It was a holiday weekend, and I wanted to avoid the city. Had I done so, I would not have gotten involved with those two credulous men.
However, I had stayed in Jericho too long, through the Passover and the Sabbath. I was still two days' journey from the seacoast, and I needed to be in Joppa by Tuesday.
Therefore, I set out at dawn on Sunday, the first day of the week, to go up to Jerusalem 15 miles away. I got there early that afternoon and stopped in the marketplace for lunch. Hoping to reach Nicopolis by nightfall, I was soon on my way again.
I left Jerusalem's western gate at a brisk pace, but the country was hilly and I began to tire. On the road ahead of me, I saw two men walking more slowly. They were deep in conversation with each other. I slowed to walk with them.
"Peace be with you, brothers," I said.
"Peace," the taller one replied, barely glancing at me. He turned back to his companion. "But Matthias," he said, continuing their debate, "he healed that Roman centurion's daughter. Some say that he brought her back from the dead. He did not exclude the Romans from God's grace. To him, they were not the enemy."
"Not the enemy?" the shorter one retorted. "Cleopas, they killed him! Right there in the Holy City! The Romans surely were the enemy! They still are the enemy!"
"And what might we be discussing?" I inquired pleasantly.
The two men suddenly realized I was there. They froze and stared at me. I didn't look like a Roman, but before one speaks ill of an occupying power, one has to be careful to know whom one is addressing.
As we stood in the dust of the road, Cleopas gave a cautious glance around him before breaking the silence. "Brother, if I may ask, are you a Jew like us?"
"Of course," I answered. "I study the Scriptures daily and try to obey God's will." I was too modest to mention that I hoped to become a rabbi within the year.
"Do you live in Jerusalem?"
"No, I'm just passing through."
"Actually, we don't live there either." Their accents suggested that they came from somewhere up north, probably Galilee.
I asked, "You say the Romans killed someone in the city?"
"You haven't heard?"
Cleopas sighed and looked very sad. "Brother, you must be the only stranger in Jerusalem who hasn't heard about everything that's happened there in the last few days."
"What news is that?" I asked.
"About Jesus, from Nazareth," he replied. "He was a prophet. A great prophet."
Matthias elaborated, "Yes, he proved it in the sight of God and the whole Jewish people. He proved it with miracles and mighty words. Our people believed in him. But our leaders did not! The chief priests, the rulers they handed him over to the Romans to be sentenced to death. They had him crucified."
My companions, no longer concerned that I might be a Roman myself, seemed truly miserable about the execution of this Jesus. Placing my comforting right hand on the shoulder of Cleopas and my left on the shoulder of Matthias, I turned them to the west again, and we resumed our journey.
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We walked several paces in silence. Then Cleopas said, "We had hoped that Jesus would turn out to be the Messiah the one who would set Israel free. We expected him to liberate us from the Romans. Instead, the Romans put him to death. And our own Jewish leaders asked them to do it! Those cowardly collaborators in Jerusalem!"
"When was this execution?" I asked.
"Just three days ago," Cleopas answered.
"But that's not all," Matthias added. "At dawn this morning, some of our womenfolk visited his tomb, and they came back with more disturbing news. They couldn't find his body! And then angels appeared and said that he was alive!"
I looked at my companions skeptically.
Matthias continued, "Of course, when we heard that, some of us had to see for ourselves. Cleopas here went to the tomb with some other men, and it was just the way the women had said. The grave clothes were lying there, but no body. It's all very strange."
Cleopas turned to Matthias. "I forgot to tell you about Mary! That's the best part."
"Mary of Magdala?"
"Right. The rest of us had drifted away from the tomb, but she was still there crying. You know how emotional Mary gets."
"Indeed I do," Matthias agreed. "They say that Jesus had to exorcise seven demons from her."
"Anyway," Cleopas continued, "Mary was crying, and Jonathan the gardener came along. You remember him; he helped Joseph prepare the tomb last Friday. Jonathan asked Mary what was wrong. She told him that the authorities had taken away her master. She didn't know what they had done with the body, and she demanded to know where it was. She must have been hysterical."
"Jonathan tried to talk to her. He even called her by name. But then she looked at him through her tears and realized that it wasn't Jonathan, it was Jesus! She ran to embrace him, but he stopped her. He told her that her master was on his way to Heaven now."
"So she thought that Jonathan the gardener was really Jesus of Nazareth?"
