The First Bible Study in the History of the Church

EmmausBy Ched Myers

Note: This is part of a series of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016. Because the Easter Sunday reading from Luke is long, so too is this reflection. It is abbreviated from a chapter entitled “Easter Faith and Empire: Recovering the Prophetic Tradition on the Emmaus Road,” in Getting On Message, edited by Peter Laarman, Beacon Press, 2006.

In the first century Pax Romana, Christians had the difficult and demanding task of discerning how to cling to a radical ethos of life—symbolized preeminently by their stubborn belief in the Resurrection of Jesus—while living under the chilling shadow of an imperial culture of domination and death. Today, in the twenty-first century Pax Americana, U.S. Christians are faced with the same challenge.

Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus is perhaps our churches’ most traditional and beloved Easter text (Lk 24:13ff). It narrates a conversation between an unrecognized Jesus and two obscure disciples. As the exchange along the road makes clear, Jesus’ execution presented a crushing blow to the movement he founded—a chilling Shadow of Death.   Nevertheless, this little vignette has become thoroughly sentimentalized in our churches. It exists in popular Christian imagination as a contemplative stroll through a shaded landscape, a casual tête-à-tête delightfully interrupted by the Risen Lord. In other words, like the warm and tranquil scene depicted in the famous religious painting above by Swiss Pietist artist Robert Zünd (1827-1909).

The scenario portrayed in Luke’s gospel, however, is far more suggestive of present day warzones. Only 48 hours earlier Jesus of Nazareth was summarily executed by the Roman military, in a fashion all too familiar to Palestinian Jews of the time: as a dissident prosecuted for resisting the “occupying authority.” A little narrative common sense, therefore, would suggest that the two disciples in our story would be neither leisurely nor calmly reflective at this particular moment. Rather, they would be on the lam, hustling down a back road, getting the hell out from Dodge so they won’t meet the same fate as their leader.

What does the text tell us about these co-conspirators trying to “melt into the countryside” (as the Pentagon says of insurgents)? Their destination is interesting: Emmaus, a village so obscure that it receives no other mention in the scriptures. There are no less than four different traditions concerning its location, ranging from 4 to 20 miles outside of Jerusalem. Emmaus is attested to elsewhere only in two ancient sources. In the book of Maccabees it is a site where the vastly outnumbered Jewish guerillas heroically defeated the Syrian invaders (I Macc 3:40-4:15). And Josephus notes that the victorious Roman emperor Vespasian, just a few years after vanquishing the Judean revolt in 70 AD, made a political point by settling 800 Roman military veterans at “a place called Emmaus” (Wars VII:6:6). These references suggest that wherever our little village was located, it had a reputation for homegrown resistance, which the empire felt some need to control by turning it into a military colony—a scenario certainly familiar in our own imperial context!

As our disciples “high-tail it for the border” so they can lay low for a while, Luke tells us they “were discussing all the things that had happened” (24:14). This was likely an animated conversation between labored breaths and anxious glances over their shoulders. They were probably blaming each other for the mess they’d gotten into, wondering what their next move might be, lamenting Roman kangaroo justice, cursing the colonizers, even cursing Jesus for failing to deliver on his promises of a new social order. They had a lot to talk about, but this was no peripatetic philosophical wander. Rather, this was a grief-laden, scared stiff, and contentious debriefing under the Shadow of Death.

A couple of simple exegetical notes confirm my suspicions. First, the distinctively Lukan verb for “discussion” in verses 14-15 is hōmilein, from which we get our term homiletics. It appears only two other times in the N.T., both in Acts (20:11 and 24:26), where it refers to weighty matters, not light banter! Moreover, in the N.T. the verb suzētein almost always connotes a passionate dispute, while the phrase “all the things that had happened” in Lk 24:14 refers else-where specifically to the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus or to parallel sufferings of disciples.

The disciples’ preoccupation with this intense and even desperate discussion may explain why they didn’t immediately recognize their teacher. Or, as Daniel Berrigan has suggested, perhaps they didn’t know Jesus because he had been so beat up and disfigured by his torturers. After all, Luke tells us later that the Risen Jesus’ scars were still visible (Lk 24:39), and tradition holds that he’d “been to hell and back” (Acts 2:31; I Pt 3:19)! Perhaps Luke is working here in the midrashic traditions of the “incognito Second Coming”; the rabbis often speculated that the prophet Elijah would return anonymously, to see if the world is ready to receive him.

In any case, the Stranger’s response makes it clear that he has walked in on a heated debate, for 24:17 reads literally:

“What words were you throwing back and forth at each other (Gk antiballete, only here in the N.T.) while you were making your way?” And they looked gloomy (Gk skuthrōpoi).

