“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and 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.” (Luke 24.13‑15)
Cleopas and his friend were indistinguishable from the other pilgrims returning to their homes after that Passover. Observant Jews, they had “gone up to Jerusalem” for Passover, one of three feasts designated by the Torah as “feasts of pilgrimage”, occasions when Jews were directed to go, if at all possible, to the holy city of Jerusalem.
Yet, if one looked more closely at them, one might discern a heaviness of step, a downcast look, an occasional tear falling from their eyes. And if one had overheard their conversation, one would have been very surprised indeed.
Here and there on the narrow dirt track that sloped gently down from the Judean highlands toward the coastal plain small groups of pilgrims walked. Then, as the sun dipped into the Mediterranean and the shadows began to stretch from the hills toward the sea, a solitary figure joined the two engaged in intense conversation.
“Shalom aleichem”, he said. The ancient Hebrew greeting meant, “Peace be with you.” “Shalom”, they replied.
“What are you talking about?”
And Cleopas began to tell him the story that had already gone over and over again and that they would be repeating for the rest of their lives.
“His name was Jesus and he came from Nazareth. That’s where we met him—in Galilee, for we, too, are Galileans. He came to our synagogue one Sabbath and the president of the synagogue asked him to read from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus came to the bema, the platform on which the lectern holding the scrolls stood, and he read, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me ...he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’. But he didn’t just read the words; he lived out their meaning. Wherever he went the blind saw, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed. We rejoiced and wondered, for it seemed as if he was the one God had sent to redeem Israel. And then he set out for Jerusalem. We followed, ecstatic with anticipation. At last, we thought, Roman tyranny will be overthrown and God will restore the throne of David. But we were wrong, oh, how wrong! One of our own company betrayed him; Jesus was given a mock trial, and the Roman procurator sent him to the cross.
He died on the cross, that we know, but three days later, some foolish women went to the tomb and came back with an unbelievable tale. They said that his tomb was empty. They even said that angels had appeared to them saying that he had risen. But how can we believe that? It’s just too good to be true.”
The stranger listened intently to all that Cleopas said, and then replied, “What is unbelievable about the tale of the women? Is it more unbelievable than the story of our father Abraham who was already old when God promised that he would become the father of nations? Is it more unbelievable than the story of a handful of defeated slaves in Egypt whom God redeemed with signs and wonders? Is it more unbelievable than the story of Judah’s exiles who wept by the rivers of Babylon and then returned and rebuilt the Temple that stands in Jerusalem to this day? Yes, God has promised that Messiah will come but God’s Messiah may come in humility, not grandeur. He may come to share in our suffering before he brings us God’s victory.”
And so they continued until they come to Emmaus. Cleopas implored the stranger to stay with them and not go on to his destination. After they had rinsed the dust from their hands, Cleopas set a simple supper of bread and wine on the table. And as each of them took bread and said the ancient Hebrew blessing, the eyes of Cleopas and his companion were drawn to the stranger as he lifted the bread from the table and blessed and broke and gave it to them. And then... he was gone.
We may not go again to walk with Cleopas and his companion from Jerusalem to Emmaus. But we may find a stranger walking with us as we go down the roads of our lives. For surely, the experience of Jesus’ disciples will be our experience, too. We, like them, may find our hopes shattered. What Cleopas said to the mysterious stranger was deeply poignant, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
How often have we said, “But we had hoped...”?
“But we had hoped... that we would be successful in getting work... but we had hoped... that this relationship would last and bring love and contentment to our lives... but we had hoped ... that the doctors would find a cure...”
And perhaps as we wondered if we had hoped in vain, did someone draw near and speak a word of comfort and hope to us? Did someone remind us that God has entered into human life in all its joy and sorrow? Did someone remind you that on the Cross God took and blessed and broke God’s own life and offered it to us in the midst of suffering so that all human sadness and pain might become vehicles of God’s presence?
Are you saying even now, “But we had hoped...”? Then draw near to this table, where Jesus invites us to take again the bread that he blessed and broke and gave. And open your eyes and your hearts and be hopeful. The women who went to the tomb were right: he is risen. Alleluia! He is risen, indeed!