I think I can relate to the couple that meets up with Jesus here in Luke’s story. I have been there … and you probably have, too. Something happens in your life—at work or church, in your family or in a relationship, maybe even between the neighbor and you—and it ends up being a distraction to almost anything and everything else that you may deal with. It may not be all that significant, but it could also be really, really important … so much so that the issue is simply “with” you, no matter what you do and wherever you go. You just cannot see your way around it, and it may be that you would be oblivious to obvious solutions that appear before you.
The couple from Emmaus was like that. Their world had just been turned upside down. As they themselves stated, they had pinned all their hopes for their people on Jesus of Nazareth, whom they noted especially for “his powerful deeds and words” and as one “recognized by God and all the people as a prophet” (Luke 24:19 CEB). You can sense the despair in their voices when they tell about their own hopes for Jesus in contrast to the sinister response of the Jewish leaders to him: “Our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him” (Luke 24:20 CEB) … “but we hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21, my translation). Note the emphatic pronouns in their affirmation: both the emphatic “we” and “he” (duplicated in the Greek text) underscore how they had put their trust in Jesus … only to see those hopes dashed by others who wanted him gone. And the couple’s report about the women’s vision of angels at the empty tomb without any discovery of Jesus’ body—let alone a risen, living Jesus (see Luke 24:22-24)—further intensifies their confusion, despair, and hopelessness. Although they entered Jerusalem initially with excitement, exuberance, and expectation over what this messianic figure could do to restore Israel as a people and nation, now they leave the holy city downcast and despondent … and oblivious to the identity of the one who would join them on their journey. For they could not in their wildest dreams hope for a living Jesus when they could not get past the despair and confusion over the crucifixion of the one they hoped to be the promised Messiah, one who would deliver and restore in ways they naturally assumed would free them from Roman occupation rather than die on Rome’s definitive instrument of suppression and power.
What makes this one of the most memorable stories from the Gospel of Luke is the masterful way that the author narrates this story. For it is as the couple is on their way to the off-of-the-beaten-path village of Emmaus (presumably their hometown) and is conversing together (an interesting choice of Greek verbs, as the English term “homily” is derived from it; see Luke 24:14), perhaps trying to figure out what had just happened in Jerusalem, that Jesus himself arrives on the scene. In the height of the confusion of this pair of disciples, Jesus appears and joins them on the journey (24:15). We find no explanation for this appearance. And there is no mention of any response toward this “stranger” who joins the couple, other than that the couple’s “eyes were kept from recognizing them” (24:16 NRSV). They themselves were oblivious to the fact that the one about whom they were talking was walking with them! And even when the risen Jesus asks them about what they were discussing, the oblivious, confused Cleopas asks Jesus the ultimate ironic question, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” (24:18 NRSV, emphasis added). Given the couple’s remarkable inability to recognize Jesus at that moment, his question puts this encounter on edge. Yet even then, Jesus plays along and allows Cleopas to offer his limited perspective and assessment of the recent tragedy … a perspective that was completely unaware to what God may have been doing in the midst of everything that confused him so much.
It is no wonder that, before Jesus offers what may be described as a “thorough biblical explanation for the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Messiah” (i.e., a basic summary of verses 26 and 27), he scolds them for being both “foolish” and “slow in heart” to believe “all that the prophets have declared” (Luke 24:25 NRSV). One would think that the couple would have been offended by Jesus’ strong words toward them. But instead of taking offense to Jesus’ verbal finger pointing, the narrator mentions only the couple’s staunch insistence that Jesus would stay with them upon their arrival at the village, rather than traveling on during the evening hours. The rare NT word used here (Luke 24:29), which appears elsewhere only in Acts 16:15, focuses on someone compelling or coercing another. In contemporary language, we would figuratively say that they “twisted his arm” until Jesus consented to stay. Yet all the while, there is still no indication that they recognized him. Despite Jesus’ scriptural exposition and explanation, the couple was still oblivious to the one who blessed them with his presence.
But … consistent with what we find throughout Luke’s Gospel, this pair models what is typically described as the embrace of the gospel that Jesus embodied and proclaimed. Throughout this Gospel, a sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God is hospitality: the opening of one’s home and table … or even oneself to Jesus, to other disciples, or even to the stranger (see, e.g., Luke 10:5-12, 29-35). Although the couple may still have been blinded by their own expectations and disappointments as they failed to recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst, their insistence for Jesus to stay with them indicates how they still continued to live out the grace of God’s kingdom in such hospitable ways because their lives had been shaped by that grace.