Jesus perceives them as struggling with each other, and in a bad mood. And Cleopas’ retort betrays a distinct tone of impatience: “So are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s been going down these last few days?” he asks dryly (24:18). Or is he exhibiting a wary defensiveness; they are fugitives, and who is this unknown person asking prying questions?

Now that Luke has established sufficient angst in the scene, we can detect a certain delicious irony in how the Stranger plays dumb (given what he’s just been through). “Huh??!!” he says with a straight face (24:19a). “Do tell!” Suddenly Cleopas, passionately if a bit recklessly, launches in to the whole sordid affair: about how Jesus of Nazareth had resuscitated the prophetic tradition, igniting hope in people longing for shalom, and how his own leaders (bloody collaborators!) had railroaded him and sold him out to the imperial oppressors, who strung him up (24:19b-20). Finally his frustration boils over: “And we had trusted (Gk, ēlpizomen) that he was the One to liberate Israel” (24:21). His bitter disappointment, his sense of betrayal and confusion, is palpable.

It is not difficult to feel empathy for Cleopas here. He had staked his life on the hope that this messianic movement, unlike so many others in recent generations, would finally break the yoke of oppression that had strangled his people for centuries. He’d committed himself to the risky business of challenging the native aristocracy and their imperial overlords. But things had turned out all wrong. Jesus’ march on Jerusalem (Lk 19:28ff) had resulted not in a popular uprising, but instead had come crashing down in a vicious counterinsurgent thrust by the colonizers. Their leader had been publicly executed, and they had fled for their lives, an all-points bulletin hanging over their heads. And if that weren’t enough, miserable Cleopas concludes his sad tale by relating, with apparent aggravation, a rumor circulating (by women!) among some of his dispirited companions about visions of angels and an empty tomb (24:22-24). The authorities had probably hijacked Jesus’ body, everything was falling apart, the movement was in disarray, they’d been arguing about it all day, and frankly, he’d had it.

MemphisModern Americans might re-imagine this traumatized scene by thinking about how Civil Rights activists were feeling on April 6th, 1968 in Memphis, TN. Martin Luther King’s lieutenants were surely going crazy trying to figure out what really had gone down two days before, why and how their leader had been gunned down, who was behind it, what it meant for the movement, and whether they might be next on the hit list. Perhaps, then, the image at right is more appropriate than Zund’s painting to give us a “feel” for the Emmaus road. This photo, taken by Bill Preston at the Lorraine motel one day after King’s assassination, more accurately captures the hard terrain of life under the Shadow of Death. It reflects the real world of COINTELPRO and conspiracy, of imperial “justice” meted out by good old boys who can hardly contain their glee at the prophet’s demise; of stern calls for law and order in the wake of this “tragedy” by the very ones who engineered it; and of popular movements on the verge of a major social impact being aborted in the face of State repression. Hardly a stroll in the park!

But it is this world that Luke’s story also inhabits, not the fantasyscape we so often imagine in our churches. We North American Christians rarely grapple with such matters! We are too preoccupied with institutional survival to entertain the possibility that our whole nation might be captive to the same Powers that took out Jesus and King. We talk about “power in the name of Jesus” but are too timid to interrogate public addiction or high corporate crimes. We speculate blithely about the “last days” while endorsing world-historic shifts in U.S. military and economic policies that are chewing up millions of the lives we say God loves, and that are destroying the earth we say God created, and that are usurping the glory we say belongs to God alone. We are content to keep our heads down and examine the finer points of doctrine or liturgy or church demographics, well insulated from the Shadow of Death.

Jesus, on the other hand, as portrayed in Luke’s story, embraces the trauma. His response to Cleopas is instructive. He doesn’t scold him for mixing religion and politics, nor does he redirect him to turn inwards to a life of the spirit, nor does he console him with pat theories of history. Instead, he walks with these poor boys for a few miles, inquiring and listening to their pain. And then he responds with, of all things, a Bible study (which makes modern theological liberals blush, but overturns the hermeneutic program of conservatives). It is the first Bible study in the life of an Easter church that hasn’t even been birthed yet at Pentecost. “OK fellas,” Jesus says, “it’s a bad time alright. So open your Bibles to the prophets and let’s re-read history together under the Shadow of Death.”

