by Sarah Henrich
Professor of New Testament
St. Paul, MN
It's all about what happened on the road or, on the way if you prefer (verse 35), the place where many of us spend a lot of time literally and figuratively. It's about us in other ways too. We'll consider three aspects of this text and then weave them together. The aspects? Time, characters, and dynamics.
Let's start with time. This passage specifies time at a number of places. The length of the day itself is highlighted, from the women's going very early in the morning to the tomb (verse 22, cf. verse 1). By verse 29 evening has come and "the day is almost over." What has happened in this long day? We shall look at that when we tackle the "dynamics of the passage." Before we move on, there are two other time references that frame this passage. The first (verse 21) mentions that the three day period prophesied by Jesus is now over without the reappearance of Jesus that Cleopas and his companion had been hoping for. They had waited for the long walk home as long as it made sense according to Jesus' own words. Now, that time period was drawing to an end and there was nothing much left to do but go home. In verse 33, after they have recognized Jesus, Cleopas and his companion are themselves raised as if from the dead (note the use of anastantes) and in that very hour they rush back to Jerusalem! They discover that the third day had not quite ended, the prophecy had not been wrong. Their own timing had been a little rushed. So who are they? Let's look at the characters in this vignette.
There are three central characters, Cleopas, his unnamed companion, and their unrecognized companion Jesus. We do not know Cleopas from any other biblical reference. Clearly he and his companion had been followers of Jesus who knew Jesus as a prophet mighty in deed and word whom they had hoped would be the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel. His death had not made them hopeless. They waited, trusting in his prophecy about resurrection on the third day. It was the coming of the third day and not Jesus that had dismayed them.
These two were also familiar to the other disciples and knowledgeable about what went on in that group, as we can see from their accurate telling of the events of the discovery of the empty tomb and their later welcome back among the eleven and the others in Jerusalem (verse 36). They were neither faithless nor uninformed. They were busy talking, trying to understand what had happened. They were people who both knew the need for and had hope for the coming of a Messiah who could redeem God's people. They also were people who were concerned for others--or at least for this traveling companion of theirs who thought he'd press on in the evening. Cleopas and his friend knew how unsafe the roads were. Surely the man who had spent so much time with them talking about Scripture would be better served by a simple meal and safe accommodations for the night.
Now to the dynamics. What happened during this long day on the road? Luke's tale is framed by contrasts. Movement is part of the framing. While it takes them all day to plod out to an inn near home, they get back to Jerusalem a lot faster. The passage begins with Cleopas and his companion simply going along (poreuomai) and then walking (peripateo). As we near the end, they turn back (verse 33) and immediately seem to be in Jerusalem. Time takes on new meaning here. Did they run? Fly? They certainly moved faster on the return trip.
Another part of the framing of this story includes the information that Cleopas and his companion simply stop in the road when Jesus asked what they were talking about (verse 17). They are stopped by the sheer sadness of the response they will make (skythropos, verse 17). As they hasten back to Jerusalem, they remember not sadness, but burning hearts (verse 33).
Through all the talking and walking that frame and shape this text--and there is lots and lots of both--there is a major change in these two men. They move from tellers of a sad story, conversation partners about what has been and what has happened and what hopes they had held to tellers of a story about having seen the Lord in the breaking of the bread. They become people whose hearts are burning, perhaps as the hearts of the women burned when they put two and two together and came up with resurrection in Luke 24:6-8. Instead of leaving Jerusalem, the city where the Messiah ought to show himself, they came back to it and to Jesus' other followers with new hope. They had seen the Lord: he had prophesied truly; there was hope again that Israel might be redeemed. What happens next is a text for another Sunday, but let's look again at all that happens in 24:13-35 and re-weave the time, the characters and the dynamics.
I began by saying that this text is truly one for us. It's a text that takes people on the road, going home, back to ordinary life, who are saddened that their greatest hopes have not come to pass. In spite of all they knew, all the stories they could rehearse, in spite of the witness of others, they simply had not seen Jesus--nor had anyone else they knew. The prophecies of Jesus and hope of redemption grew cold and were not able to sustain them any longer. They began to suspect that the whole thing had been a mistake, a worthy hope and one unlikely ever to be realized. For them, Good Friday had not been Good. Time had passed and there was no change, no resurrection, no Jesus.
Does not time also pass for us, as we go our many ways "back"? We "outgrow" our hopes or become more realistic and we no longer expect anything real to happen. We know the stories. We've heard the biblical word. Notice that even when Jesus propounds all of Scripture to the two travelers in the story, they do not recognize him!
Like Cleopas and his companion, we talk endlessly. How many library shelves are filled with the words of theologians? How many blogs bandy about words about God, Jesus, religion, faith--both pro and con? Our talk does not always lift our sadness or our lowered expectations of what God could do or would want to do. There is a kind of resignation in all this, both Luke's story and often our own lives. Get real. Grow up. Back to work. I can only imagine how the families and friends of Cleopas would offer advice and opinion when the two got home to long untended work and family obligations.
But, they don't go home, or at least not right away. The heart of this passage, the place where the dynamic changes, is the meal in Emmaus. This is a strange little story in its own right. The two travelers have to nearly force Jesus to stay with them. The verb (parabiazo) is used only one other time in the New Testament. Luke uses it in Acts 16:15 where Lydia has to practically force Paul and Timothy to stay at her house. The verb means to "twist someone's arm," to "compel." The two were so eager for Jesus to stay with them that they would have almost forced him. But it did not come to that, of course. Jesus was planning to stay the whole time. In fact, Jesus was there the whole time.
It was in Jesus' characteristic behavior of giving, of feeding, of caring for his sheep--whatever way you want to describe the blessing and distributing of bread--that they knew him. Suddenly. Fully. Jesus spent a lot of time in Luke's gospel eating with people of all sorts. He described a wise and faithful disciple as one who makes sure others have what they need to eat at the right time (Luke 12:23-24).
In feeding others at the right time and in receiving the bread broken for us with thanksgiving, we are given Jesus. Stop talking, stop everything, and pay attention as you reach out to receive what is blessed. A glimpse of the Lord may propel you new confidence, new hope, even a new way of remembering.
Cleopas and his companion are us. They know a lot. They care a lot. They think about things and are saddened by their diminished hopes. More important, they don't even know that their eyes have been closed until suddenly they are opened. We can't control the One who opens and closes eyes. But from this story, we might find hope that Jesus walks with us. We do find hope that in the breaking of the bread (24:35), we catch a glimpse of our Lord.
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