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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 walks 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 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: Jesus has in fact died for everyone. 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 very limited 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).
“Heart speaks to heart”
In today’s Gospel – Luke 24:13-35 – we hear about the two on the way to Emmaus and their encounter with Jesus. After Jesus has departed, the two say 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?”
In 1879, when he was made a Cardinal, St John Henry Newman chose as his motto, words he had read in a letter by the 17th century Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales: “Cor ad cor loquitur” – “Heart speaks to heart”. Discipleship is an affair of the heart. It is marked by a journey into intimacy with Jesus. That intimacy then shapes all our relationships.
In 2008, whilst visiting the United States, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a gathering of young people and seminarians at St Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York on Saturday 19 April. At one point he spoke quite specifically to the seminarians. However, his words speak to us all: “I urge you to deepen your friendship with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Talk heart to heart with him. Reject any temptation to ostentation, careerism, or conceit. … Remember that what counts before the Lord is to dwell in his love and to make his love shine forth for others”. These words echo the opening words of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, published on Christmas Day 2005: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.
Jesus walks with us every day, everywhere, in all circumstances. This provokes an obvious question: Am I aware of his presence? If not, why not? Why would I ignore the offer of Jesus’ presence to me personally? Am I afraid? Too busy? Don’t care?
The first three principles of the spiritual life are these: Firstly, listen! Secondly, keep on listening! Thirdly, never stop listening! Become aware of the great mystery of it all: Jesus is present for me and, through me, present for others!
Ironically, a preoccupation with “right behaviour” and “earning rewards”, makes us deaf to the great gift of Jesus’ presence. Any conversation with Jesus present in our days, will begin when we hear him ask: “Will you let me love you? Will you let me be present to others through you?”
The Jesus Story is all about God loving us into freedom. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .” (John 3:16). Christian morality is born of that truth taking hold of our hearts. Pray St Paul’s prayer and listen with the ear of the heart as you say the words: “I pray that … (I) may be strengthened in (my) inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in (my) heart through faith, as (I am) being rooted and grounded in love” (see Ephesians 3:14-19).
Fr Michael Whelan SM – Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter