in the story. When such prophecies are fulfilled the reader senses a certain connection and cohesiveness with the story. However, when such prophecies are not immediately fulfilled--in fact, when it seems the very opposite of the prophecy is happening--a creative tension occurs that, coupled with pathos, creates tragedy. Seemingly, the prophecies of liberation that Cleopas alludes to are unfulfilled. However, with the explanations of the stranger, Cleopas discovers that it is not a case of unfulfilled prophecy. Rather, Cleopas has not understood the full import of all the scriptural prophecies. The prophecies concerning the Messiah are indeed fulfilled in the suffering of Jesus.

Introduction of characters and review of Lukan themes

The episode opens with the introduction of two unknown characters who, by context, are understood to be followers of Jesus. The anonymity at first of these characters suggests that their identities are not as important as whom they represent and what they say. Later the narrator does name one of these persons as Cleopas. However, given our temporal distance from the story we can only venture guesses (8) as to any importance in naming this one disciple. It does seem, however, that the narrator gives us the name of this character to bring credibility to the story with the possibility that the reader might know Cleopas.

In any case, Cleopas in the episode becomes a mouthpiece of the narrator to list many of the salient points of the story. More specifically, he is the character in the story who represents all the disciples who followed Jesus throughout Galilee and his purposeful journey to Jerusalem. He relates to the stranger how he (and the disciples) has understood Jesus' life and death in relation to their hopes of liberation. Cleopas' (mis)understandings are theirs.

Almost every utterance of Cleopas leads the reader to recall earlier episodes: Jesus the Nazarene, prophet, powerful in deeds and words, considered by God and all the people, our chief priests and leaders condemned and crucified him, hope of the liberation of Israel, third day, women, angels. The parade of earlier episodes continues, but now through the words of the stranger, Jesus: slow of heart to believe, Messiah, suffer, glory, Moses and the prophets. (9) In this compact exchange between Cleopas and Jesus we have the essentials of the story of Luke. And within this list, we have the main point of the story: God's plan to liberate Israel by a Messiah who suffers and serves.

Cleopas' view

Jesus is a powerful rejected prophet. In the Lukan story, the town of Nazareth is clearly the starting point for Jesus' public ministry; it is also where the boy Jesus grew up and became known to the community. It is in Nazareth (4:16-30) where Jesus, from the position of a prophet (4:24), proclaims his message by the words of Isaiah. Calling Jesus a prophet does several things: (1) ties Jesus to the scriptural images of Elijah and Moses as workers of great deeds; (2) historically reminds people what happened with most of the prophets--they were rejected and killed by people; (3) the central location where this rejection/death takes place is Jerusalem; (4) in Jesus' predictions of his coming death, it always comes immediately after the people/disciples are marveling at his powerful deeds as a prophet/Messiah/Son of Man. (10) Jesus as a prophet is a "type personage" in that he exhibits many things that are similar to the prophets of the Jewish Scriptures, in particular Moses (through miracles and his authoritative teaching) and Elijah (through the preaching of repentance and the proclamation of the judgment of God). (11) The narrator is continuously evoking the past actions of Moses and Elijah in relation to Jesus throughout the story. Such comparison becomes explicit in Jesus' transfiguration (9:28-36), where Moses and Elijah appear in order to talk with Jesus. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah all experienced rejection as prophets as they presented God's purposes to God's people.

After beginning in his hometown, Jesus goes throughout Galilee and the surrounding regions and eventually makes his way toward Jerusalem. During this time, Jesus is depicted by himself (13:33) and by the people (7:16;9:19) as a prophet. Throughout this journey, the reader witnesses the healings, exorcising of demons, raising of the dead, power over nature, and a miraculous feeding. In the same way, the reader hears numerous parables along with both public and private teachings of Jesus that relate what God's Rule is like. All of this--the miracles and the message--are witnessed not only within the story by the people Jesus encounters but also from outside the story by the reader.

Moreover, the invisible character of God is present in these words and deeds. God's voice of approval of Jesus is heard both at his baptism (3:22) and during the transfiguration (9:35). All of this is encapsulated when Cleopas refers to "the Nazarene, considered by God and all the people to be a powerful prophet in all he did and said." By Jesus' fulfillment of his role as the anointed prophet (4:18), the expectation grows that indeed Jesus is more than this--he is the one to liberate Israel from her oppressors.

