When I was a little kid in school, in the third or fourth grade, I wasn’t particularly gifted as an athlete. When it came time to play team sports, I was always picked last. When playing a game like softball, I would often endure taunts from classmates who would make jokes about my lack of ability. That was difficult to endure for an eight or nine year old. Sometimes a well-meaning teacher would insist that the pitcher move closer and almost roll the ball along the ground slowly so I could hit it – that supposed ‘favour’ was worse than the taunts from kids because it meant that even the grownups didn’t think I could ‘play the game’. Even though one action was intended to be hurtful and the other was meant to be helpful, the end result was the same. I always felt like just giving up and walking away. The two responses were really opposite sides of the same coin.
The story of the road to Emmaus recounted in this Sunday’s gospel provides us with the other side of the same coin of the Passion – where the people are asking Jesus to do something because that’s what they think He should do!
Before we look at Cleopas and the other disciple’s encounter on that road on that first Easter Sunday, I want to take you back to Good Friday, and the voices from the crowd at Calvary. When we read any of the gospel accounts we hear how the crowd jeers at Jesus, mocking and demanding that He come down from the cross to ‘prove’ Himself. Even those crucified with him demand He prove He is the Messiah by saving Himself from the cross.
This would make perfect sense, I suppose, in our own mortal limited minds. Why go through all this pain and suffering when, as God, He could just skip it all? Why not take this opportunity to perform a really outstanding miracle in the sight of the authorities? Perhaps even the disciples who stood watching from afar were half-expecting Jesus to , in fact, come down from the cross. After those in the crowd speak the words, there is, it seems, a pause when they all wait to see if He actually will save Himself. But He doesn’t. He surrenders Himself up to death.
Fast-forward now to the road to Emmaus. These two disciples are so overcome with grief at what happened only three days before, that they don’t even recognize Jesus as He walks along with them. In fact, when He approaches them and asks them what they are discussing, Cleopas responds rather rudely,”Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
When Jesus asks them for a summary of these happenings, again, these disciples offer a litany of disappointment; they talk about what they had hoped Jesus would be and how those hopes were dashed; “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” He didn’t deliver what they expected in the way they expected it – and again, we see what people expected, was not what God delivered; and because it wasn’t delivered how they wanted, where they wanted and when they wanted, this was somehow proof that God was not at work here.
The fact that they are on the road to Emmaus, leaving the other disciples in Jerusalem, tells us that they were giving up and going home. After three years of living with, travelling with, listening to, and witnessing the miracles of Jesus, they’ve given up and are leaving because in their grief, they no longer grasp what was given to them over the three years of Jesus’ public ministry.
But here they are walking along; Jesus is with them the whole time, and they don’t recognize Him. Even when He is opening the Scriptures to them, explaining yet again how all that was written through Moses and the Prophets would be fulfilled in Him, they still fail to recognize Him (although there is a ‘burning in their hearts’). He explains to them how salvation history didn’t occur because God was bound to perform according to the demands and conditions people placed on Him. Salvation history occurred because God was willing to empty Himself, entering our humanity, to surrender everything, even His divinity to the point of death, to atone for our breaking of the relationship of the human race with God.
Sometimes in our faith lives we can become like those disciples and the crowd at the crucifixion – we ask Jesus for something, and then maybe we pause for a few moments, and wait to have that ‘something’ delivered; when it doesn’t happen or appear when and where and how we have asked, we think God is not listening or Jesus isn’t present to us.
Sometimes in our faith life we can be like the disciples on the road; God didn’t deliver what we wanted when, where and how we expected, so we complain about it and give up praying – not even bothering to look up and see Jesus travelling along with us in that moment, as He did with Cleopas and the other disciple. Even when they were in the darkness of doubt and despair, He was with them, encouraging them, reaching out to them, journeying alongside them.
The story of Emmaus is a story of hope and encouragement; it is a reminder that even in our own times of loss and doubt, when we feel as if we have been abandoned, Jesus is travelling with us, even if we don’t recognize Him at the time. Even if we feel like giving up and walking away, He is there with us, always reaching out to remind us of His patience, His compassion, and His love for us.
(and in case you were wondering, eventually I learned to play to game, and after the first time I put one over the left field fence, I decided hockey was a better sport for me; must have been from hitting all those softballs that rolled across the ground)
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!