On the Road To Emmaus

Easter 3A

Luke 24: 13 39


This reading (found only in St Luke's Gospel account) is of particular importance to those who try to meditate frequently on the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures In short it is one of the foundation passages upon which we build our approach to Lectio Divina meditation and communion with Christ the Word in our spiritual reading of the Holy Gospels and other Sacred Scriptures.

To help us appreciate the great depths and significance of this unique passage from St Luke, we will draw on the wisdom of writers from the 5th and 6th Centuries, as well as from the beginning, middle, and end of the 20th Century: two epochs which both saw the disintegration of law and order and what appeared to be the end of civilisation and respect for heritage and culture, as we have known them.


The Benedictine monks of St Andrew's Abbey in Belgium, commenting on our text ask:

"Which of us has not, at least once, walked the road to Emmaus, full of uncertainty about Jesus; full of disappointed hopes for his Church? Again today, perhaps we are tempted to lose heart. We are undergoing the shock of the passing away in our society of a certain kind of thinking about God; Christ is, to all appearances, defeated; the Church and its liturgy (forms of worship) seem irrelevant to the unbelieving masses of people fascinated by latter-day idols." (See Appendix 1, Item 1, to read the rest of this statement.)

If you experience this sort of disquiet at times, you do so in good company. A little further on, we will read short portions of writing from two authors of the 5th and 6th centuries who faced unprecedented chaos in every direction as the Roman Empire began to crumble. The horror of being under siege by those who only wanted to destroy every evidence of Christian order and values, led these great Christian leaders to build their teaching on the Rock of Christ and never deviate from it. That teaching continues to help us as we seek to understand the Gospels and their ever-fresh relevance in our times. They both help us considerably to understand this passage.

Some Notes On the Text

Setting the Scene

Verses 13 and 14

The reading commences with the words:

"Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem."

It is still the day of the Resurrection, the first day of the week. The two men had been disciples of Jesus, but after witnessing his execution they were utterly disillusioned and, having abandoned their former pursuit, were heading off to make a new start.

As they walked along the road to Emmaus, they talked about the stream of events which had occurred, as far as they understood. We know one was called Cleopas; interestingly the author leaves the other unnamed. The scene is one of doom and gloom. They cannot believe that they are in this situation after their rabbi had filled them with such hope and expectations. They are completely unaware that something is about to happen which will change their whole lives.

Verses 15 and 16

While the two were deeply involved in analysing events and exchanging views, Jesus came up and walked alongside them. They were kept from recognising him, and so just carried on talking, undisturbed by the stranger's presence.

St Luke has us all feeling very sorry for these two men. They were so enthusiastic and loyal to Jesus, at some personal risk to themselves. But suddenly it all seemed to go wrong we cannot blame them for giving up. as we suspect deep down, we probably would have done just the same.

A Note For Teachers

We should note at this point (with the help of Eugene LaVerdiere) that what follows is an exceptionally well crafted unit of writing. There are two sub-units: first, verses 17 27, a dialogue narrative which takes place while they are en route out of town, and in verses 28 32, a meal narrative located at Emmaus. This structure is very important to recognise. By the time this Gospel account was written, the early Christian assembly for the breaking of the bread included two distinct yet inter-related elements: a discussion arising out of the oral passing on of Jesus' teaching which naturally included reference to what we all the Old Testament, and a meal.

The two sub-units in this passage reflect that structure and this is the writer's device to draw a parallel. We will explore this later.

The Dialogue Narrative

Verses 17 19a

Jesus asks the two men: "What are you discussing as you walk along together?" They stopped in their tracks and showed very openly on their faces how downhearted they felt. Cleopas comments: "You must be the only person who was in Jerusalem and had no idea of what was going on!" To which our Lord relies, "What are you talking about?" "About Jesus of Nazareth that's what!" They cannot believe that this stranger is so "not-with-it."