Throughout Jesus' demonstration of his mighty deeds and words, the narrator builds tension into the story as Jesus enters into conflict again and again with the chief priests and leaders. Such conflict is foreshadowed in Simeon's stating that Jesus will be "a sign that will be opposed" (2:34). Starting with Jesus' teaching in Nazareth and continuing on through the numerous conflicts of healing on the Sabbath and the provocative scenes of Jesus' contact with "impure" people, the reader witnesses the clashes Jesus experiences. Such conflict is ultimately between God's purposes (lived out through Jesus) and those who reject God's purposes. The narrator states this clearly in 7:30: "The Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves." This conflict ultimately results in Jesus' being arrested and delivered by the chief priests and leaders to be condemned and crucified. The reader sees the battle lines drawn between Jesus the prophet and the leaders of Israel.

After the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples are devastated. Was their hope ill-founded? This is one source of Cleopas' crestfallen look. He (as representative of all the disciples) had been convinced that Jesus' actions and words had demonstrated that he was not just one more prophet but was the mighty prophet promised to redeem Israel.

Cleopas' hope in Jesus as the one to liberate Israel. After relating recent events to the stranger, Cleopas turns to his main thrust: the hope of the liberation of Israel. Throughout the story the reader is led to this hope of liberation. This is the theme that came with the announcement of Jesus' birth, followed by Mary's song (1:54). It was strengthened by the prophecies of Zechariah ("[God] has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them," 1:68), Simeon ("[Simeon was] looking forward to the consolation of Israel," 2:25), and Anna ("all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem," 2:38). Jesus himself further strengthens such a hope by indicating the privileged position the disciples have to "see and hear" what they were experiencing (10:23-24). Later Jesus reveals what they are seeing and hearing when he talks of the Son of Man's return and redemption being near (21:28).

In the Emmaus episode there is no mention of the Gentiles. Given that the object of redemption is Israel, how are we to understand Luke's message for non-Jews? There are windows in Luke from which the reader can see a preview of the book of Acts. In 2:32 we hear of "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." In 24:47 Jesus says "that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." To view the Gospel of Luke and ignore Acts is to risk thinking that God's plan is concerned only with the people of Israel. Yet, through Simeon's prophecy and Jesus' commission we anticipate Jesus' message and ministry expanding to the Gentile world--but this time, through Jesus' disciples.

Returning to Cleopas' hope of liberation, the reader begins to wonder whether the sadness that the stranger recognizes in Cleopas is due to the death of a friend and leader, Jesus. Or is the sadness due to an unfulfilled expectation of the liberation of Israel? Perhaps both. The hope of Israel is that this Messiah will liberate Israel.

We must differentiate the disciples' understanding of "liberate" from what Jesus draws out of the Jewish Scriptures. For the disciples, "to be liberated" meant to be released from the oppressive grasp of the Roman government. In discussing the need for repentance, Jesus alludes to certain Galileans being killed by Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea (13:1). There are certain references to "Gentiles" as representative of the Roman occupying forces in Luke. This occurs in the later part of Luke's story, starting with a foreshadowing of those who will mistreat Jesus (18:32). The Gentiles are connected with the destruction of Jerusalem (21:24). The kings of the Gentiles are referred to in a counterexample of servanthood (22:25). Ultimately, Israel's hope of liberation is a hope of freedom from Roman domination.

Nevertheless, almost all references to Pilate after the arrest of Jesus show him as wanting to release Jesus, finding no fault with him. However, the narrator does let the reader know an interesting fact: after Pilate found out Jesus was from Galilee, he sent him to Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of Galilee. Afterward, Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate: "That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies" (23:12). Throughout Luke's story of Jesus' activity in Galilee, the enemy of God's work is not directly the Roman government but the Jewish (puppet) ruler, Herod.

Not only was Herod the enemy of Jesus, but also it seems that the people perceived him in this way. The narrator relates the reason why John the Baptist rebuked him: "because of all the evil things that Herod had done" (3:19). Is Herod the only source of antagonism for Jesus and the people? No. It is clear throughout the story that not only are the chief priests plotting to kill Jesus, but the Pharisees disapprove of Jesus also and are oppressing the people of Israel. These Pharisees, we are told, are "lovers of money" (16:14), and they "neglect justice and the love of God" (11:42). In so doing, they are "rejecting God's purposes" (7:30). Within Luke's Gospel the hope of liberation is related to Israel's oppression from its very own leaders as well as the occupying government of Rome.

