Luke 24:13-35 – The road to Emmaus

Reflection by Josh Olds.

If I were to ask you to make a list of the greatest human achievements, what would you put on it? You might think of things like the invention of the wheel, or perhaps the building of the Great Pyramids. Maybe the Wright brother’s first flight, or perhaps Sir Ed’s climbing of Mt Everest. Maybe you think of venturing into space, or the moon landing. What about things like the discovery of DNA or other significant medical advances? Maybe the development of computers and the internet would come to mind. There are probably lots of accomplishments you can think of. Where, though, does the conception of the humble road rank on the list? Rather mundane and ordinary, yes, but when you think about it roads are pretty fundamental to the way we live. Author Jim Forest writes – “Roads are the circulatory system of the human race … the original information highway. From times long before the written word, roads have linked house to house, town to town, and city to city. Without roads, there are no communities. Roads not only connect towns but give birth to them … Each road gives witness to the need we have to be in touch with one another.” Roads provide the basic infrastructure of social life – they make relationships and communication possible, they were what historically made commerce and trade possible, they support delivery systems, and they provide safety and direction. Roads are a map of human connectedness.[1] The humble road is a primary metaphor for life and living, it speaks of pilgrimage and journey, of purpose and of change.

Luke, the gospel writer, seems to quite like roads – roads, and the idea of travel seems to feature prominently in his writing, so it is only fitting that his narrative of Jesus’ first resurrection appearance takes place on what? A road. The road to Emmaus to be exact. Our passage revolves around two travellers who are making their way along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the same day that the empty tomb is discovered. We’re not told much about these two, only that one is named Cleopas, and that they were followers of Jesus. As they wander along the road they’re trying to make sense of everything that has just happened – there’s a sense of hopelessness as they reflect on the death of their leader – Jesus of Nazareth. Last week we reflected on Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus in the garden and how she didn’t initially recognise him. In a similar fashion, these two Emmaus-bound travellers are joined on their journey by the risen Jesus, although for the time being they do not recognise him and instead seem to assume that he’s just a fellow traveller like them.

As Jesus joins them, the passage phrases it as “their eyes were kept from recognising him.” It seems to be an interesting choice of words. When Mary didn’t recognise Jesus in the garden, we’re told that it was because she confused him for the gardener. In contrast, Luke doesn’t tell us why Jesus isn’t recognised by the two travellers, but seems to imply that something specific is preventing their recognition of him. Much has been made of this by biblical commentators – some suggest that God prevents them from recognising Jesus, and others wonder if it has something to do with Jesus’ resurrected appearance. One commentator even floated the idea that perhaps the sun was in their eyes! Maybe the invention of sunglasses should be on the list of greatest human achievements… The answer is that we just don’t know why these two travellers don’t recognise Jesus, the man that just 3 days earlier they had recognised as the Messiah.

I wonder if it has something to do with narrative. The narratives we hold and buy into are powerful. They shape the assumptions we hold about ourselves and our lives, about others, and about God. Narratives are the lenses through which we make sense of things. Someone once said to me, “If you believe you’re a hammer, everything begins to look a bit like a nail.” The narratives we buy into shape how we see things. Like who it is that hides chocolate eggs around the house at Easter – a certain narrative will lead us to naturally conclude that the eggs must have been left there by none other than a certain haired mammal, which belongs to a species known for its extensive reproduction. The narratives we hold form the conclusions that we come to. Hence why as people of the Christian faith we retell the Easter story every year – it’s the central point of our narrative, and the basis of our hope – that God in his love and grace is about life and is bringing restoration and wholeness to the brokenness of the world. However, as we so often see, narratives can also be extremely destructive. We see examples of that in our own history here in Aotearoa, where the colonialist narrative justified laws and policies that have deprived and oppressed Māori. The narratives we hold confirm certain beliefs and deny others; they determine what we see, and like our two travellers, what we’re kept from seeing.

As Jesus joins the two travellers on the road he asks them what they are talking about. Initially, they’re a bit perplexed as to how someone could even ask them that. Given all that had just gone on in Jerusalem with the very public arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus wasn’t it obvious? “You must be a stranger around these parts,” they conclude. As Jesus probes a bit more the travellers give this seemingly foreign stranger a rundown of all that has just taken place. The account of events that they give is worth taking a look at. Interestingly, they almost nail it. Almost. They actually give a reasonable account of the Easter story – they tell of Jesus of Nazareth, a representative of God who had come, but who had been handed over by the chief priests to be condemned to death and was ultimately crucified.

In their account, the travellers talk about redemption and even allude to resurrection. However, their narrative leads them to conclude that it is a failed redemption, and an unproven, and therefore unbelievable resurrection. They describe how they had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel from Roman rule, yet the Romans remained. Their narrative led them to a limited view of the Messiah, and the redemption that they were to bring. The travellers describe a report that had been received by the women who had discovered the empty tomb and been told by angels that Jesus had risen. There is an air of skepticism as the travellers relay the report from the women. Their narrative struggles to comprehend the idea of resurrection, particularly if no one has actually seen the risen Jesus, the irony here is rich! The narrative held by the travellers prevented them from seeing that redemption had come and the resurrection that had happened, he was standing right in front of them.

Jesus however saw the irony. He responds to the account given by the travellers with an account of his own – “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” He invites them to reinterpret the events that they have just described to him from a different narrative, the narrative expounded in the scriptures. He shows them how the narrative they had bought into had kept them from seeing what was truly taking place, that the Messiah spoken about long ago had appeared, that redemption had come, and that despite what they had or hadn’t seen he had risen. The interesting part of this is that it’s not as if the two travellers didn’t know the scriptures, sure maybe they needed some help in interpreting them – which Jesus does for them, but ultimately they had allowed narratives from elsewhere to inform them.

The passage moves the story along the road a bit further to the travelling party’s arrival at Emmaus. Clearly something in the narrative that Jesus is unpacking with travellers resonates for them because they urge him to stay with them, which he does. And as they sit down to eat together, the penny drops, and it finally dawns on them that the foreign stranger is none other than the risen Jesus, as the passage says – “their eyes were opened, and they recognised him…” It is here that the narrative shifts for the two travellers, they hold a new narrative, one shaped by the biblical narrative that shows Jesus for who he is. And as this happens, Jesus disappears, it’s as if they no longer need to physically see him, to recognise him. This changes the two travellers, as it did for Mary in the garden, this new narrative inspires a response. So they hurry back to Jerusalem, which wasn’t a small feat – about an 11km journey, almost like walking from here to Burwood Hospital, and doing so at night! But their new narrative compelled them to, it was one of hope and of good news, it was a story worth sharing.

The narratives we hold and buy into are powerful. They shape what we see and what we don’t see. They influence how we make sense of things, and what our responses are. The narratives we hold form our hopes and our sense of purpose. And so a good question for us to ask ourselves is, what narratives are we listening to and allowing to influence us? What assumptions about ourselves or others, or of the way of the world, or of God do we hold that might be preventing us from recognising the presence of Christ with us? Dan asked us a good question a couple of weeks ago that I think applies here too – he said do we find Jesus compelling enough? Or maybe to put it another way, do we find the narrative of Jesus compelling enough to respond to it by playing a part in sharing it? Good questions for us to reflect on. And while it is good for us to be careful in discerning what narratives we buy into, we shouldn’t be too quick to criticise these two travellers, at one level we all have a limited view. But the grace that we find at the heart of this story is that the risen Jesus draws near to these two travellers on the road despite their misconceptions, just as he draws near to us if we’re able to see. Amen.

[1] Forest, Jim. Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a way of life. Orbis Books 2007.