The Road to Emmaus:
A Parable about Jesus
John Dominic Crossan, who to me is one the more interesting modern scholars of the Bible, once pointed out that as well as the parables we remember that Jesus told, there are also parables about Jesus.
One of his examples is a story from Luke’s Gospel, Luke 24:13-35, about this strange meeting along the Road to Emmaus. Dom Crossan says that: regardless of whether we believe the story as fact or not, there is a way of discovering meaning in the story which makes it a parable.
Remember the scene as Luke tells it. Two people (not well known disciples – but disciples nevertheless) are walking to Emmaus and discussing the recent crucifixion of Jesus. A stranger approaches them and joins in their conversation. The stranger interprets Scripture to them as they walk, explaining to them that they should have expected Jesus to be killed, as were the prophets in the Scriptures. When they come to their house the stranger acts as if he is going to continue on, but they ask him in and once inside they offer some food. The stranger breaks the bread and in this action they recognize him as Jesus… but to add to their puzzle he disappears.
Crossan suggests we might see the parable as follows. In our context today, meeting the stranger in the unexpected setting means that you don’t know when you will be visited by Jesus. There is of course even today a sense in which Jesus is with you when you study the Scripture. It allows you to gather knowledge, but in practice this is insufficient for you to recognize Jesus. Reading Scripture is only preparatory and perhaps the equivalent of encountering a stranger on the road. It is only when you invite the stranger into your home and share food, which presumably suggests the Eucharist, that you will recognize him.
So there is much to suggest that the story is not just intended as history. The experience of the two persons on the road to Emmaus is always going to be more than the story of an event. By implication there are two things which might also be part of our experience. By all means let us respect the knowledge we can gain from Scripture, but let us remember that perhaps it is only when we go that one step further and do the equivalent of inviting the stranger in to share God’s food with us that we are going to have a chance of recognizing something more in the encounter with the stranger, the real meeting which in effect is the one with Jesus.
The offering of food – or if you like – the act of friendly kindness to the stranger is much more than an after-thought to the story. We would also have to say it is not a characteristic of our age. One of the unfortunate consequences of city living is that we build a deliberate shield around ourselves. It is possible to get through an entire day walking, eating and drinking in cafes, walking in the same direction along the pavement as others, sharing lifts, even park benches without even a single meaningful conversation. Perhaps you, like me, have seen neighborhoods where there is a culture of distrusting the stranger. Neighborhoods where the list of telephone numbers for legal assistance for taking legal action against all manner of neighbors and neighborhood agencies far exceeds the list of helping agencies. Neighborhoods where neighbors don’t know one another by name, where they do not help one another, where there are no street parties, where the elderly remain lonely. I have even encountered Churches that will not offer communion to strangers unless they are already members of the appropriate denomination.
There is a sense in which the neighborhood ethos depends on deliberate choices. I was warned that the shift to my current neighborhood was unlikely to be a good experience. I was assured by someone who had had one such bad experience that I was likely to encounter snobbish people who insisted on keeping to themselves. Instead the experience has been positive in the extreme. The neighbors in this street have a sheet of telephone numbers of everyone in the street. The residents have a regular street party and seem to know one another by name. They help look after one another’s properties. My next door neighbor on one side trims my hedge, the one on the other side gives us fish and venison. Other neighbors have fixed my computer. I have noticed that when one neighbor is away another neighbor takes his dog for a regular walk. Oh, and one other thing. Did I remember to say that these friendly neighbors are not Church folk. Yet on reflection such a neighborhood would not exist unless someone first had chosen to visit the neighbors to invite them the share phone numbers, someone had to agree to host the street party, and someone had to welcome the newcomer to the street.
None of these actions exactly require rocket science. Yet as a consequence of these simple actions the benefits of comfort, security and sense of belonging are immense. Theologically dare I suggest this might even be a glimpse of Christ.
It is intriguing that although many Churches stage their own Emmaus walk where the Bible story of the Road to Emmaus forms the central theme for the weekend, not all who have had the experience necessarily develop a culture in which the stranger is truly welcome.
But to return to this story of the encounter with Jesus. We can certainly sympathize with Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple. They were clearly missing the one who they had been inspired to follow, yet did you notice that Jesus was in no hurry to make himself known? Some commentators have suggested that because they were walking towards the sunset with the sun in their eyes they found it hard to recognise Jesus, but Jesus in his responses to them suggests that their lack of recognition might have had a more fundamental reason. Their description of Jesus as one who would rescue Israel, and one who had been prevented from so doing by those who crucified him suggested that they had misunderstood both the nature of Jesus and the significance of his death. Indeed as they talked more with Jesus it became very apparent they did not understand exactly who they had been attempting to follow.
Jesus in the story of the Road to Emmaus, models an intriguing way to conduct a conversation about the essentials of religion. Had he simply said – I am Jesus and I am back, the two disciples would have been no further ahead in their understanding. In the same way a street evangelist telling me about Jesus and the meaning of salvation through his death needs first to check that we understand the same things by the words being used before I am ready to understand.
Many statements and writings about Jesus illustrate misunderstanding in the sense that Jesus is portrayed as one worth studying and one who represents a form of action on our behalf that we are intended to stand back and admire. On the other hand Jesus himself treats his audience as those expected to live his teaching. Certainly such a shift in thinking cannot be hurried. After all Jesus disciples were with him for months and even years before they understood this fundamental distinction and there is no indication he insisted on instant acceptance.
The very last event in the story may also be significant as part of a parable teaching. Remember that just when the two disciples had worked out who the stranger was, he disappeared. Perhaps this might serve as a reminder that we should never expect to have the experience of Jesus in a form where all is absolutely clear.