Luke tells us that Jesus addresses these fit-to-be-tied disciples as anontoi (24:25), a Greek term which refers to those who don’t quite get it, who find the truth as yet unintelligible (cf Rom 1:14; Gal 3:1,3). He knows their hearts are “sluggish” (Gk bradeis), as indeed are ours, because we too forever refuse to embrace the counterintuitive wisdom of the Hebrew prophets. The prophets tell us to defend the poor (while we lionize the rich); that horses and chariots cannot save us (while we are transfixed by the omnipotence of modern military technology); to forgo idolatry (while we compulsively fetishize the work of our own hands). Above all, the prophets warn us that the way to liberation in a world locked down by the spiral of violence, the way to redemption in a world of enslaving addictions, the way to true transformation in a world of deadened conscience and numbing conformity, is the way of nonviolent, sacrificial, creative love.

But we who are “slow of heart”—a euphemism for not having courage—remain fiercely loyal to ever more fabulous myths of redemptive violence, practices of narcissism and delusions of our own nobility. And what we balk at most is the Stranger’s punchline, the query upon which our theological reading of history hangs: “Was it not necessary that Messiah should suffer?” (24:26). The Greek edei is the imperfect form a technical apocalyptic term that appears throughout the N.T. to indicate that an official reaction to prophetic witness is inevitable. This is not a rhetorical question for Christological catechizing about cosmic propitiation, the way traditional atonement theories have it. It is the rather the ultimate challenge to our deepest assumptions about society and the cosmos, the taproot counter-assertion that unmasks our profound captivity to the logic of retributive justice. The prophet’s death is not necessary, given the character of God; it is, however, inevitable, given the character of the State. No one who pays attention to history can dispute the truth of this assertion.

Because North Americans keep wanting the good guys to win, we are forced to make believe that even the worst sort of characters are the good guys. We strive to manage history from the top down, to control it with our technologies, to win battles with overwhelming power. But the prophets keep talking about revolution from the bottom up, the wisdom of outsiders, the power of the least. Like the disciples in Luke’s story, we Christians understand enough to acknowledge that Jesus lived a prophet’s life, but not enough to recognize the historically redemptive power of his prophet’s death.

“Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the scriptures” (24:27). The verb is diērmēneuen, and every other time it appears in the N.T. it means to translate into one’s native tongue (Acts 9:36; I Cor 12:30; 14:5,13,27). Jesus is patiently translating this counterintuitive biblical wisdom into the plainest possible terms so these demoralized disciples can get it.   And that is what the task of Easter theological reflection should be about under the Shadow of Death.

More than any other gospel writer, Luke portrays Jesus as using Israel’s prophets for his own interpretive lens (e.g. 1:69-71; 4:17,27; 6:22f; 7:16, 26; 9:19; 13:28, 33f; 18:31). The prophets engage the way things were with God’s vision of what could and should be. They question authority, make trouble, refuse to settle, interrupt business as usual, speak truth to power, give voice to the voiceless, stir up the troops, get the natives restless, picket Presidential palaces, question foreign policies based on military and economic domination—and for their trouble, are accused of treason. For being the inconvenient conscience of the nation, the prophets are jailed, or exiled, or killed—and only after they are safely disposed of do they get a national holiday or a street named after them. Once canonized, they are thereafter ignored by their public patrons, as Luke’s Jesus makes clear in his tirade against such officials (11:47-51). What was true then “from Abel to Zechariah” continues now from Chief Black Kettle to Martin Luther King to Berta Cáceres. Nevertheless, it is the prophets themselves—not their corporate-sponsored hagiographies—who teach us how our collective story should be read, says the Stranger. Their witness, however maligned by those in power, represents the hermeneutic key to the whole tradition. Which is why it was inevitable that Messiah would follow in their footsteps.

In the first half of the Emmaus story, the inaugural appearance of the Risen Christ is in the form of a Stranger. In the second half of the story, he is famously revealed in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:28-32). In the middle of that episode, after Jesus has vanished, the two disciples exclaim, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (24:32). The verb “to open up” (Gk dianoigo) in the gospels refers to the opening of deaf ears (Mk 7:34f), of a closed womb (Lk 2:23), of blind eyes (Lk 24:31) and of a hardened heart (Acts 16:14). The only other time it is employed in relation to the scriptures is when Paul struggles to persuade his synagogue compatriots that “it was inevitable that Jesus had to suffer” (Acts 17:3), underlining the point of the Emmaus Road conversation. Our perspective on traumatic historic events is not ultimately a matter of rational persuasion, but of opening blind eyes and deaf ears and hard hearts to the difficult truth of discipleship under the Shadow of Death. And when our hearts are truly opened, they will burn with renewed commitment.