The Messiah is expected to wipe away the oppressive forces by strength and supremacy. Such expectation can be seen in the birth prophecies (1:32-33, 68-69, 71, 73-73). Jesus' authoritative proclamation and powerful deeds seem to confirm the people's hopes. Jesus must be the Messiah. Yet, for the people and the disciples, there is no connection at all between the Messiah and suffering. This second, misunderstood aspect of the Messiah's role brings disillusionment for Jesus' disciples.

The disciples' hope of liberation is misguided in two ways: they do not understand that the Messiah "must" suffer, and they do not understand that the redemption will not happen immediately. The disciples will suffer for a period just as the Messiah did. They have premature expectations of the eschatological fulfillment because they do not take into consideration Jesus' rejection. (12) The time for the liberation of Israel was not during Jesus' earthly ministry. True, such liberation was prophesied, and the reader has expectations for this deliverance to be accomplished. Yet, according to Jesus' own words, this deliverance will follow the Son of Man's return in glory: "Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (21:28; see also 9:26). This issue of timing is also implicit in the sad expression of deflated hope related by Cleopas, "We were hoping that he was the one to liberate Israel [now!]." The immediate redemption of Israel is in the forefront of the disciples' minds. (13) Such an understanding of timing is somewhat surprising for the reader, given the prophecies of Jesus where he repeats how the "Son of Man" will return to the earth (9:26, 17:24, 30, 18:8, 21:27-28).

Doubts of resurrection. Cleopas quickly relates three final verbal threads to the story: third day, women, and angels. It is difficult to know what Cleopas meant by mentioning the third day. Could it be that he knew some of Jesus' earlier words about rising on the third day? Perhaps, but if these two disciples did think he would be raised on the third day, what were they doing going sadly away from Jerusalem? It seems that the mention of this time element has more to do with the cultural understanding of death, according to which the spirit of a dead person remained near the body for three days. By the third day it would be clear that no resurrection miracle could occur. The person would be considered fully dead.

As for the mention of the women, it is clear that Cleopas and the eleven apostles do not give the women much credit, even though one can see that Jesus and women had good rapport. (14) When it comes to the male disciples, they did not even believe the women's story of an empty tomb, much less that of a vision of angels.

Throughout Luke, angels are recognized as being with God in heaven or, at special times, sent by God to earth. Three such envoys announce the births of John and Jesus and give this final announcement of Jesus' resurrection. It seems that the believability of the angelic message is cast into doubt as a result of the disciples' distrust of the women's credibility.

Jesus' view

Foolishness and belief. The initial words of Jesus are used to remind the reader of the disciples' behavior throughout Luke's story--they are slow in heart to believe. Jesus calls them "foolish," ignorant of God's ways. Just like the Pharisees, whom Jesus calls fools (11:40) because they do not understand true purity, just like the rich man in the parable who does not understand that he cannot take his riches with him when he dies and is therefore a fool (12:20), the disciples have difficulty understanding the significance of events, and they simply do not believe. This theme of belief runs throughout the story, and the narrator does not want to close without once more lifting up the importance of believing. In the same way that Jesus' parents did not understand Jesus' behavior at age twelve in the Temple, so also the disciples do not understand Jesus' purposes. (15)

Jesus accuses Cleopas and his companion of being slow to believe. This introduces the notion of a process of coming to believe as opposed to a punctiliar concept of believing. The slowness to believe is related to the disciples' expectations of how and when the Messiah would act. The idea of the process of coming to believe is discussed further below, but first, Cleopas' assumptions about the Messiah need to be corrected by a scriptural understanding of the suffering and servanthood of the Messiah.

