263. Emmaus: The Journey of Life


13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.… …. 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 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 24:13-14, 33-35, NRSV]


The Road to Emmaus by Robert Zund, 1877.

Saint Luke’s story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) is a story that circulated in the very early Church when it was free of cumbersome theological strife. In simplicity, however, it carries great depth, as are characteristic of the Resurrection appearances.

A few friends have raised different questions about this story. Their questions inspired this series, in which we answer their questions and add a few more for extended reflection over this calendar year. As the Emmaus story is framed by a two-way journey, leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus and leaving Emmaus to return to Jerusalem, we begin in this first reflection on the topic of “journey”.

In this sublime story from Luke’s story-telling artistry, we enjoy scenes of the ordinary and the mysterious side by side: walking and the sudden appearance of a stranger; storytelling and hearts burning within; breaking of bread and miraculous recognition followed by disappearance; slow and sad walk one way and enthusiastic run on the return; dispirited beginning and high-spirit ending. As Luke tells the story with relish, so the readers follow this very dramatic and lengthy appearance account with captivated joy.

As with other Gospels, a few themes assume special importance in Luke’s writing, and some of these feature prominently in the Emmaus episode as well. Among others, we shall meet Luke’s special use of the journey motif and of compassion during our earthly sojourn, and the emphasis on Jerusalem as the decisive place of God’s actions, the completion of Jesus’ mission, and thus the starting place of the mission of the Church. We will come across a heavy emphasis on the theme of fulfillment of ancient prophecies. On that theme, the disciples in the narrative, and by extension the readers, will be confronted by the reality of the Messiah and what it means to be the Messiah of Israel. Then, we shall come face to face with the theme of hospitality to strangers, a theme which Luke worked on with flourish in conjunction with God’s mercy and compassion for the poor and the marginalized, as well as the lost and the hurting. Finally, the resurrection appearance of Christ again confronts the readers with the constant call of discipleship and mission.

Unlike other Gospels, Luke narrates all the resurrection stories on the same day. Luke, in other words, is telling the same spiritual experience of all those to whom the Lord appears. They include the three groups selectively included by Luke in chapter 24, the women who went to the tomb (24:1-11), the two on the return road to Emmaus (24:13-35), and the disciples gathered in Jerusalem (24:36-49). All these, captured in the same flow of events, lead into the concluding passage of ascension at Bethany and the disciples returning to Jerusalem, continually praising God in the temple (24:50-53). Each event forms an integral part of the whole revelation, so that all exhibit their initial blindness and participate in the same spiritual experience of revelation, surprise, and joy.

Cleopas’ Travelling Companion

Many have asked about the identity of the unnamed companion of Cleopas, often after reading somewhere some suggestions of who that second disciple is. The fact is, even the actual identity of Cleopas is a subject of debate. A quick run through of a series of articles reveals a wide spectrum of very different suggestions. These include the better substantiated suggestion of a female follower who was the wife of Cleopas. We may be mindful of the fact that nothing in the text makes it necessary to presume that Cleopas’ companion was a man. Reimund Bieringer, New Testament professor in Leuven, sees that “it was only the androcentric orientation of past centuries that spontaneously presumed both to have been men.” The two apparently lived in the same house and Cleopas might be the Greek version of Clopas who is mentioned in John 19:25 as the husband of one of the women, named Mary, who stayed with Jesus at the foot of the cross. What perhaps needs to be said is that rich imaginations elevated to “facts” may be seriously flawed. Alleged reliances on biblical references which nevertheless end up in wholly different identities caution against attempts to name the companion of Cleopas. With even Cleopas’ identity remaining a mystery, it is hardly meaningful to try and identify the second disciple. What seems clear, however, is that they come from a group that knew Jesus well and had been following him rather closely. This is supported by two pointers in Luke’s narrative:

  1. They belonged to a group where “some women of our company” (v.22) went to the tomb early in the morning and came back with amazing reports about angels and missing dead body of Jesus. Those women, as we well know, included Mary Magdalene who belonged to the circle of Jesus’ close friends.
  2. Upon their return to Jerusalem from Emmaus after encountering the Risen Christ, they met and reported Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the Eleven (minus Judas Iscariot), thus solidifying the evidence that they knew Peter and the Apostles well.

