According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel reading for this Sunday, April 30, 2017, is the story of the encounter between two of Jesus’ disciples and the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, some seven miles outside Jerusalem. Only Luke tells this story, suggesting that he gathered it along with other information during his own research (cf. Luke 1:1-4). In any case, at least as I read it, it still vibrates with the energy, positive and negative, that must have pulsed through the community of Jesus’ disciples in the days immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion, and especially on the day when the encounter took place, the day the women had found Jesus’ tomb empty at daybreak.
One of the most striking elements of the story, and its context, focuses attention on the disciples’ unbelief and lack of understanding. According to Luke, the two Mary’s and Johanna report of their findings at the tomb “seemed” (ἐφάνησαν, efanēsan) to the male disciples “like nonsense” (ὡσεὶ λῆρος, ōsei lēros) and they did not believe the women’s outlandish news (24:11). When the two disciples on the Emmaus road met Jesus, their unseeing eyes prevented them from recognizing him (24:16) and their reaction to his inquiry about the topic of their conversation, namely the crucifixion and now the empty tomb, evidences something close to anger (σκυθρωποί, skuthrōpoi, “gloomy, angry,” v 17). Cleopos’ sarcastic question (“Are you the only who does not know?” v 18). The description of their disappointed hopes (“we had hoped,” v21) poignantly indicates their despondence. Of course, all of the Evangelists agree that the disciples had not understood the nature of Jesus’ mission; they certainly had not anticipated Calvary and, three days later, an empty tomb (cf. Mark 8:31-38). As Cleopos said, they had hoped for a military Messiah who would “ransom (λυτροῦσθαι, lutrousthai, v 21)” Israel (from the Romans), but now he was dead and this body inexplicably missing. Even with Jesus walking beside them, they were blind and unbelieving. Indeed, even when Jesus accepted the invitation to join the larger group of disciples for dinner, none of them recognized him at first.
This element of the Gospels’ depiction of the disciples seems remarkably honest. The disciples were not ready for Easter; they had not anticipated it; they had not understood anything Jesus had said about his coming passion and certainly not his resurrection. Hearing about it for the first time, they unsurprisingly deemed it “nonsense.” Yet, within a few months, they would be preaching to throngs, proclaiming the Good News of a risen Lord. In fact, according to early church tradition, some of them came to believe firmly enough to die martyrs deaths rather than recant. Experiences such as the one on the Emmaus Road were neither mass hysterics nor fabricated support for a new religion born of conspiracy. Not only was the tomb empty, but the disciples – sometimes singly, in groups of two or three, and in larger gatherings – repeatedly saw him, talked with him, and ate with him.
Another striking element in the episode concerns Jesus’ interpretation of texts in the Hebrew Bible as evidence that the events surrounding the empty tomb somehow fulfilled the scriptures. Of course, since Jesus and his disciples were Jews, they only scriptures available to the early church were those of the Hebrew canon. Any sensitive reading of the New Testament will recognize the generative influence that the Hebrew Bible exerted on the authors of the New Testament. For these disciples, as they had already indicated, however, the biblical traditions that they had associated with Jesus point to a Davidic king who would restore both the dynasty and the nation to prominence, defeating and expelling the Romans. Unfortunately, Luke does nto record the scripture passages Jesus cited. They could only have had explanatory force with regard to the crucifixion if they dealt with redemptive suffering. Therefore, Jesus must have cited texts like the “Suffering Servant” passages in Isaiah or some of the individual laments in the Psalter. Significantly, Jesus’ interpretive presentation failed to open the eyes of the blind disciples; only after Jesus disappears from their midst again do they reflect on how their “hearts burned within them” while Jesus had been speaking (v 32).
The fact that they could walk much of the journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the company of the risen Lord and listen to him teach the Bible without recognizing him astounds. Of course, the other disciples gathered for supper did not recognize him either. Positively, at last, when he took bread, broke it, and gave it to them, they saw clearly. Only days earlier, Jesus had served them in similar fashion at the Last Supper, stating that he would not eat bread or drink wine again until he did so in the kingdom of God (22:16, 18). The disciples required the context of Communion to recognize the Crucified One who had given his broken body and shed blood for them.
Then, and now, Jesus’ disciples prefer to think about the king coming in glory rather than to take up their own crosses and place lowly, even risky, service to God by serving others above status, wealth, and power. Then, and now, Jesus’ disciples see Jesus best when they remember the depths of his humble service and obedience “unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).