The Messiah must suffer and enter his glory. The Messiah is "The Anointed One." This is made clear in Jesus' inaugural sermon: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me ..." (4:18). The Messiah is announced by this title to the shepherds at Jesus' birth (2:11); we understand how Israel had been waiting, like Simeon, for the Lord's Messiah (2:26); we see how characters without the narrator's vantage point wonder if John the Baptist could be this Messiah (3:15); if it is questioned by some characters in the story, others--such as demons--know the truth that Jesus is this Messiah (4:41); and finally, within the story, the disciples, represented by Peter, acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah (9:20). The title of Messiah is used elsewhere in the story by Jesus' enemies and a criminal, who use it mockingly (22:67, 23:2, 35, 39). Finally, Jesus himself uses the term--first in a riddle to the scribes (20:41) and then in his final explanations to the disciples about the role of the Messiah as outlined in the Jewish Scriptures (24:26, 46). Jesus' direct reference to himself as Messiah, however, is limited to post-resurrection scenes. Prior to the crucifixion, Jesus refers to himself as "Son of Man." It seems that there is no difference of role between the two titles in Luke. Jesus uses Son of Man to avoid premature conflict with the leaders.

Luke uses the three scenarios of temptation to state clearly that Jesus refuses to use his power to avoid physical suffering. He refuses to use power to circumvent suffering to "enter his glory." He refuses to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, even with God's promise of protection, but instead sets his face toward Jerusalem, knowing that "no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem" (13:33).

By speaking about himself in the third person, Jesus subtly gives the first foreshadowing: "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering" (9:22); second, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands" (9:44); and third, "they will kill him" (18:33). Each time, the disciples do not grasp what is being said. The reason for their incomprehension is made known to the reader in this third passage: "But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said."

There is a thread of "necessity" throughout Luke--4:43; 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44. This necessity is connected to following in the steps of previous prophets and fulfilling previous prophecies. At the same time, the disciples' incapacity to imagine that the Messiah must suffer keeps them from grasping what Jesus is foreshadowing. On two occasions Jesus speaks plainly of his coming suffering: before the Son of Man comes, he must first "endure much suffering" (17:25), and he is eager to eat the Passover meal with his disciples before he suffers (22:15). If Jesus is the Messiah, it is inevitable that part of the role of the Messiah is to suffer and die.

The second aspect of the Messiah's role is that he will "enter his glory." After the third day, Jesus is to rise again and gloriously defeat death. One gets a glimpse of such glory as Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah in "his glory" (9:31). Glory is to be recognized as a place of honor. One who is glorified is one who is honored. Jesus has made clear that those who humble themselves will be exalted (14:11). Such glory is a combination of Jesus' defeat of death in the resurrection and his placement at the right hand of God in his ascension. This position of honor is proverbially alluded to in 20:42: "The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool." This Messiah, the Son of Man, will not remain in heaven: "Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory" (21:27). This authority and power complete the prophecies made concerning the Messiah.

On Moses and the prophets. Jesus explained to the two disciples the role of the Messiah as one who suffers and then enters his glory by turning to Moses and all the prophets. What did Jesus say to those disciples? Which passages did he use in the interpretation? (16) The narrator, by design, seems to be challenging the reader to look deeply into the Scriptures in order to answer such questions. Jesus' teachings are purposefully based on Scriptures. During Jesus' temptations in the desert, each of the devil's temptations is rebuffed through Scripture (4:1-13). Reference is made throughout the story of obeying "according to Moses"--whether it is the cleansing sacrifices after Jesus' birth (2:22) or after the healing of a leper (5:14). Within the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is told that his brothers need to listen to "Moses and the prophets" (16:29). When Jesus explains the role of the Messiah and "the things concerning himself," we are pointed to the Jewish Scriptures in the same way that Abraham points the rich man's brothers to Moses and the prophets.

Such a sense of fulfillment of the Scriptures is related to the prophecies concerning Jesus and to a sense of destiny. Destiny is implied with such wording as "the Messiah must suffer ..." and in the third fore-shadowing of Jesus' death when he states, "everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished" (18:31).

