I HAVE A NEPHEW with an unmistakable speaking voice—basso profundo with a low, slow chuckle. Or at least, it’s unmistakable to me, his doting aunt. The last time I didn’t recognize his voice was when he was about 12. And I thought the deep, deep voice answering the phone at my sister’s house was his dad’s.
Do you have a younger relative whose voice you’d recognize instantly?
I thought about this when we heard the Emmaus story proclaimed a few weeks ago (Luke 24:13-35), and then when we sang the hymn, “I heard the voice of Jesus say” (ELW #332, 611).
The Emmaus story has a lot to say, and when we look a little closer, it’s even richer.
The Gospel story shows us two disciples walking sadly away from Jerusalem not long after their beloved Jesus had been betrayed, crucified, and buried. They’d heard some strange things from some of the other disciples earlier that Sunday, but none of it made sense to them. And now they’re leaving the city, shocked and grieving.
So who are these two disciples?
Gospel writer Luke names one of them—Cleopas. We don’t see that name anywhere else in Scripture. But we see a very similar name in the Gospel of John. John calls one of the women at the foot of Jesus’ cross the wife of Clopas (and that’s the only time we see that name, too). Any connection? More than likely.
Very early historians accepted Cleopas and Clopas as variant spellings of the same name, so we can too. Luke and John are most likely talking about the same person. Now that we have that cleared up, who is he? There’s an old tradition that Cleopas/Clopas was a brother of Joseph the carpenter, Jesus’ foster father—so Jesus would have grown up knowing him as an uncle.
Here’s where John mentions Cleopas/Clopas: “. . . standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (19:25). The word translated as sister here could mean any female relative or in-law of the same generation, so sister-in-law would fit. Mary, the wife of Clopas/Cleopas, was Mary’s sister-in-law and Jesus’ aunt.
Close relatives, close followers
Now that we know that Cleopas and his wife, Mary, are members of Jesus’ earthly family, let’s go back to the road. There’s Cleopas walking sadly away from Jerusalem, but who’s that with him? I once heard a preacher describe the two disciples on the road as two men, but Luke doesn’t say that. So, who is it?
At least one scholar maintains that when Jesus sent out the 70 disciples, two by two (Luke 10:1), those pairs were husbands and wives. The husbands would spread the good news among the men of the villages they were visiting, and the wives would do the same with the women. (Historians tell us that women were essential to the survival and flourishing of the faith in the earliest days, so the women of these missionary couples were good at what they did.)
There’s no reason to think that Cleopas and his wife, Mary, weren’t among those pairs, or that they weren’t together in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the week that followed, or that they weren’t the two disciples walking side by side away from Jerusalem on Easter Sunday afternoon.
Who is that, anyway?
Now that we know a little more about how close these two disciples were to Jesus, let’s go back to the road. There, we see Uncle Cleopas and Aunt Mary, those two close disciples and relatives, walking along. And then Jesus, their nephew and leader, shows up on the road beside them. As Luke says, their eyes were kept from recognizing Jesus when he asked, “What are you discussing as you walk along?”
Most of the post-resurrection stories start with people not recognizing the risen Lord as the Jesus they had known and loved. That makes sense on a basic human level, let alone getting into the theology. After all, they knew Jesus was dead. And no one comes back from the dead. Cleopas and Mary are left to wonder who this is, this stranger speaking to them.
Notice what Luke says next: “They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him . . .” (24:17b-18). And that’s all the identification Luke gives us. We’re left to wonder who this is, speaking to the stranger. Why doesn’t Luke say anything else about him? Giving us a name and no more doesn’t add anything to the story, and Luke’s too good a storyteller to do that without a reason.
No ID needed
Scholars suggest that whenever the Gospels or Epistles give us someone’s name but nothing else about them, it’s because that person was so well known to the intended audience that no further identification was needed. Luke’s first readers would have recognized Cleopas right away, but we latecomers don’t. We must ask the scholars and historians.
Cleopas was so well known because his son was very well known. Cleopas’ son Simeon wasn’t just Jesus’ cousin, he was elected leader of the believers in Jerusalem in about the year 65, after the martyrdom of Jesus’ brother James. Simeon led the Jerusalem church for about 40 years, during which almost all of the texts that make up our New Testament were compiled, written down, or already circulating. (I’d love to tell you a lot more about what went on during Simeon’s long term as bishop, but that would be another story.) Naming Cleopas makes Luke’s story even stronger: Even Uncle Cleopas, father of Jerusalem’s own Bishop Simeon (and everyone knows him), didn’t recognize the risen Lord as Jesus!
