On the Road to Emmaus

The readings for Sunday, April 30, 2017, Third Sunday of Easter, Cycle A, are
Acts 2:14, 22-33; 1 Peter 1:17-21; and Luke 24:13-35.

A masterful composition is Luke’s story of Jesus’ encounter with two of his disciples returning from Passover in Jerusalem to their hometown Emmaus. En route they were discussing the events they had witnessed in Jerusalem — the death of Jesus and now a report from some women who had visited his tomb early Sunday morning and found it empty. This report apparently had to be confirmed by men, and they discovered that the women were not just spinning tales. The two disciples add, “But him (Jesus) they did not see.” All this is part of a conversation they were having with a stranger who joined them in the walk to Emmaus. Luke writes, “While they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”

On various occasions in the Gospels Jesus is something of a tease.  In the Emmaus story Jesus pretends to know nothing about what had been going on in Jerusalem.

When we recall that Luke is not writing a biography of Jesus but a catechism, a book of religious instruction about Jesus, then we must realize that Luke’s enfolding of the story in the mouths of the Emmaus disciples is the presentation of a Christian Creed in the mid-eighties of the first Christian century. Today we phrase it not in a story but in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. Luke will not stop with proclaiming a short creed, but, as the story moves on, he will instruct his hearers and readers about the Eucharist.

After telling their unknown companion about the events in Jerusalem, he turns on them with a scolding, “O you senseless slowpokes! (Think of Luke addressing his congregation here.) You are so slow in believing all that the prophets spoke!” All our Gospel authors write under the conviction that everything that happened to Jesus was exactly predicted in the Scriptures (the Old Testament). Their conviction of these predictions abstracted from the context from which they took these passages, nor did the authors shrink from changing the Old Testament passages to better reflect what they wanted to teach about Jesus. A reminder: when our Gospels were composed in the last third of the first century, the Scriptures had not yet been canonized, that is, set in unchangeable concrete form.  Oral tradition of forty to sixty-five years had also put the sayings attributed to Jesus and the stories about Jesus into various differing forms.

Since, according to the principle that everything about Jesus was exactly foretold, what happened to him allowed for no escape. Luke next attributes to Jesus this very thought, “Was is not necessary that the Messiah (the Christ) must suffer these things and enter into his glory?” It had to happen because the Scriptures predicted it!  Luke was not the first to come up with the theology of necessity about Jesus. The Gospel of Mark may have originated this theology, and Luke is strongly influenced by the Gospel of Mark written 15 to 20 years earlier than Luke. For us a good approach to these matters is to accept that in God’s plan these things had to happen as they did, but that God could have made other arrangements for our salvation.

So often in the Gospels Jesus is referred to as Teacher. Now he takes on this role once more, as Luke writes, “Then beginning with Moses, (the Torah, Pentateuch, first five books of the Bible), he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” These fortunate, “senseless slowpokes” are privileged to hear the greatest Teacher ever! The walk to Emmaus could have taken quite some time, since the distance was seven miles, and evening was at hand. The two disciples are about to reach their home. Jesus returns to his pretend-mode, “He gave the impression that he was continuing his walk after the two reached their destination.

They urge Jesus to remain with them overnight. He agrees. They sit down to supper. What we now call the “Words of Institution” are spoken over the bread at the table, “While he was with them at table, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.”  In these words they recognized him, but he vanished. Later they will explain to their fellow disciples, “how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Their reaction to the “breaking of the bread,” and to their instruction by Jesus should be our reaction as well at every Mass, “Were not our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”