The problem of interpretation is nothing new. It was as important to the first believers as it is today. The road to Emmaus is a brilliant piece of literature in which Luke gives us a profound insight into the art of interpreting scripture.
But I must begin this article with an acknowledgement. Luke 24 has been dear to me and I have taught from it countless times over the years. However, not too long ago I read a chapter from The Forgiving Victim by James Alison that has added such richness to my own understanding. So many of the thoughts in this article have been inspired or enriched by that chapter.
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread
Eye-Witnesses without a Clue
So here we have two disciples, not inner circle Apostles, just regular disciples trying to make sense of the events of the last few days.
In the midst of their discussion, Jesus draws near. Oh I love it – can you see how Jesus involves himself with our conversation, no matter how off-beat or confused it might be. However, even as Jesus draws near, something happens to them: they are kept from recognizing him. This is important because later on we will see the exact inverse happening – again they will be passive recipients of something happening to them.
And so Jesus asks them what they are discussing.
“And they stood still, looking sad.”
These two are eye-witnesses of the life and death of Jesus, yet they are downcast because they don’t know how to interpret the events. There cannot be a more literal or plain understanding of the life and teaching of Jesus, than being actual witnesses … yet here they are, visibly sad.
Interpretation changes everything. And Luke knows it because the Greek word he uses for sad, is the word skuthrópoi, which was not often used in the Septuagint (greek version of the OT). However, it was used in a story that had to do with interpretation.
Then the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison, had a dream, both of them, each man’s dream in one night and each man’s dream with its own interpretation. And Joseph came in to them in the morning and looked at them, and saw that they were sad. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in the custody of his lord’s house, saying, “Why do you look so sad today?”
And they said to him, “We each have had a dream, and there is no interpreter of it.”
So Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God?”
And there we have the same word skuthrópoi. It refers to having your eyes downcast, which is significant not only for describing the sadness, but also for describing very limited sight. So here we have two stories in which people are discussing things they don’t know how to interpret. They have all the information … but they don’t know what it means. The two disciples witnessed all the events … but they don’t have a narrative that connects them all together into a meaningful story.
Luke is skillfully making the reader aware of the fact that this is a story about interpretation.
“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him …”
Only one disciple is named, and that is for a very good reason. Luke is structuring this conversation in a very specific way. We have Jesus, a disciple named Cleopas and an unnamed disciple … an invitation to enter your own name and be drawn even deeper into this conversation.
So Cleopas starts recounting the events. His story, though, is full of disjointed events. There is no meta-narrative with which to connect these events, no context in which to understand them and no trajectory to bring them to a conclusion. This is sadly the way many still read scripture. One day they are encouraged by a scripture describing God’s loving kindness towards us, the next day they are deeply concerned about prophesies of an apocalypse. There is no connecting narrative that makes sense of both the violent and the kind passages. But in the midst of such confusion, Jesus enters the conversation “and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
They do not realize it yet, but the central character of the whole plot is busy unfolding the meaning of the story to them. Something about his interpretation stirs them deeply. “So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going further, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us…’”. They are starting to see the scriptures through someone else’s eyes … and the picture that emerges causes their hearts to burn. So they urge him to stay longer.
Then it Happened
A disciple named Cleopas, an intriguing stranger and an unnamed disciple (please insert your name) recline around a table. As he breaks the bread, something happens to them. “And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.” We sometimes read this as sequential events, but it is in fact one event. Similarly to the act in which they were prevented from recognizing Jesus, this is an act in which their eyes are opened, they recognize Jesus for who He is, and that is the moment in which He is no longer a physical presence apart from them … but rather, He is so present that we should no longer search for him in another body but find him in our own… and in the body of believers.(1)
Knowing the scriptures, even being eye-witnesses of the life and death of Jesus, did not lead them into a meaningful relationship with Jesus. But rather, it was an encounter with the living resurrected Jesus that lead them to interpret the scriptures anew. Again, we need to see the meaning of what Luke is communicating beyond a simple recollection of a historic event.
If your interpretations leads to an awareness of Christ wirhin and to a burning heart, you are surely also on this road to Emmaus encountering the resurrected Jesus.
We explore this thought further in the video below:
(1)Rabe, Andre (2015-01-24). Desire Found Me (Kindle Locations 2662-2663). Andre Rabe Publishing. Kindle Edition.