The Emmaus Road: A Parable about Jesus?
I have never counted them myself, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that on no fewer than 17 occasions Jesus has cause to reprimand one or more of his disciples for being slow in understanding. And if you wanted evidence for how thick they were, what about today’s anecdote? The Emmaus Road story, if intended as literal truth, would be one of the more confusing in the New Testament.
If we assume for the moment that all the post resurrection experiences happened exactly as Luke and the other gospel writers recounted, we ought to be puzzled. Hadn’t Jesus appeared to all the disciples except Thomas in the upper room and when Thomas finally caught up with Jesus, didn’t the account say he too set aside his doubts and was convinced? Didn’t the disciples also encounter Jesus on the lake shore where Jesus invited them to share in a meal of fresh cooked fish? So why then should these slow witted disciples be unable to recognize the familiar figure of their leader in yet another post resurrection appearance?
John Dominic Crossan, who to me is one the more interesting modern scholars of the Bible, reminds us that as well as the parables we remember Jesus telling, there are also parables about Jesus.
One of Crossan’s favorite examples is today’s 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 this 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 had been foretold by the prophets in the Scriptures. When the disciples reach 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, strongly reminiscent of the last supper, they recognize him as Jesus.
Crossan suggests we might see the parable as follows. In our context today, meeting such a stranger in the unexpected setting means that you don’t know when you will be visited by Jesus. Reading Scripture is only preparatory and only finds meaning when we too are doing the equivalent of encountering a stranger on the road.
If it is history, it is merely curious. If parable, there is a teaching which speaks to our present. We are reminded it is only when we show kindness to the stranger, we may well recognize the unexpected significance the stranger represents.
So there is much to suggest that the story offers more than 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 may be with Jesus.
The offering of food – or if you like – the act of friendly kindness to the stranger is more than an after-thought to the story. We would also have to admit it is not a characteristic of our age. Nor for that matter is it a given that we would be hospitable in practice even after reading this story. Many Churches set aside time for an enactment of the Emmaus walk, yet not all participants automatically become welcoming of strangers.
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 neighbourhoods where there is a culture of distrusting the stranger.
Neighbourhoods where the list of telephone numbers for legal assistance for taking legal action against all manner of neighbours and neighbourhood agencies far exceeds the list of helping agencies. Neighbourhoods where neighbours don’t know one another by name, where they do not help one another, where there are no street parties, and 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 community ethos depends on a host of deliberate choices. When I was appointed to the congregations of Epsom and Mt Eden I was warned that the shift to that neighbourhood 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.
In point of fact, the experience turned out to be positive in the extreme. The neighbours in the street had a sheet of telephone numbers of everyone in the street. The residents had a regular street party and seem to know one another by name. They helped look after one another’s properties. My next door neighbour on one side trimmed my hedge, the one on the other side gave us fish and venison. Other neighbours fixed my computer.
I had also noticed that when one neighbour was away another neighbour took his dog for a regular walk. Oh, and one other thing. Did I remember to say that these friendly neighbours were not Church folk?
Yet on reflection such a neighbourhood would not exist unless someone first had chosen to visit the neighbours to invite them the share phone numbers, someone had to agree to host the first street party, and there was buy-in to the idea that residents had to welcome the newcomer to the street.
None of these actions depended on rocket science. Yet as a consequence of these simple actions, the benefits of comfort, security and sense of belonging were immense. Theologically, dare I suggest this might even be a glimpse of Christ.
So to return to this story of the road to Emmaus. 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 recognize Jesus, but Jesus in his responses to them suggests that their lack of recognition might have had a more fundamental reason.
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 a helpful 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 sounds hollow unless I see the one talking to me is transformed by his or her belief.
Many statements and writings about Jesus illustrate misunderstanding in the sense that Jesus is portrayed as 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.
I suggested at the outset that it may not even matter how we come out on the literal or metaphorical interpretation of the story. If the Gospels talk of even the closest disciples being puzzled by the resurrection claims, looking back at the same claims 2000 years later without the disciples’ experiences to ground our interpretation in reality the questions and uncertainties are not going to go away.
On the other hand Luke appears to be using the example of Jesus being found in an everyday encounter and not some esoteric religious experience. If we can accept that intended or not, this story has a parable like teaching, we too might be encouraged to look for experiences of Christ in our day to day encounters.
This particular meeting of the disciples with Jesus in today’s reading has two features which suggest relevance for us today.
The first is that the joy of meeting Jesus is sometimes discovered in the context of shared food. In a typical Sunday service the formal part of the service can easily take a form which precludes a genuine sharing and meeting with one another. Even the perfunctory hand shake at the door, the passing comments about the weather or even the complaints about the length of the sermon don’t exactly assist mutual communication. It is strange that all too often we come inspired by one whose practical ministry saw the shared meal as central to his means of sharing and accepting with others, yet we see the cup of tea after the service almost as an incidental extra.
The ministry of hospitality has a good fit with our claim that caring about our neighbours is a central part of Christ’s ministry.
Secondly there are so many Christian denominations (38,000 at one Wikipedia count) and within those, so many shades of interpretation about the meaning of resurrection, also means that we are unlikely to find statements about resurrection supported by an overwhelming majority. Where however we might find agreement, is to suggest that a tomb is no place to confine the spirit of Jesus.
We might well get our inspiration for action in the liturgy and sermons of our Church service but ultimately it is in the situations of urgent need we are called to feed the hungry, to bring justice to the persecuted, to show hospitality to the lonely – and in short – to live the gospel we claim we find in the place we call church.
And more than that, we have Jesus example and teaching to remind us that others will encounter him when those who seek to follow his words minister in practical flesh and blood situations.
So the question for each one of us….. In our encounters, will others see in us the warmth and welcome of the Love of God? Will we notice when others offer us the essence of Christ? In our encounters, will others find the same attention to the place of hospitality and acceptance that Jesus demonstrated? In our encounters, will others get that tantalizing and puzzling glimpse of the same Spirit that appeared to be so hard to kill – and yet which always seems a little beyond understanding even by his closest disciples?
Resurrection means life and the tomb is a most inappropriate place to contain the spirit of life.
Christ is risen……..
He is risen indeed! Yet will we recognise him when his presence is there?