At table at Emmaus

The three travelers arrive at Emmaus and shift from travel companionship to meal fellowship. (17) The disciples demonstrate hospitality by inviting the stranger to stay with them. Similar hospitality was shared with the crowd of 5,000 "at the end of the day" and with the same reasoning now by Cleopas, in that "the day is almost over and it is getting dark." (18) Despite the fact that Cleopas and his companion are sad and disillusioned about Jesus' death, they are conscious of the needs of a stranger. Although the disciples cannot recognize the stranger, they have understood (in part) the message of Jesus by welcoming a stranger in need into their house. (19)

Having arrived at Emmaus, the episode finds the three characters at table ("reclining" in Greek). Many important discussions, teachings, and events occur around the table in Luke. There Jesus clarifies that his message of repentance is to those who recognize their need (5:32). At another Pharisee's table, Jesus assures the marginalized of their forgiveness (7:50). Jesus uses mealtime to challenge human customs of purity (11:37-54). Supporting one of Luke's motifs, Jesus exploits the seating arrangements at a meal to instruct about honor (14:10).

Perhaps one of the most memorable is the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples during the Passover (22:15). An eschatological messianic banquet is foretold there (22:16) in which Jesus will sit once again with his disciples. The reader sees the words in staccato fashion: take, bless, break, give. (20) The stranger in the Emmaus episode is doing these very acts as Jesus did when he fed the 5,000 and when he hosted the Passover meal. Through the breaking of the bread, Cleopas and his companion's eyes are opened. The invisible hand that kept them from recognizing the stranger in the first place once again touches their eyes, and they see him for who he is.

The moment Jesus is recognized is the moment he vanishes. Somehow, this does not surprise the disciples (as it certainly does the reader). This episode is not only about being an eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus, it also creates one more chance for the disciples (and the reader) to hear about the role of the Messiah and the timing of redemption. Moreover, the reader hears how Jesus fulfills the Scriptures in his suffering and dying in order to enter his glory.

To help us reflect on this, the narrator mentions the disciples' reflections about their burning hearts. The significance of such burning can only be articulated in retrospect. It seems noteworthy that the burning hearts are the very same hearts that Jesus described as slow to believe. Such a double use of the expression "hearts" underscores the narrator's emphasis on the need to recognize who Jesus is and to understand his role. The readers are prompted to consider their hearts in relation to the expectations and understandings of the role of Jesus as the Messiah.

It is not the first time that Jesus is recognized as the Messiah after a meal. Immediately following the feeding of the 5,000 (a meal in which Jesus "took, blessed, broke, and gave"), Peter goes beyond the disciples' common understanding of Jesus as a great prophet (7:16) to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah (9:20). Is it sheer revelation that allows Cleopas to recognize Jesus as the Messiah? Or could it be also the setting of a meal in general and Jesus' role in particular?

In all three settings--Emmaus, the feeding of the 5,000, and Passover--Jesus is seen as the host of the meal. With the feeding of the 5,000, once the bread and fish are procured, he takes these elements, blesses them, and after breaking them gives them to the disciples to give to the crowd. At the Passover meal Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples. Finally, at Emmaus, despite the fact that Jesus is the stranger and guest, it is he who takes the bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to Cleopas and his companion--all of this presumably in the house of Cleopas, or at least at a meal where Cleopas would be the customary host and server. In each of these meal scenes Jesus plays the role of host.

But more than that, Jesus is the host who serves. Jesus, the invited guest, becomes the server in Emmaus. This is the role he designates for himself: "But I am among you as one who serves" (22:27). Jesus' servant posture helps Cleopas to recognize the Messiah. Cleopas' heart, which burned as he heard the role of the Messiah explained through the Scriptures, is no longer slow to believe.

Concluding scene in Jerusalem

Quickly ("that same hour") the disciples return to Jerusalem to tell the others. Finding the eleven apostles and other disciples, Cleopas and his companion cannot get their story out before the eleven blurt out their good news. Jesus has arisen!--and it is true, because Peter has seen him. Peter's eyewitness testimony wipes all doubt away that remained concerning the women's vision of an angel's tale. Such a focus on Peter also fulfills Jesus' words that he will be an encouragement to the other disciples after his three denials (22:33).

Finally, the two Emmaus disciples have a chance to tell what has happened to them. We do not hear their version of the details, but the narrator permits the reader two broad brush strokes that summarize the experience: the things that happened along the road, and how Jesus was made known through the breaking of the bread. And this is what Luke wants to leave us with in this episode: how Jesus interpreted the Jewish Scriptures as they related to his role as the Messiah who must suffer, and how Jesus as both host and servant is revealed to them in the sharing of a meal.