"She was sure of it. He told her to go back to the other disciples where she belonged. So this noontime, she was telling everybody that she had 'seen the risen Lord,' as she put it, and that he had told her that he was going to ascend to Heaven."
"I can understand why the gardener wouldn't let her touch him. She's a crazy woman."
"Still, I wonder," Cleopas said. "The tomb was empty. Some women saw angels. Another woman saw Jesus himself. Might he really be alive?"
"My lawyer friends say that it's never a good idea to rely on women's testimony. Women are too excitable," said Matthias. "And as for the empty tomb, I heard a rumor about that. Supposedly, a couple of disciples slipped in last night, stole the body, and reburied it in a secret place. That way, they could claim that Jesus came back to life. The authorities can't disprove the claim because they have no corpse no evidence that he's still dead."
"None of our people would steal a dead body!" Cleopas protested. "And on the Sabbath? Impossible."
"Well, you think that you know people, and then they surprise you. That traitor Judas surprised me. I never thought he would sell out and turn Jesus over to the authorities. So I wouldn't put it past some of our men to fake a resurrection. Maybe not any of The Twelve, but Razis and his friend Eleazar might try something like that. They're willing to do anything to magnify the glory of Jesus."
"But you can't fake a vision," Cleopas declared. "A vision is something you experience yourself. You know it's true!"
I saw a chance to add my own perspective. "Yes, visions certainly do seem to be real," I said. "I had one just a few years ago. I knew that I was talking with someone who was long dead."
"Really?" asked Matthias. "Who was that?"
"Uriah the Hittite."
"Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba. You remember? She later married King David and became the mother of King Solomon."
I could tell that my companions were not as familiar with the Scriptures as I, but I continued with my story anyway. "A few years ago, back in my village, I had my heart set on marrying a beautiful young woman. But her family was against it. One night when I was asleep, Uriah appeared to me. He seemed just as real to me as you two do right now.
"'My son,' he said to me, 'do you desire beauty? I once possessed the most beautiful woman in all of Judah. But did it bring me happiness? No, it did not, for King David wanted her for himself, and he had me killed. In vain does a man seek a beautiful wife, for he can never keep her.'"
"So you think," Matthias asked dubiously, "that you were actually talking to this Uriah who died, what, a thousand years ago?"
"You can't prove I wasn't," I answered. "It really seemed that I was."
"So maybe Mary really did see Jesus."
"Blessed are those who have such wonderful visions," Matthias remarked wistfully, "for they shall see God."
But another problem was troubling Cleopas. "If Jesus did come back to life and go up into Heaven, that would certainly be the greatest of his miracles. But even so, that wouldn't make him the Messiah! We thought he was the Messiah. We hoped that he would free us from our oppressors."
"You mean the Romans?" I asked. "Are the Romans our only oppressors? There is so much else in this world from which we need to be set free. And while the Scriptures do indeed promise that the Messiah will set Israel free, they don't even mention Rome."
"Then from what are we to be freed?" Cleopas asked bitterly. "And how can our glorious liberator be a man who was tortured and put to death before he could accomplish anything? Was Jesus the Messiah? No, he was Jesus the abject failure. What a humiliating end!"
"That's true," I answered.
Matthias seemed surprised by my response until he realized I was quoting Scripture. "Is that from the Prophets?" he asked.
"The 53rd chapter of Isaiah," I replied.
Cleopas snorted. "Are you trying to tell us that Isaiah is describing the Messiah? That doesn't sound like the Messiah I was brought up to expect."
"You don't understand, do you?" I answered. "You're slow to believe what the prophets wrote. Before the Messiah can find his glory, he first must suffer."
"Prove it," said Matthias.
And so I did. Beginning with Moses, I developed the argument that I had heard from my teachers. It was the concept of the Suffering Servant, who would "bear the sin of many" and thus rescue Israel.
My companions seemed dubious at first, but gradually they began to draw parallels between what I was saying and what they remembered of their recently departed Messiah candidate. Perhaps, using the Suffering Servant concept, they could put a "spin" on the bad news of the crucifixion. Perhaps they could salvage their dreams.
The two men were slowly persuading themselves that Jesus really had been the Promised One, that they had in fact been followers of the future Liberator of Israel . . . and that he was alive! After all, everyone agreed that his tomb was empty. First Cleopas and then Matthias, nodding in agreement with my Scriptural citations, began to get that dreamy, far-away look. Their formerly miserable moods were turning into a kind of religious ecstasy. Yes, they were Galileans, all right.