The fact that there are two of them has also prompted the suggestion that these are missionaries, on the basis that Christian missionaries were sent out two by two. And in this regard, we may note that the conversation of the returning duo is good for mutual witnessing which is how faith is built up in the faith community. But so long as we are doing biblical meditation, it is perhaps most productive to imagine Luke intentionally leaving the second identity anonymous and inviting you to step into the text, to become a companion, a fellow traveler on the road, a sharer of story and bread. Imagine Luke inviting you to inhabit this Gospel story and take on board what the Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has said, “Although the Gospels yield their surface stories readily to the most casual visitor, they keep giving endlessly to those who inhabit them.” Then, you can join the story as it were first hand, to see, feel, and touch the raw emotions and finally, to be touched by a mission-zeal every Christian is meant to carry with them in life’s journey.

The Journey Motif

In Luke’s Gospel, the journey motif occupies centre stage. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus journeys towards Jerusalem.

  • “It is typically Lucan that the first account of a [resurrection] appearance should occur on a journey; and just as on the long journey to Jerusalem, so also in 24:27 Jesus gives important revelation to disciples” (Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p.261).

And in keeping with Luke’s perspective of the spiritual life as a journey, Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is to two disciples walking together down the road, dispirited.

Every journey has two dimensions, of course. One is the outward journey where the two disciples are leaving Jerusalem, putting a distance between themselves and the city of recent heart-chilling disappointment. The other is the inner journey that involves the spiritual persons who, even as they distance themselves from Jerusalem, can hardly distance themselves from what has happened there in recent days. In the Emmaus journey, Luke paints a picture where the disciples are at the end of an emotional journey after the crucifixion having dashed their hopes. And yet this Emmaus walk turns out to be a time of healing as they verbalise their experiences of the past few days with each other.

This healing intensifies unexpectedly when a stranger joins the conversation and breaks open the ancient Scriptures for them, so much so that they experience an incredible lift in spirit with their “hearts burning within” them. As is always the case, when the presence of the stranger, and their encounter with him, is pleasant rather than intimidating, it deepens the healing process. Readers easily sense that as the two disciples progress in this journey, each step takes them closer towards the resurrected Christ and towards comprehending how the crucified Jesus has risen and is in truth the Christ, just as the ancient prophets have testified. The Emmaus walk thus symbolizes our itinerary of faith. In that itinerary, Christ comes to us, becomes our conversation partner if we let him, and makes himself known. He invites us to share with him our private thoughts burdened by sadness, our hopes darkened by failures and rejection, and the things, the people, and the events that cause our experiences of negative thoughts and wounded feelings.

In this frame of understanding, the Emmaus walk fits very well into our contemporary reference to the spiritual life as a journey. This journey motif enables us to verbalise the progressive nature of the human search for truth, and for the Creator of all there is. This dynamic of the journey motif offers a sense of immediacy for seekers of truth who read the Fourth Gospel:

  • Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light” [John 12:35-36].

Disillusionment on the Journey of Life

On the road to Emmaus are two disillusioned disciples, their hopes for Israel’s liberation completely dashed along with the death of Jesus.

To be disillusioned is common in life’s journey as well. Among the most painful experience of life’s journey is when we think we are on the right path, only to find it paved with problems hard and intractable, even problems that beat us down and render us helpless and spiritually drained. For some, they may get disillusioned to the point of life collapse.

The wound is all the more severe if one had a self-image that one was “powerful in action and speech before God and the whole people” (Luke 24:19), and life suddenly takes everything out of one’s hands. Faced with the ruin of one’s life, one wishes only to run away from this gutter-feeling. The two disciples from Emmaus are caught in that rut, so they walk away from Jerusalem.

Leaving Jerusalem

The symbolism of the Emmaus walk is huge. For the disciples to be in Jerusalem in the first place points to the likelihood that they had a sense of mission in participating in the cause led by Jesus to liberate Israel from the hated Roman occupiers. In that case, the symbolic significance of their walk towards Emmaus is more accurately a movement away from Jerusalem, away from mission. They have given up on a lost cause.

Each evangelist has his own theological concerns. Mark begins in Galilee and ends in Galilee where Jesus’ kingdom-mission begins after his baptism and temptations in the wilderness, and to which his disciples are summoned after his resurrection. By contrast, Luke’s theological preoccupation with Jerusalem is a prominent feature in his writings. In their overarching geographical emphasis on Jerusalem, the companion-volumes of Luke-Acts show up their author’s preoccupation with Jerusalem not only as the city of destiny for Jesus, but also as the pivot for the salvation of mankind. He has a distinctive concern to show Jerusalem as the place where God’s saving visit is accomplished and God’s visitation of judgment is focused.

