That very day two [men] were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were 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. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
This encounter took place after Jesus was publicly seized, tried and crucified. These men were discussing the events that everyone was talking about – the death of Jesus.
Jesus had stirred up the hopes and dreams of the people in the region, including these two men, but that hope ended abruptly and shockingly just a couple of days ago.
Jesus was a controversial figure in the first century. He was born into a world that was ripe for his coming. The last of the Hebrew scriptures was written about 300 years prior, and the thrust of the last of those scriptures, the prophets, anticipated the coming of a Messiah.
The first century Palestinian Jews believed this Messiah would be a king that would rescue Israel from Roman rule and reestablish a Jewish Kingdom in the promised land, rekindling the glory of their heritage.
But Jesus defied the expectations.
Jesus was controversial because he often stood in opposition to the existing Jewish leadership. While he spoke often about the kingdom of God, he seemed to be more critical of the contemporary religious leaders than the secular Roman rulers that governed and controlled their homeland.
The clear orientation of Jesus in opposition to the contemporary religious leaders was not lost on them. They saw Jesus as a threat. They tried on a number of different occasions to discredit Jesus and trap him in some clear violation of Jewish law. They even tried to have Jesus stoned for saying things like, “Before Abraham was I am”, and claiming to have the authority to forgive sins.
The Jewish leaders had a hard time ignoring the miracles Jesus performed and the following Jesus had with the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and the downtrodden people who flocked to Jesus and loved him. The Jewish leaders tried to characterize his miracles as black magic and sorcery. They called him a hypocrite for hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners, but none of their protestations detracted from the popularity of Jesus.
At the same time there was a strong Zealot movement predating the birth of Jesus. These people had gotten tired of waiting for a Messianic figure to come. They determined to take the course of history into their own hands, to overthrow the Roman government by their own force and to reestablish the Kingdom of Israel in the present time.
Various leaders had risen in opposition to Roman rule. They quickly generated a following, but just as quickly the following would fall away as those leaders were caught, tried and executed.
This was the atmosphere of first century Judea. It was a tumultuous time, but a time filled with an air of expectation. Jesus was the closest thing to the promised Messiah that had come along.
He had just been welcomed by throngs of adoring people as he entered Jerusalem in a humble procession that the crowds turned into a spectacle. Within days, that spectacle took a sinister turn. Jesus was betrayed in the cool of the evening by a long time follower.
Jesus, the miracle worker, had not even put up a fight. This was his opportunity to turn the tables on the everyone, the religious leaders that so often clashed with him and, more importantly, the Roman leaders who kept the Jews in check with an iron fist. This was surely the time for Jesus to demonstrate who he really was – but he did nothing.
Jesus let them mock him. He let them beat him. He let them scourge him, and push him around and march him to his own death in the most publicly humiliating way imaginable.
Maybe he wasn’t who he claimed to be. Maybe he wasn’t who they hoped he was.
The two men on a road to Emmaus discussing the events that had just happened were no doubt thinking about these things.
Jesus seemed different than all the others who had come before. He spoke with power and authority. He healed the sick and cast out demons. He brought a tangible hope to people who had suffered much, yet still held on to the hope of their fathers.
But now it was over. Jesus was dead.
The text says that Jesus “drew near and went with them” as the men walked slowly along, reeling from the sudden turn of events, discussing what had just happened. In their preoccupation with had happened, they didn’t recognize Jesus.
When Jesus asked them what they were talking about, they were incredulous. They might have thought, “Did this guy just crawl out of a cave?! Everyone was talking about it! How could this guy not know?”
As they answered the question with the details that were fresh in their minds, they described Jesus as “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all people”.
It was hard to square their image of him with the events that had just taken place. Certainly, Jesus spoke with unmatched authority, but his actions at the end could hardly be described as mighty.
Jesus was like a lamb led to the slaughter. He didn’t stand up to them. He didn’t even try to defend himself. When he was questioned, “Are you king of the Jews?” he simply said, “If you say so.” When the soldiers mocked him, he did nothing!
Nothing. He couldn’t even save himself.
Their view of Jesus as they walked the road was likely colored by the recent events. They did not describe him as God, or the Son of God, or the Son of Man (the messianic reference from the Book of Daniel). These were the descriptions that were bandied about. Jesus, himself, did little to dispel the talk. He seemed to invite it
The men on the road to Emmaus, now, called him only a prophet. (At least, they couldn’t deny the authority with which he spoke.)
At one time, during the height of his ministry, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” They answered, “The Messiah.” But the view of Jesus for these men had changed as they walked along the dusty road.
Still they wandered.
They described how the chief priests and rulers delivered Jesus up to be condemned to death and crucified him. This was the reality they knew in that moment. It was the reality that defined their knowledge and understanding of the truth. They did not suspect that reality may be different than what they “knew” and assumed.
Their disappointment was palpable.
Their assumptions were based on their expectations and their experience. The two men added, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Their expectations were fueled by Earthly hopes.
No doubt they hoped he was the Messiah for which the whole nation of Israel had been waiting. They hoped he was the one to redeem them from Roman rule and reestablish the kingdom of Israel in their time.
Their experience dashed those hopes. He wasn’t who they thought he was. They didn’t even recognize him when he came along side them on the road to where they were going.
How many times have we failed to recognize Jesus in our midst?
We should not let our expectations and experience prevent us from recognizing God in our lives.