Verses 19b 24

  • The two men then, finding a sympathetic enquirer, spell out what has so upset them:
  • This rabbi we admired so much was a prophet powerful in word and deed (teaching and healing).
  • So why would the chief priests and rulers hand him over to be sentenced to death even worse, why was he crucified for crimes he didn't commit!
  • We were certain he was the Messiah who would lead Israel out of subjection to pagan rulers!
  • Our women went to his tomb to complete the proper protocol with his body which had to be postponed due to the onset of Sabbath. But when they arrived there was no body to clean.
  • These women said angels told them he was alive but some of our companions ran to look for themselves and they also couldn't find him.

We do indeed feel for these men.

The Church of the first few centuries looked back over events like this and concluded that when Christians have difficulties with faith, it is not Christ who is dead but his disciples! (See St Augustine's comment, Appendix 1, Item 2)

Verse 25

Our Lord clearly loves them for their honesty and what amounts to broken hearts. They have been chosen for a very special mission and they will draw on their experience of emptiness and what follows throughout the rest of their lives.

Most translations show Jesus now calling them "foolish". If we are not fluent in New Testament Greek we need to know that "foolish" in this context means "wanting in thought, understanding, and consideration." It does not imply any contempt. On the contrary, he discerns their purity of heart and proceeds to give them spiritual perception; one of the greatest gifts soon to become the role of the Holy Spirit to dispense.

There is, however, an implied warning. It is dangerous to pick and choose in Sacred Scripture what you will take notice of while ignoring the rest:

"..how slow of heart you are that you do not believe ALL that the prophets hove spoken".

Parallels with the way some Christians operate are significant.

Verses 26 and 27

Then comes the enigmatic statement that is still difficult for modern people to take in:

"Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?"

Jesus then begins to walk his two disciples through the Scriptures they love but have never understood. He begins with Moses, that is, the five books of Moses, and proceeds to "all the Prophets," meaning the rest of the Old Testament. He explains to them "what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." (See Appendix 1, Item 3 for the traditional list of Messianic passages in the Old Testament.

This closes the dialogue on the Scriptures which was conducted like a mobile Synagogue service, a celebration of the living word the essence of which in fact carried over into the first part of traditional Christian worship. (Called variously the Eucharist, Lord's Supper, Mass, Holy Communion, etc).

The Meal Narrative

Verses 28 and 29

We now move into the meal narrative, and we draw substantially from "Luke" by Eugene LaVerdiere, (Veritas Publications, Dublin 1980 a text we highly recommend for your purchasing). See Appendix 2 for a sample of this impressive work, which underpins these notes.

As the three approached Emmaus it was starting to get dark and Jesus made out to carry on travelling. The other two insisted he stay with them which he did.

Verse 30

Inside, the two hosts set the table for their guest to have a meal. When they were ready to commence something unusual occurred. Jesus took over as host. It was he who led the blessing, and St Luke records it using the typical formula of Jesus:

  • He took bread
  • gave thanks
  • broke it, and
  • gave some to each.

St Luke, in this way, evokes the Last Supper of Jesus (See Luke 22: 19a.) Thus the infant Church recognised, as it looked back over other times when Jesus fed people, the special relationship between these events and the Last Supper to which they pointed.

Verse 31

This was enough for the eyes of the two men to be opened, and for them to recognise him. The moment they did so, he disappeared, from sight. In time they came to understand that, in fact, he did not disappear at all, but was indeed with them.

Verse 32

Only now do they realise:

"Were not out hearts burning within us while he talked to us on the road, and opened the Scriptures to us?"

Part of the essential teaching Luke has for us is that even when the Sacred Word of Scripture was broken open for them by Christ the Word himself, they did not comprehend. (See Appendix 1, Item 4). Even the Word himself chose not to convince by the Word. Only at the breaking of the bread did Jesus allow them to realise who he really was, and reach a full understanding of what he had taught them. Would that all who call themselves Christian honestly face up to what this means!

