265. Emmaus: Conversing with Two “Ex-Disciples”


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. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 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?” 19 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, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 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. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 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. 24 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.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. [Luke 24:13-35, NRSV]

 Road to Emmaus, by John McNaughton

Our third reflection on the Road to Emmaus takes a first look at the conversation on the road, particularly on the disciples’ story “concerning Jesus of Nazareth”. Can we learn something from identifying some ironies in the disciples’ own account?

Life experiences vary from person to person, but every person has a story to tell. As they walked and talked, Jesus listened. When Jesus spoke, they listened. We respect people and get to know them better if we listen to their stories respectfully.

Different people face different challenges in life, and are at different stages of growth spiritually. We understand them better when we open our hearts to listen with care the stories they tell. We respect them by taking them as they are, where they are. The disciples are two disillusioned travelers leaving the city of Jerusalem. Not only is the hope that they cherished unfulfilled, all hopes are dashed now that Jesus is crucified. But right now, three days after the crucifixion, the fact that the two are still talking to each other about their disillusionment makes for the needed opening for the Risen Christ to enter into conversation with them.

Jesus asks questions, listens, and explains

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus neither presumes to know better at the outset, nor does he impose his views by riding roughshod over the legitimate experiences of the two disciples. Respecting them as they are and where they are at in relationship to their level of faith, he gently asks questions. He gives the two disciples an opportunity to verbalise their experiences and to pour out what their hearts hold dear. He lets them tell their stories, their interpretation of the events that had happened in their lives, their emotions, their struggles.

And he listens respectfully.

“Only love can listen,” writes Paul Hinnebusch in Community in the Lord. He explains:

  • Only if I love can I listen. For only if I love am I interested and concerned enough to listen attentively. If I do not listen, I do not really love. Only if I am lovingly interested in the other and concerned about [the other] and attentive to [the other] can I really hear and understand.

After the two disciples have finished giving an account of where they were coming from, Jesus begins to give them the truth and to explain the divine logic that governs the person and the work of the Messiah which the prophets, beginning with Moses, have long foretold.

Clearly, the Risen Christ teaches by divine pedagogy. The term “pedagogy” comes from a Greek word, pedagogos, which means to lead a child. It was common in the Greco-Roman world of the first century that children were “led” by a teacher or tutor (pedagogue) until maturity. Divine pedagogy is thus the manner in which God teaches the human race, by the “condescension” of eternal wisdom, so “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature” (Dei Verbum, No.30).

In his opening speech to the Synod Fathers at the 2014 Family Synod in Rome, Pope Francis called for the observation of two cardinal principles. First, they were to speak courageously. The Holy Father wanted all participants to feel free to truthfully verbalise their local experiences from the regions they represented. Only in truthful-telling through courageous speaking, would the participants fulfill their duties at the Synod. For only then would they contribute meaningfully to a truthful picture of the reality concerning given issues prevailing in the world. Second, they must listen respectfully. After they have spoken, they must accord the same opportunity to others to speak. And they did so by listening intently, with sincerity and an open mind, especially when other participants’ experiences were very different from their own.

The Irony in the Conversation

Back on the Road to Emmaus, the disciples tell the story of Jesus to the stranger. We do not know exactly who they were. What we do know is what they experienced and their recent experience is one of darkness, where light has been extinguished, for their memory does not carry any hope. In thus revealing their experiences, they are also telling the story of themselves, giving away information that enables the stranger to assess how they see themselves. Denis McBride sees it as one of discarded discipleship:

  • As disciples the two travelers found their identity in Jesus: because of what Jesus did and said, because of who he was, they saw themselves in light of ‘discipleship’. Their direction in life was in following him; their hopes were invested in his redemption of Israel. Necessarily, their discipleship was tied to Jesus: they did not create it and they cannot re-create it now. Their story is not only about the death of Jesus, therefore, but about the death of their relationship with him. Their groping for meaning can be seen as a cry for relationship. That relationship is no more; so their discipleship is no more. They see themselves as ex-disciples of a dead prophet, and that takes them away from Jerusalem. [Emmaus: The Gracious Visit of God According to Luke, p.136]

Ex-disciples tend to have confused memories. Their interpretation of texts and events tend to be poor and lacking in hope. As a result, we may easily pick up ironies in their speech. When the stranger asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”, Cleopas replies by a question as well: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” It’s like asking: “Didn’t you hear the news?” This reply is of course deeply ironic:

  • They think they “know”, when in fact they are utterly ignorant.

Cleopas labels the stranger as “the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there these days” (v.18) when in reality Jesus is the only one who does know, while everyone else is still mystified or “foolish” and “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (v.25).

  • They have all the facts, but none of the meaning.

Lacking in any clue about the deeper meaning of the events, Cleopas and companion demonstrate their ignorance by merely giving a lengthy recitation of the facts and concluding in a statement that acknowledges a complete community blindness – “but him they did not see” (v.24). They just cannot “see”!

  • Cleopas calls him a “visitor to Jerusalem” (v.18) without regard to prophetic fulfillment.

Cleopas at the tail end of the Gospel takes the readers back to its beginning where Luke rendered an emphatic “no room in the inn” (Luke 2:4-7) in the city of David – Bethlehem in the infancy narrative – and then in Jerusalem of the crucifixion narrative. As the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets (Luke 16:16; see also at the Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-36), Jesus is a true son of Jerusalem. Jesus was most at home in the Temple where as a child of twelve he was “about my Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). And yet, Cleopas is right in referring to Jesus as a visitor and thus a stranger, for he is atrociously rejected as a stranger by the elite religious leaders who do not only refuse to recognize him, but even have him crucified outside the city walls.

  • Missing Jesus’ identity for his reputation

In their reply to Jesus’ searching “What things?”, their narration of events speaks only of partial appraisal and partial praise. They describe Jesus as “a prophet mighty in words and deeds before God and all the people” (v.19), their memory missing his identity (Son of God) for his reputation.

  • Seeing a “victim” and missing a free agent

Worse yet, all that they really remember about Jesus is that he is a victim. The religious leaders did something to him. While holding Jesus in high regard, therefore, these disciples have no deep Christology at all. They demonstrate their lack of understanding in portraying Jesus as the passive recipient of the condemnation of others; they fail to recognize Jesus’ active role in his own death. Passion is not just about doing things. In the case of Jesus’ Paschal Mystery, passion has a great deal more to do with orientating his free will fully towards God and His vision, and allowing things to be done to him in fulfillment of that kingdom-building-orientation. That’s something the wisdom of the world will not be able to comprehend, let alone to accept. So the world does not “see” and accept the Risen Christ.

The Emmaus-walk is unique to Luke’s Gospel. “The space given to the conversation on the road shows how necessary it is”, in Luke’s view, “that believers have a new understanding of how Jesus death and resurrection fit God’s purpose” (Robert C. Tannehill, Luke, p. 352, in the Abingdon New Testament Commentaries series).

Everyone has a story. What is your story? What is your struggle? What is the breakthrough you are longing for? In truth, we talk a lot, and we rationally argue a great deal, but often we do not know what we are saying until we quiet down, humble ourselves, and defer to the wisdom of God (see 1 Cor 1:18-25).

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

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