by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognising him.” Luke 24: 13-35
In order for us to appreciate some of the subtlety of the gospel-reading for this third Sunday of Easter, there is value in reminding ourselves that Luke wrote his Gospel in Greek for a Greek-speaking community of Jews who had separated themselves from mainline Judaism by their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ of God and by their believing that God had raised him from the tomb after he had been crucified. Luke’s community was a Christian community in its infancy.
When Cleopas and his unnamed travelling companion were joined by a third traveller, they could not believe that the newcomer confessed to being ignorant of all the events surrounding the arrest, trial, condemnation, torture and execution of Jesus. It had to be a topic of discussion for no other reason than the fact that it had involved the Jewish High Priests and the collaboration of the Governor and the occupying force from Rome.
Moreover, there is deep irony in the fact that, when Cleopas and his fellow disciple failed to recognise Jesus, in their minds they labelled him with the Greek word paroikos, which can be translated variously as “stranger”, “foreigner”, “exile” or “alien”. The irony lies in the fact that the Jewish religious authorities had been persistent in their efforts to ostracise Jesus by discrediting him, calling him a “blasphemer “, criticising him for associating with sinners and disreputables. They regarded him as one for whom orthodox practice of Judaism was totally foreign. There is further irony in the fact that, as a child, he and his parents were real exiles in Egypt.
However, let’s not forget that failure to recognise the resurrected Jesus is a theme that is integral to the drawn-out resurrection story. Mary Magdalen did not recognise him at first. Peter and his fishing companions initially saw him on the shore cooking fish for breakfast as an unknown stranger. Cleopas and companion didn’t know who their new-found friend was until he had disappeared after breaking the bread of eucharist with them. Luke wove this into his narrative to make the point that Jesus is not a commodity to be accessed on demand but will be found only when and where he chooses to reveal himself.
Furthermore, in exploring the evolution of this Greek word paroikos, I discovered in my etymological dictionary that it is the root of the English word “parish” and is echoed in today’s first reading from the First Letter of Peter which offers this advice: “If you are acknowledging as your Father one who has no favourites and judges everyone according to what he/she has done, you must be scrupulously careful as long as you are living away from your home (euphemism for “exile”)” 1 Peter 1: 17. It would seem that author of this letter (scholars are not certain that it was Peter the apostle) and members of the early Christian community saw themselves as alienated by mainstream Judaism because they put their faith in Jesus who was executed as an alien outside the walls of Jerusalem. Members of this unwanted community were deprived of their citizenship because of their new-found religious allegiance. As a result, they described themselves as a paroikia. – a parish. Throughout history, in different circumstances and cultures followers of Jesus have been ostracised, exiled, disowned and persecuted because of their allegiance to him. Perhaps an experience of being criticised, treated as aliens for our allegiance to Jesus and his Gospel might be a sobering experience for us all, reminding us that there is a cost for claiming the resurrected Christ and putting our faith and trust in him.
There are other aspects of this Emmaus story that are worthy of our reflection. In a sense, Cleopas and his unnamed companion are nobodies. They are given no further mention in the New Testament. Clearly, they were real disciples who could not wait to get back to Jerusalem with the news that they had encountered the resurrected Christ “in the breaking of bread”. But the significance of what they had experienced took time to dawn on them. Moreover, by their own admission, they had apparently lost faith and hope in Jesus: “Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free” (Luke 24: 21). The extraordinary aspect of this story is that the risen Jesus met these two disillusioned disciples in the depths of their disappointment, loss and grief. This story speaks to us eloquently of a God who meets us in our confusion, pain, grief and loss of faith and hope. That allows us to dare to expect that we don’t have to feel obligated to be constantly on a search for God. The Emmaus story is a reminder that God will search for us, irrespective of the depth of our spirituality or the firmness of our faith. We don’t earn God’s attention or love. What matters more than all these things is the openness of our hearts to welcome strangers and to extend the hand of friendship and hospitality, even to people we hardly know.
Finally, let’s not leave this story without pausing to reflect on the moment of self- awareness shared by these two “nobodies”: “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24: 32). Surely this is a clear indication that we are much more likely to encounter the living Christ in our heart rather than in our head. Faith is a matter of the heart not a cerebral activity.
I conclude with the refrain from Easter Expressions, a song by Kevin Bates S.M.:
Praise to our God who raised up Jesus, praise to our God who raised up this world.
Praise to our God whose gift is faithful – Jesus, hope of all the world.