  • Luke’s narrative opens with Zechariah offering incense in the Temple (1:9), and closes with the Eleven returning to Jerusalem, praising God in the Temple (24:53), the Lord having instructed them to “stay in the city” until they are “clothed with power from on high” (24:49).
  • The visit of God in Jesus first heralded by Zechariah as a visit of salvation (1:68-75) and recognized by the people in Jesus’ prophetic activity (7:16) is one which will be accomplished in Jerusalem (9:31).
  • The infancy narrative hints of the journey-to-Jerusalem motif, as it narrates the child Jesus being taken there twice by his parents (2:22, 42). The scene of the 12-year-old Jesus astounding the Temple teachers not only foreshadows his Temple teaching ministry (19:47), but identifies him as one who has to be at his Father’s house (2:4-9; see also 19:45-46). Even at the Annunciation, the angel pronounces the future child as being destined to sit on the throne of David and be king over the house of Jacob (1:32-33), thus announcing his special relationship to Jerusalem.
  • Jesus resolutely sets his face towards Jerusalem (9:51). The whole Gospel is heavily crafted as a journey towards Jerusalem where the revelation of the cross takes place. Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem as his goal (13:32), for it would not be right for a prophet to die outside Jerusalem (13:33). In Jerusalem, salvation will be accomplished once and for all in Jesus’ suffering, death on the cross and resurrection to glory. As Hans Conzelmann has noted: “The prophets do not perish merely in, but by means of Jerusalem.”
  • Then, Jerusalem takes on a double significance as not only the place of God’s visit, but as a community that has to account for its failure in religious insight to recognize the time of its visitation (19:22-24). Furthermore, if the condition of following Jesus is for the disciple “to take up his cross everyday and follow me” (9:23), Luke’s theological framework means the disciple coming face to face with Jerusalem.
  • Closely tied together are the way of the Lord (9:51; 18:31), Jerusalem (9:31; 13:33; 19:22-24), and the inability of Jesus’ disciples to understand his appointed course (18:34).
  • “Beginning from Jerusalem”, Acts will feature witnesses exiting with the Good News of God’s salvation and spreading it to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).

In other words, Jerusalem, in Lukan geographical perspective, is an essential location theologically in the divine plan of salvation. Once we see Jerusalem as denoting the theological significance in Luke as the pivotal place of the visit of God in the life and death of Jesus, then we will see Jerusalem as the reference point of the Emmaus story. Emmaus is never the destination. Rather, the entire setting of the journey to and from Jerusalem is the framework of this narrative.

  • When the story starts off by narrating the two disciples as being “on the way to a village named Emmaus,” the story is already telling us they are on the wrong way. As the direction of their way is away from Jerusalem, they journey in sharp contrast to Jesus who insisted that “I must go on my way… it cannot be … away from Jerusalem” (13:33). The correct direction, when Jesus introduced the third passion prediction, was: “Now we are going up to Jerusalem” (18:31).
  • In walking away from Jerusalem, the two disciples are abandoning the path of Christ. They have all but abandoned the “unworldly” power of Christ displayed in his passion and death, and accepted as “final” the “worldly” power of Rome that crucified him. They have become deserters walking away from their cause. Spiritually “finished”, they are dispirited, and in spiritual darkness.

If the story stops there, or upon their arrival at Emmaus, then the Jesus movement would have perished with that one-way journey. But there is a second part to this story which features “the road back to Jerusalem”. Before that turn and return, something needs to happen. They need to encounter the Crucified but Risen Christ, hear him break open the meaning of the Scripture about the Messiah, and break bread with him. The path towards Christ and God is a path of progressive enlightenment. But once their spirit is renewed, they shall be recreated for mission afresh. From Luke, we learn that “just as Jesus walked with the disciples on the road, all of Jesus’ disciples must in turn walk the road with others, listen, challenge, offer perspective, show hospitality and break bread so that soon, the whole world may see that Jesus is Lord!” [Joe Paprocki, Renewing Your Ministry, p.115]. The images from Luke’s narrative call us to a renewed and reawakened awareness that we all travel the Emmaus road together as we struggle to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, January 2021. All rights reserved.

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