Key moments: teaching about suffering, and revelation as a servant

The Emmaus episode contains two climactic moments: (1) Jesus teaching the disciples from Moses and the prophets that the Messiah had to suffer in order to enter his glory; (2) intellectual understanding proves insufficient for them to see Jesus; it requires revelation from God. The instruction given to the two disciples helps them to lay aside their established expectations of the role and timing of the Messiah.

So much of what Cleopas and his companion have understood is correct about Jesus. He was a prophet; God and the people did witness to his powerful words and actions. However, their incapacity to imagine God's plan to have their Messiah condemned to death brings disillusionment (instead of hope) in their expectations of liberation for Israel. Nevertheless, with the explanations of the stranger they can begin to understand that suffering was joined to glorification in the prophecies about the Messiah. Such teaching allowed the disciples to become open to the possibility that the rejection by their chief priests and rulers indicated neither ultimate failure on the part of Jesus nor God's punishment. The teaching of the stranger enabled the disciples to enlarge their understanding of who the Messiah was.

The two disciples did not recognize Jesus on the road. Intellectual assent and understanding are insufficient to recognize what God is doing. Revelation is required. And revelation comes from outside us, from God. This is what happens during the meal at Emmaus. The divine passive "their eyes were opened and they recognized him" demonstrates the fact (and the necessity) of God's self-revelation.

However, such revelation does not happen without "its feet on the ground." God revealed Jesus to the disciples in the act of service of a meal. Through taking, blessing, breaking, and giving, Jesus demonstrated that the one who is above all is servant to all. In the posture of a servant, Jesus was revealed to the disciples. And they recognized him--in part because their minds had been opened to understand that the Messiah is first and foremost a servant.

1. The Emmaus episode is presented without verse number. Following David Rhoads's example, "the paragraph divisions mark a shift in scene, a change of speaker, or the end of a conflict" (Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 2d ed. [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999], 8).

2. For an introduction to this method, see Mark Powell, What is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), and Rhoads, Mark as Story.

3. Israel is to be understood as a people and nation chosen by God.

4. Robert J. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian--Luke's Passion Account as Literature (New York: Paulist, 1985).

5. Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia and Minneapolis: Fortress, 1986), 218-19.

6. Rhoads, Mark as Story, 60.

7. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity, 9.

8. One finds an apparent alternative spelling to the name Cleopas in John 19:25 where the person is the husband of Mary, a witness to the crucifixion.

9. See Robert Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 94, for a discussion of the use of "repetition of word-motifs" and its purposes in narratives.

10. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity.

11. Mark L Strauss, "The David Messiah in Luke-Acts: The Promise and its Fulfillment in Lukan Christology," Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 10 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 229.

12. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity, 9.

13. If one looks beyond Luke to its sequel, Acts of the Apostles, one sees that this issue of timing of Israel's redemption continues in Acts 1:6, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"

14. See 8:2-3, where Jesus and the disciples are financially supported by some women, and 23:49, 55, where the Galilean women remain with the crucified Jesus and follow his body to the tomb.

15. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity, 54.

16. Another possibility for understanding the citation of Moses and the prophets (see Tannehill, The Narrative Unity) is that Jesus is referring to Moses as a prophet, not as the writer of the Torah. Jesus is giving OT examples of prophets--especially how these prophets were treated by the people ("It was necessary that the Messiah suffer these things ..."--just like the other prophets did).

17. John Paul Heil, "The Meal Scenes in Luke Acts: An Audience-Oriented Approach," Society of Biblical Literature 52 (1999): 216.

18. Heil, "The Meal Scenes," 207.

19. Just as Jesus is hospitable to the marginalized people he encounters in Luke's story, the two disciples demonstrate this same hospitality by receiving the stranger (Jesus) into their house. See Robert J. Karris, "Luke 24 13-35," Interpretation 41, no. 1 (1987): 57-61.

20. It is tempting to understand these words and actions in a liturgical setting of the Eucharist. However, it is probably anachronistic to interpret it in such a way. With all the meals in Luke, the Emmaus meal is another gathering where wondrous things occur in the solidarity of a meal fellowship.

James Maxey

Ph.D. candidate

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
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Author:Maxey, James
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Date:Apr 1, 2005
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