The despair of the circumstances may have been responsible for closing the couple’s eyes from the possibilities of recognizing the risen Jesus as he walked with them that day. But the couple’s hospitality opened them to the possibilities of recognition that came when they shared the meal with Jesus. The author does not explain why Jesus, as both stranger and guest in their home, takes on the role as host in that moment, as he “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30). The Lukan wording is quite similar to what was used earlier to describe Jesus’ feeding of the 5000; all four verbs are identical forms or variations of the same verbal stem (see 8:16; contrast 22:19 and the Last Supper, where Jesus uses a different verb, a form of eucharisteō, to describe Jesus “giving thanks” rather than “blessing” the bread). But at this very moment, the two disciples recognize Jesus … and upon their recognition, Jesus vanishes from them! At this point in the Third Gospel, there is no indication where Jesus went. And the author mentions nothing how the couple recognized him. What is it that opened their eyes at that moment, when they failed to recognize Jesus as he walked and talked with them before?
To be sure, the couple was oblivious to the risen Jesus because all they talked about was a Jesus who was dead … a Jesus who had been crucified wrongfully by the Romans after being handed over to them by the Jewish religious leaders (see Luke 24:19-24). They were not looking for a living Jesus and certainly would not have expected to see Jesus looking them in the eye and talking with them! Yet commentators are fairly consistent in suggesting that Jesus’ presence at the table and in the breaking of bread—much like in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, which the church continues to practice—transforms this scene from any other ordinary meal or scene to a moment of grace. But still, we must ask: Why now? What opens their eyes here (for the verb translated “open” typically refers in Luke-Acts to divine revelation through Scripture or proclamation; see Luke 24:31, 32, 45; Acts 7:56; 16:14; 17:3). Why does the couple recognize Jesus at this moment? And why does the author reiterate again at the end of this passage, when the pair recalls what happened, that they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread?
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, the author is concerned that readers of this Gospel “see” or “perceive” what is going on. More than just seeing with our eyes, the author calls on us to “see” what happens in terms of understanding … to “get it” or to “perceive it” with our mind’s eye. It isn’t enough to see something with our physical sight; we need to wrap our minds around what happens. That is why this Gospel often says, “Look!” “Behold!” “See this!” (57 times, to be exact!).
That is what the author exclaims to the shepherds after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:10), when a leper comes to Jesus (5:12), and as some men bring a paralyzed man on a bed to him (5:18). This is the exclamation that precedes the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet at the Pharisee’s house (7:36). So it is not surprising that this passage begins with this exclamation—“Look!”—despite the fact that most contemporary translations leave it untranslated (but see verse 13 in the KJV: “And behold, two of them went that same day …”).
So what was it? What caused them to recognize Jesus? The author makes it clear that their recognition came after Jesus took the bread, after he blessed and broke it, and also after he gave it to them. So … if we follow the author’s instructions, what do we see here? And what would the couple see … as Jesus stretches out his hands to pass on the bread to them? It is probably in that simple act at the table that we can see what the couple saw: the outstretched hands of Jesus that would have revealed Jesus’ crucifixion wounds (later, when Jesus appears with the apostles and others, he uses the same verb for “see” in verse 39 that is used throughout Luke’s Gospel for the exclamation “See!” or “Behold!” for the apostles to “look” at his hands and feet). And these offered proof that the crucified Jesus truly was alive and with them!
On the road from Jerusalem, the couple would not have been able to see Jesus’ hands, as they would have been hidden from view. Even upon entering their home, his hands would have remained out of sight for them. But at the table, as Jesus offers the bread to them and they take it from his hands, they are able to see him as he truly is: the crucified and risen Jesus who now blesses them with his presence. What they now see (and recognize) transforms their outlook. Their despair seems to vanish with Jesus! And they go back to Jerusalem to tell others what they had just witnessed (Luke 24:35). Like the women who discovered the empty tomb (see 24:1-10), they do not keep the good news to themselves but share it with others … not because they were told to do so but because of an inner compulsion due to the transforming reality of Jesus’ resurrection: “The Lord is risen indeed!” (24:34 KJV).