I hadn't expected this reaction. In our rabbinical classes, my fellow scholars and I had remained dispassionate when discussing these matters. But the two men with whom I was walking were no scholars. For them, the great hunger was not for knowledge but for belief. They wanted, desperately wanted, to believe that their Jesus was the one who would set the world right. My arguments were giving them a framework on which their cherished hopes could be hung. And if parts of that framework were missing, they were only too eager to patch the gaps with dubious material.
It frightened me to see how my words were feeding the growth of their blind faith. They started to fantasize that Jesus would soon return, accompanied by the Messianic glory for which they had been hoping all along.
About seven miles outside Jerusalem, we came to the small town of Emmaus. It turned out that Cleopas now made his home here, and this was where he and Matthias were going. So I started to bid them farewell. I was rather glad to be rid of them, to tell the truth.
"But," Cleopas said, "the sun is getting low, my brother. You won't be able to reach Nicopolis before dark. Why don't you stay here tonight, as my guest?"
"Yes, please stay," Matthias said. "Cleopas and his wife always serve good food for supper, and we'd love to hear more of what the prophets foretold about Jesus. You obviously are a teacher of great wisdom."
Good food is my weakness, and flattery can persuade me. Weary and hungry from the long day's journey, I accepted the invitation.
"Joanna!" Cleopas called to his wife as we entered the modest house. "Matthias and I are back from Jerusalem, and we've brought a guest!" He suddenly realized that he didn't know my name. Apologetically, he asked, "What are you called, my friend?"
I was reluctant to let these men know my identity. They might turn out to be religious extremists with whom a respectable rabbi-to-be should not be associated. Also, these are dangerous times, and these men weren't on the best of terms with the occupying military power. I answered, "Simply say that I am a child of God, as are we all."
I left my things in the vestibule. I wasn't carrying much except a couple of books in a bag. We went inside and washed our feet and hands and faces, and before long we were at the dinner table.
Cleopas turned to me and said, "Child of God, our guest, we would be honored if you were to offer the blessing."
"Thank you, my friends," I replied. I picked up the loaf of bread and, in my best rabbinical cadence, recited an ancient prayer. I broke the loaf in two and broke each half in two again, then passed the four pieces around the table. Suddenly, I realized that the two men were staring at me.
"That's just the way that Jesus used to give the blessing," Cleopas whispered to Matthias.
"Indeed," Matthias agreed.
"And this man seems to know all the secrets . . . ."
"Do you think that possibly . . . ."
"Could it be . . . ."
"Is it really . . . ."
Making a leap of faith, Cleopas sprang to his feet and exclaimed, "It is the Master!"
"He's alive!" Matthias chimed in.
I was dumbfounded. Surely these two fellows didn't think that I was actually their departed prophet Jesus of Nazareth? Didn't they remember his face, his Galilean accent? How could they mistake me for him?
Cleopas rushed to embrace me as his startled wife retreated to a corner. He shouted, "My Lord and my God!"
There is no greater blasphemy than the claim that a mere man is God. You can imagine my horror when I heard myself proclaimed as divine!
Holding up my hands to stop Cleopas, I recoiled from his grasp. He whirled to confirm his insane notion with his friend. "Don't you agree?" he cried to Matthias, who was nodding enthusiastically. "Remember that feeling we had on the road, when he made the Scriptures so plain? Our hearts were glowing within us! This must be the risen Lord!"
The deluded men were almost in tears, hugging and congratulating each other over this wonderful news. Joanna, who was afraid of ghosts, had covered her face with her arms. I saw my chance to escape. I darted from the dining room and grabbed the belongings I had left in the vestibule, and before anyone else realized it, I was outside on the road.
"Where is he?" came the cry from within. "He has vanished from our sight! Truly this was Jesus! Once he was dead, but now he lives again!"
Clearly, it was time for me to resume my journey toward the setting sun. I set off on a trot, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. As I crested the first hill, I stole a look back at the house, now half-hidden in the evening shadows. Cleopas and Matthias were leaving the house headed in the opposite direction, back towards Jerusalem, shouting "We must tell the others! Perhaps they too have seen the Master!"
Ah, well. Fortunately, such wishful thinking cannot last forever. They may want to believe that Jesus will soon return in glory to defeat the Romans, but when a few years pass and there is no second coming, they will admit their mistake. They will realize that the gardener was just a gardener, and that the stranger on the road to Emmaus was just a stranger on the road. They will understand that their hopes and dreams were no more than hopes and dreams. And the truth will set them free.
(a retelling of Luke 24:13-35)