“Walking to Emmaus” – Luke 24.13-35

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The two of them, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, walked along the path to Emmaus. That’s how the story starts. If you’re a geographically-minded person and wonder where this ancient village actually was, you could probably draw a circle seven miles around Jerusalem and Emmaus was somewhere on that circle’s circumference.[1] We don’t know exactly where Emmaus was.

Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe we need to ask ourselves whether or not we’re walking to Emmaus. As we read Luke 24.13-35, we really don’t need to know exactly where the ancient village of Emmaus was. Historical biblical criticism falls short here. We can’t use archaeology and anthropology to give us a definitive setting for this story. Other tools of biblical analysis might jump out at us. For instance, textual criticism is a branch of philology or literary criticism. It isn’t much help either. The Greek word Εμμαους is used once in scripture: Luke 24.13. The Greek lexicons simply say: “Emmaus, a place in Palestine.” We could turn to form or source criticism, but they don’t add much either. Instead, we end up looking at the narrative structure of the pericope and asking what it says about the nature of God. Everything in the Bible points to God in one way or another. The disciples encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus tells us about our journey, who we might encounter, and what we should do about it.

Jesus is God-incarnate, one part of the triune Godhead. Jesus and God-the-creator are one, just as they both are one with the Spirit, or God-the-sustainer. Three persons. One God. Luke tells with care about Jesus as the Child of Humanity. E.g., in Luke 5.24, the Child of Humanity has the power to forgive sins; in Luke 9.22, the Child of Humanity will be rejected, killed, and rise again on the third day; and, in Luke 22.69, the Child of Humanity will remain at the right hand of God.

When we encounter this story, we have to ask about this journey to Emmaus and wonder if we are on it too. We’re all on a journey. Every person is going somewhere. Even if it doesn’t seem like anything is happening or like we’re stuck inside because of a pandemic, we are on a journey. So we put ourselves in the story and ask if we are going to this ethereal Emmaus and what it means. We can ask who goes with us on our journey. And, what do we do in response? It’s both an acknowledgement and a call. We see and must do something about it.

To understand the multiple layers of theology, we climb inside the story. We go back to that dusty road and picture ourselves walking along the path. Because they were talking, I don’t imagine that they were hiking Old Rag in the Shenandoah Mountains. If they were, they would be out of breath. I picture a sandy and grubby road. This scene takes place on Easter. The women had only discovered the empty tomb that morning, and they are trying to make sense of what happened.

The two of them, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, walked along the path to Emmaus. From the perspective of the two travelers, someone joined them as they walked. As I tried to envision this, the pandemic made it difficult. Actually, our modern, insulted, and suspicious world has eroded the kind of trust necessary for interactions with strangers. I thought about Cleopas and the other disciple and pictured myself as the unnamed one. I visualized the two of us walking along the sidewalk in Charlottesville and talking about all the things that had happened. Someone joins us. I’m not sure how I would react. Today, it would be awkward for a stranger to come up and ask, “What’s going on?”

First, I would be like, “Wo! Put your mask on!”

We know that the stranger is Jesus. Luke wants us to know that. Remember: Luke is telling Jesus’ story. But they don’t know that. Cleopas and the unnamed disciple didn’t know that. Cleopas said, “Have you been living under a rock?”

They describe what happened and the three of them keep walking to Emmaus. They still don’t recognize him, though. These were his followers. They knew the pre-paschal Jesus. They should have known him, yet, like other post-resurrection appearances, they don’t. Juan Luis Segundo attributes our difficulty identifying Jesus to the new way he lives and acts.[2] We have trouble seeing Jesus in our lives today. The connection between the risen Jesus and the pre-paschal Jesus is indirect. Cleopas and the other disciple tell the as-yet-unidentified-Jesus what happened as they understood it. They say, “Jesus was a prophet. He was great. He did awesome stuff. Then, our own chief priests had the Romans kill him. We had been hoping he would be the Messiah and save us. It’s been three days.”

I wonder if they paused or talked really fast. I wonder how much detail they included. They continued, “Some of the women went to the tomb this morning and found it empty.” Maybe there was another pause. These two were feeling the despair of not knowing what comes next. To them, everything was over. “Some others went and confirmed what the women found.”

Their traveling companion had listening and responding as they talked, “Uh huh. Uh huh.” He heard their last comment and said, “How can you be so thick? Don’t you believe what the prophets have said? Can’t you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?”

This stranger who walked along beside them started at the beginning, with the Books of Moses, and went on through all the Prophets, pointing out everything in that referred to the Messiah. As he talked, the two disciples can hear God’s self-revelation in a dialogue with, basically, an unknown interlocutor. This guy walking alongside them, on the road to Emmaus, drops profound truth. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “The dialogical relationship with the expositor is realized in its purest form where Jesus’ word is welcomed in a hearing is pure Yes-saying.”[3] “Yes-telling” is a great description of encountering Jesus in our lives. “Yes-telling” is the story of Easter. Death isn’t the end. God says, “Yes,” to eternal life.

For the two travelers to hear what Jesus was saying, they had to say, “Yes.” They couldn’t squirm away, like a contemporary pedestrian avoiding contact during a pandemic. They had to be open to the initial question, “What’s going on?”

They didn’t say, “None of your business.” They answered and engaged with him. They were walking to a physical place, yet we are all walking somewhere. We can’t actually walk to Emmaus because we don’t know where it is. However, we can go on our spiritual journey. So, today, I have three questions for you:

First, where are you going?

Second, who is going with you?

Third, what are you going to do about it?

When you think about where you are going, imagine Emmaus. Don’t picture some ancient village, but picture that place of spiritual recognition, that place where you experience pure “yes-saying.” We are all walking somewhere. Where are you walking? As we walk, different people join us on our journey, including Jesus. He can speak through other people and open our hearts to experience God in new ways. We just have to be open to hearing him. When we do recognize Jesus walking with us on our journey, we have to decide what we’re going to do in response. Do we jump up and proclaim, “The Lord has risen indeed,” or do we keep doing what we’ve been doing?

We can respond to Jesus by sharing even when we don’t feel like we have anything to share. We can respond by comforting others, encouraging people who are hopeless to have some hope, and appreciating every blessing.

Are you walking to Emmaus? Do you see Jesus walking with you? Tell the world.

[1] Hugh Connolly, “Emmaus,” The Furrow 50, no. 9 (1999): 489.

[2] Juan Luis Segundo, The Historical Jesus of the Synoptics, trans. John Drury, vol. II, Jesus of Nazareth Yesterday and Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985), 170.

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Truth of God, trans. Adrian J. Walker, vol. II, Theo-Logic (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 71-72.

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