With this jolt of recognition/revelation, the narrative reverses directions. The fugitive disciples now return to the capital city to face its dangers (24:33a). The next scene (24:33b-36) shows the Emmaus road pair relating their experience to the other disciples. Jesus appears again to the whole group, and Luke reports that they were “afraid and awestruck” (24:37). These two Greek adjectives are worth noting. The first is ptoeō, which means in the active mood “to terrify,” and in the passive mood (used here) to “be terrified.” The only other time it appears in the New Testament is in Lk 21:9: “When you hear of wars and upheavals, do not be terrified; these things are inevitable” (Gk dei). It is understandable that the disciples would be horrified: crucifixion was the preeminent form of Roman State terrorism. This gruesome form of public execution—reserved only for political dissidents—had only one function: to intimidate those in the occupied territories, in the name, of course, of imperial “national security.” It was a very effective way of broadcasting the message: “Look what happens to those who think they can challenge the sovereignty of Caesar.”

The other adjective is emphobos, however, which in the N.T. is reserved for connoting awe in presence of God or of the Risen Christ. So these disciples, even as they cowered before a fearful State, were also reeling before the unimaginable possibility that Rome’s ultimate form of social control had not defeated Jesus. Why does the prospect of his resurrection generate such strong reaction here? Not because corpse resuscitation upset the laws of nature—that’s a problem only for modern folk, which mostly generates skepticism. No, the resurrection was overwhelming to the first disciples because it signaled that Jesus’ Way had been vindicated by God—especially that most difficult bit about dying—rather than killing—for the cause.

This vocabulary suggests that believers are forever caught between two types of fear: the terror produced by the state (particularly in times of war), and the awe that comes in the presence of Divine Power. This is our dilemma in a world riddled with terrorism both official and ad hoc (I write just hours after the latest attack on civilians in Brussels). It poses a sobering question, sharpened intensely by this last Iraq war. Who generates “shock and awe” in our lives? Is it the Pentagon’s power of death over life, or the biblical God’s power of life over death? This is the preeminent theological question for our time.

The last scene in Luke’s account is, in counterpoint, almost whimsical, as Jesus tries to convince his friends that he’s not a ghost, having already gone unrecognized once (24:38f). Tired, he asks in effect: “These have been a long couple of days and I’ve been through a lot; anyone got a sandwich for a brother?” (24:41). Then, after breaking the fast he declared at the Last Supper (22:16-19), Jesus resumes the Bible study he began on the road to Emmaus! “And he said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you, while I was with you: that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me’’” (24:44).

“Then he opened their minds, so that they might understand the scriptures” (24:45). These two verbs tell an interesting story. Again (as in v. 32) we encounter dianoigo, to open faculties of perception that have been shut down by empire.   The verb “to understand” (Gk suniemi), meanwhile, is an unusual one, meaning to bring together all the data; I would paraphrase it as “connecting the dots.” In the N.T. it is usually employed to describe those many situations in which disciples are unable to make such connections (e.g. Lk 2:50; 18:34; Acts 7:25). Both verbs are specifically connected in the gospels with the story of the call of Isaiah (Is 6:1ff; see Lk 8:10; Acts 28:26f). Jesus is thus reminding his followers of something the prophets long ago stipulated: people will oppose the Word of God because it challenges us to change. And what we resist most fiercely is that terrible truth about the inevitability of suffering” (24:46). But this prophetic vocation (and fate) is what disciples are now invited to share: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses (Gk martures) of these things” (24:47f).

Here, in sum, is what we learn from the Emmaus road story:

  1. The resurrected Jesus appears first a Stranger, indeed one needing hospitality. Let this be a Christological lesson to the church!
  2. Rather than standing idly among peaceable religious folk, insulated and aloof from the world, the Risen Christ is moving alongside disciples who are in trouble because they have sought to change it.
  3. Jesus is pastoral, seeking to know the pain of those struggling with a specific political context of oppression, rather than offering saccharine spiritual assurances of personal immunity from historical consequences.
  4. Yet he is also prophetic, his biblical analysis centered around a fierce prophetic hermeneutic that challenges imperial historiography with an alternative story of transformation from the margins.

How desperately we need this Jesus to walk with us under our current imperial Shadow of Death! And how urgent it is that we re-read our Bibles and our history through the lens of the prophets. For as Luke puts it earlier in his gospel: “If we don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will we be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31). May we rise to this challenge during Eastertide 2016.

2 thoughts on “The First Bible Study in the History of the Church

  1. Pingback: The Rich Man and Lazarus: Warning Tale and Interpretive Key to Luke – Radical Discipleship

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