But we had hoped
Now that we know that everyone knew about the close ties between Cleopas and Jesus—in family and in faith—let’s go back to the road. Someone shows up alongside Cleopas and Mary and asks what they’re talking about. This gives storyteller Luke a chance to tell us what the disciples thought and felt about Jesus and about what had happened to him. And here’s where Luke brings us the most poignant phrase in all of Scripture in any language: “But we had hoped . . .” (24:21).
Now that would be heart-rending coming from anyone but think of it—Jesus’ own devoted aunt and uncle saying, “But we had hoped.” They had hoped with all their hearts that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel, to set Israel free—in other words, they hoped that their own Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. They had hoped.
The anointed one
The words Messiah and Christ mean the same thing: one is Hebrew, and the other is Greek. They mean “the anointed one.” What does “anointed” mean? Literally, it means that someone has had oil applied to their head or body as an act of comfort, honor, or consecration. We see all three of these in our Scriptures—the Good Samaritan anointed the wounds of the injured traveler (Luke 10:34); the Pharisee did not honor his guest Jesus by anointing his head (7:46); the prophet Samuel anointed Saul king (1 Samuel 10:1). It’s an ancient, ancient custom in many cultures. Many of us were anointed at baptism: See this resource from the ELCA for more about how oil is used in Lutheran worship today.
When was Jesus anointed? He is physically anointed with oil three times in the Gospels (notice that it is women doing the anointing every time): in Luke 7:36-50, when an unnamed woman anoints his feet with oil from an alabaster jar; in John 12:1-11, when Mary of Bethany anoints his feet with expensive oil scented with nard (and Judas complains); and in Mark 14:3-9 and Matthew 26:6-13, when another unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head with costly oil from another alabaster jar (and all the disciples complain).
All these anointings happen at a meal where Jesus is an honored guest. Recall that in that time and place, the nobility, honored guests, and banqueters dined reclining on flat couches (think of beach loungers), leaning up on an elbow, with their legs and feet stretched out on the couch beside them. A servant might sit on the end of her mistress’ couch at her feet. Or a disciple might sit on her teacher’s couch at his feet. It would be easy and not at all disruptive for Mary of Bethany to simply reach out her hand and anoint Jesus’ feet.
Many people also use the word “anointed” as a metaphor for the presence of the Holy Spirit. And consider that Jesus was spiritually anointed at his own baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon him, as attested in all four Gospels (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32).
Cleopas and Mary, like Jews everywhere in every age, lived in hope that the Anointed One would come soon, overthrow oppression everywhere, and set things right forever. And they had come to believe that Jesus was that Anointed One.
The stranger’s answer
So, now that we know what Cleopas and Mary had hoped, let’s go back to the road. Cleopas and Mary tell the sympathetic stranger why they are so sad, and how does he answer?
He answers by affirming their faith and hope: As all the prophets foretold, the Messiah must suffer all this before entering his glory. Their hope was not in vain!
Can you imagine how they felt as the stranger comforted and encouraged them? They hadn’t been wrong after all. And everything was going to be all right. Of course, they didn’t want him to leave! And then it happened.
Together with Cleopas and Mary at the table, the stranger took the bread, blessed it, and broke it—the same actions they had seen only a few days earlier in the upper room. And that’s when they recognized him. That’s when they recognized the stranger as the risen Lord and as their nephew Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
They had heard his voice as he broke open the scriptures for them on the road, and they had heard his voice as he blessed the bread at their table. But it was only in the breaking of the bread that they knew.
Audrey Novak Riley is director for stewardship for Women of the ELCA. (The featured image is Christ on the Road to Emmaus [ca. 1725-1730] in the public domain and hanging in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
Questions for reflection:
- I can recognize my nephew by the sound of his voice. Cleopas and Mary recognized their nephew Jesus as the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread. How do you recognize the risen Lord?
- Luke tells the story of what happened on the road to Emmaus in fewer than 500 words (this study is nearly four times as long). Does it help people understand the story more deeply when they know the backgrounds and meanings behind the words Luke uses? Does it help you?
- The Gospels tell us about Jesus being anointed with oil on three occasions. And on each of these occasions, it’s a woman doing the anointing (see above). One of these women is his friend Mary of Bethany. Another one is known to be a sinner (aren’t we all!). And all we know about the third one is that Jesus defends her and says, “wherever the gospel is told, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” What do you think each woman means by her act of anointing Jesus? What do you think of all these women?
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