This week – as we look forward to Easter Sunday – we’re studying Luke’s story of the “walk to Emmaus,” Luke 24:13-35. We are focusing on verses 13-27 & 30-31. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my few notes on this familiar and popular text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This story is the immediate follow-up in the gospel of Luke to the story of the women’s encounter with the angels at the empty tomb.
Luke is unusually specific about the disciples’ destination: a village 60 stadia from Jerusalem named Emmaus. A stadion (pl. stadia) was a unit of distance, maybe about 1/8 of a mile, so maybe about 7-8 miles from Jerusalem. Unless 60 stadia was a round trip. The name seems to mean something like “Hot Springs.” No one seems to know precisely where this village is or was, but there are several suggestions. Some are discussed, with contemporary photography, at the Israel Institute for Biblical Studies. Bible Atlas has a map, and more discussion.
We are almost at the end of Luke’s gospel. Following this revelatory event, the disciples who participate in the walk to Emmaus rush back to Jerusalem, Jesus appears to the assembled group, demonstrates that he is not a ghost, and then – that is, at some subsequent point, whether right away or a lot later – leads “them” out of town and ascends to heaven from Bethany. If this were television, we’d say this ending left room for a sequel. Since it’s the Bible, we’ll recall that Acts is that sequel. The book of Acts does, in fact, open with a “last time, in our story …” sequence that reminds the reader of the key preceding events.
The story of the walk to Emmaus is the gospel for the third Sunday of Easter this year (A), and Luke’s entire account (verses 13-49) is a reading for Easter evening every year. In other words, this will probably be a familiar story even for C&E Christians.
CLOSER READING: V13 makes a direct reference to the people in the earlier story.
Remembering what we learned last week about our gendered assumptions about “disciples” in Luke, we might want to be careful about how we read “two of them” in this verse. Grammatically, it’s a masculine plural. Practically, in Greek, this could be a reference to two men, or to a man and a woman. Just sayin’.
The word translated “talking with” each other in v14 is a verb that gives us our terms “homily” and “homiletics,” which seems … significant. In this particular talking and discussing, Jesus draws near and walks with them. In v15, their eyes were “kept” – as if by some force – from recognizing him for who he is. This verb repeats in v31, where they will recognize Jesus – just as he dis-appears.
There is a lot of dialogue in this story. The disciples stop and stand to question the stranger’s/visitor’s ignorance of the events of the past three days, and to fill him in.
The speaker is identified as Cleopas, a masculine form of Cleopatra, with a meaning, something like “glory of the father.” Again, Luke is being unusually specific here. Although, for that matter, Luke does like to name people …
Cleopas gives a long speech, identifies Jesus as a prophet, mighty in work and word, before God and people, surrendered to a judgment of death, crucified, the one they had hoped would ransom Israel. Cleopas reprises the story in vv1-12 as the women not having found the body, but having said they had seen a vision / apparition of angels who reported Jesus’ living. This seems like a “more reasonable” re-interpretation of the women’s testimony, since the women’s story was presumably that they had literally met those angels.
“Some of us” had confirmed what the women said about the tomb. Not saying about the angels … ?
Then Jesus proceeds to bemoan their thought-less-ness and slowness of heart. Literally, they are bradycardic, which if our doctors said this about us today, we’d be in physical trouble. They are not using their heads and their hearts to believe what all the prophets have spoken. About how the Christ must suffer and then enter into his glory. So Jesus thoroughly opens the writings – a verb that incorporates our term “hermeneutics” – starting from Moses and all the prophets. That is, “here’s how to read the Old Testament Christologically.”
We don’t know when the group begins moving again, but they must have done, since by v28 they are almost to the village. Maybe we should understand Jesus’ discourse as the initiation of movement. Walking, talking, and teaching.
We skip vv28-29, the social back-and-forth in which they press Jesus to stay with them overnight. Being hospitable. And, there is a repetition of the verb decline or incline, which was used earlier for the women’s response to the angels, and which will show up again in the next verse, as they all recline for the evening meal. The attitude of prayer? But also of table fellowship?
Jesus presides over the blessing, breaking, and giving of bread at their table, very similar to Jesus’ earlier presiding over the Passover table (Luke 22:19). Now their eyes are fully opened – again, this seems to be something that happens to their eyes, more than an action they take. They recognize Jesus, as they had not recognized him before.
The full opening of their eyes – to see a vision of Christ, which was a meeting with Christ – follows that long walk opening of the writings.
So, they acknowledge that they knew something was going on – their hearts were strangely warmed on the road – and return to Jerusalem to share this good news. By which time, the eleven and the others are also saying the Lord is risen, having been seen by Simon, and these two Emmaians will add their testimony, about how “he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Does anyone imagine this isn’t a story about the Christian sacrament of communion? I’m not big on thinking there’s “one right reading” to a text, but I think I could make an exception for this one.
Images: “Feuchtwangen Pfarrkirche – Vorhalle Fresko Evangelist Lukas” Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Han van Meegeren, The Pilgrims to Emmaus, 1937, via Wikimedia Commons / Public domain