Slouching toward Emmaus: what did Jesus say to the disciples that set their hearts on fire?

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November 6, 2015 by jmar198013

This blog takes its name from an event in Luke 24. I want to unpack the story there, to explain this blog’s perspective. That is, my perspective.

A couple of days after the crucifixion–the day rumors were starting to swirl that Jesus had been raised–two forlorn disciples were walking back home from Jerusalem to Emmaus. I have always imagined them slouching, because, you know–they felt defeated and humiliated and more than a little afraid. Like, I’m sure they weren’t briskly jaunting toward Emmaus.

Anyway–in case you’re not familiar with the story–as they were on the road, this happened:

They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him.

He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning  and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets. (Luke 24.14-27)

These two disciples didn’t recognize the risen Jesus until he took his usual spot with them later that evening: sitting at the table, blessing the meal, breaking the bread, and doling it out. This thing he had done to feed 5,000 Jews, then 4,000 Gentiles; and had done again with his disciples the night before he was executed. Then, Luke tells us: Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight.  They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” (Luke 24.31-32)

Here’s the question this story leaves me with. When Jesus opened up Moses and the prophets for them–showing how they all pointed to his own life and death and resurrection; when he was connecting the dots, when their hearts were on fire, what was he saying? How was he interpreting Moses and the prophets for them? What did he take them to mean?

Somehow, I highly doubt that he set their hearts on fire by pointing to a cluster of proof-texts that, when lifted from context and put through the systematic theology machine, revealed a system gamed by God that required him to have his own Son killed in before he would forgive the rest of us. I’m going to go out on a limb here and deny that Jesus’ teaching on the Emmaus road went: Don’t you numbskulls understand that every last one of you is so rotten, and God is so angry at you, that he had to kill Jesus to avoid killing all of you?

I am as close to 100% certain as I can be for someone who wasn’t there, that there was no Penal Substitutionary Atonement on the road to Emmaus.

That wasn’t their hang-up. Their hang-up was that they had given up their lives and livelihoods and left their homes to follow Jesus because they were sure he was Israel’s Messiah. But then the authorities–both Jewish and Roman–had crushed him before he could unleash his apocalyptic wrath on them and take back Judea for God. That’s not how the story was supposed to go. And if that wasn’t gross enough, now some of the women from the disciple community were reporting that his tomb was empty, and heavenly messengers were telling them that Jesus was, in fact, alive again.

None of that made any sense to them. It’s like: Even if it were true that Jesus had been resurrected, the whole thing has totally gone off-script.

So on top of being grief-stricken, humiliated, and freaked out, they were also more than a little confused.

A story about how God had to have Jesus’ blood to satisfy his wrath against every individual who had ever lived, and would ever live, would not have spoken to any of the questions on their hearts.

So Luke tells us that Jesus interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets. He connected the dots of the Hebrew Bible in a particular way, calculated to address their questions about not only his death, but the rumors that he was alive again. 

What did he say to them?

I suspect, in fact, that it had most of the ingredients of the speech Stephen gave to the lynch mob just before they killed him.

I’m pretty sure he reminded them how, Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him into slavery in Egypt. God was with him, however,  and rescued him from all his troubles (Acts 7.9-10).

I’m positive that he reminded them how God sent Moses to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt, but once they were free, they pushed him aside and, in their thoughts and desires, returned to Egypt (Acts 7.39).

I’m also quite certain that he reminded them that, there wasn’t a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass; and in fact, how many of the prophets who predicted the coming of the righteous one had been murdered (Acts 7.52).

What I’m saying is, I think Jesus pointed out that what happened to him was inevitable. God knew it was going to happen. God was probably even banking on it happening. And Jesus knew all along what he was getting himself into. The people had rejected Moses. They had rejected the prophets. Of course they’d reject their own Messiah.

But Jesus also reminded them, I’m sure, that God had saved Joseph from the pit when his brothers rejected him. He had the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt with the Exodus.

In short, what he told them was: You people reject God’s prophets. You scapegoat the innocent. You silence whoever makes you uncomfortable, even if it means killing them. He was speaking to the human condition, on display throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. But then he told them: God has always been in the business of vindicating the innocent. He has always been on the side of the victim. He will not allow violence and oppression to have the final word over the lives of his servants.

In other words: Humans have always been a crucifying people; God has always been a resurrecting God. Why didn’t you see this sooner?

That’s the kind of talk that instills hope. That’s the kind of talk that empowers us to keep following Jesus. That’s the kind of talk that exposes the human condition for what it is. That’s the kind of talk that judges what we know to be true about us, and affirms what we deeply hope is true of God.

That’s the kind of talk that sets hearts on fire.

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