Verse 33 35

Immediately they set out for Jerusalem which they had just left. They are back on track, they are new men. They described in detail to the Apostles what had taken place. In particular they conveyed how they had had a personal grooming in the Messianic references in Scripture which only bore fruit when they joined him at table for the breaking of the bread; for only then did Scripture illuminate the presence of Christ.

Some Concluding Ideas

1. In the introduction we talked about the difficulties most of us seem to have today in holding to the Christian Faith when the Western World has abandoned it. We find it hard to recognise Christ in an atheistic culture.

St Luke wrote his account for a community faced with a similar predicament. Eugene LaVerdiere draws out the lesson St. Luke is making:

"Those who open their table to the Stranger and share their possessions and who take on the self-giving attitude of Jesus recognise the risen Lord, and are re-established in hope. Such is Luke's message to those who suffer persecution and can no longer recognise the risen Lord as they have done in the past."

2. St Gregory the Great (AD 540 604) in one of his Sunday Sermons made the point that in this journey to Emmaus, Jesus "accommodated himself to the eyes of their hearts." This was a vital learning moment for the whole Church. If we are despondent at the failure of our Lord to bring about the great plans we had for him then he will often allow us to walk in mediocrity. He is quite demanding that we abandon our natural inclination to dream up great schemes for him to endorse, and instead apply ourselves to beholding his vision, to listening to his directions and following them, in biblical language, with alacrity. This is in fact a working definition of our approach to meditation which is both a listening-to-behold, and a listening-to-do.

St Gregory brings out this point very emphatically. We therefore close our meditation with a passage from this great son of a senior Roman Senator who led the Church through most turbulent times.

St Gregory the Great: Road to Emmaus

You have heard, dear brethren, how the Lord appeared on the road to Emmaus to two disciples who were talking about Him. Although they did not believe in Him, Jesus drew near and accompanied them, but in a manner in which they could not recognize Him. Externally and to their bodily eyes he accommodated Himself to the eyes of their hearts. The two disciples loved Him in a fashion; nevertheless, they hesitated to accept him into their hearts. Therefore the Lord showed Himself externally present, yet would not reveal His identity. Because they spoke of Him, He came and accompanied them; because they doubted, He concealed from them the form by which they could have recognized Him.

True, He spoke with them chided them for their dullness of perception, and unlocked for them the mysteries of Sacred Writing that referred to him; yet He pretended that He wished to continue the journey because He was still excluded from their hearts. ('The Latin word for "pretend, fingere, is also used with the meaning 'to fashion." hence we call a potter, one who fashions clay, a figulus.) By acting in this way, therefore, divine Truth, who knows no deceit, was not guilty of duplicity. For the Lord fashioned His body to appear to the disciples, exactly as they imagined him in their hearts. It was necessary that they prove their love for Him at least as a stranger, even though they did not as yet love Him as God.

But since those with whom Truth is present cannot be far from charity, they invited Jesus to become their guest, even though He was still a stranger. Now why did I say they invited Him, when the text says, "They constrained Him"? Because from their example we ought to learn that strangers should not only be invited to share our lodgings, but must be urged to do so. They prepared the table and brought food; then at the breaking of bread they recognized God whom they did not recognize when the Sacred Scriptures were being explained. Observe that they were enlightened not by hearing the commands of God but in performing them. Do we not read in holy Scripture, "It is not they who hear the Law that are just in the sight of God; but it is they who follow the Law that will be justified"? If, then, one wishes to understand what he has heard, let him hasten to put into action that which he has already grasped. Note that the Lord was not recognised when He was speaking, but He did manifest Himself while He was being served.

Additional Reading (Appendix 1 and  Appendix 2)

Expository Thoughts on Luke by J.C. Ryle: The Road to Emmaus

Next Page Home Site Map Search Disclaimer

Copyright 2000 Community of Affirmation