Peter Marty: Emmaus: Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord

It could be that Emmaus serves as a symbolic place for our faith lives

Read Luke 24:13-35.

Rumor has it that Lake Wobegon does not appear on any maps of Minnesota because of a mistake made by cartographers more than a century ago. As author and humorist Garrison Keillor recounts the mystery of this mapping error, we learn that four surveyors each began at one of the four corners of the state. Proceeding to move inward, they traveled on foot at different paces and over uneven terrain. The result was that they failed to meet up as expected. When their separate maps overlapped awkwardly, Lake Wobegon got left out in the process.

In a similar way, biblical archeologists still have no idea where the little town of Emmaus might have been situated. It does not exist today, or if it does, no cartographer can say definitively where it is. Luke indicates that it was about seven miles from Jerusalem, though great controversy continues to surround three possible sites often suggested as Emmaus possibilities.

It could be that Emmaus serves as that symbolic place for our lives of faith. It is where we go when the wind empties from our sail. It's the place where we head when grief makes our compass bearings go haywire. When confused and distraught, we often stick out our thumb and hitchhike to Emmaus. Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor calls the road to Emmaus "the road of deep disappointment."

For two ordinary disciples, that's exactly what it was: a dusty road of deep disappointment. We know that one's name was Cleopas; the other could have been you. So plug in your own name, at least for story's sake. Two people walking and talking, grieving for what was - or for what wasn't. Mostly they were stuck in the story of Jesus' ministry that was. Perhaps you've noticed a similar tendency in your spiritual journey. Sometimes faith becomes little more than a string of memories, devoid of immediate significance or vital power. 

Cleopas and his companion knew that Jesus had suffered and died. From eyewitness reports making the rounds, they were also aware that some women had found his tomb vacant. What's interesting is how well they knew the Scriptures. They were completely at home in the lessons someone had taught them, hardly ignorant of the central story line. They just didn't know what the story meant, which still remains a problem for us today.

"We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel," they said. We had hoped. Can there be any words in Scripture sadder than those three? Not many. As they poured out their hearts to the stranger beside them - the one whom they could not recognize - at least they were honest. They shared questions, not answers. 

If "we had hoped" are three words of great sadness, "stay with us" are three words brimming with hospitality. Their hearts may have been slow, but they were not closed. Despite being wrapped up in a world of their own sorrow, these two disciples still had room for the grace to invite.

Something dramatic happened at the table that evening in Emmaus. The instant Christ blessed, broke and gave them some bread their eyes were opened. It must have been the eyes of their heart, since the eyes of their face were working fine. Take note every time a meal gets blessed and shared. The eyes of your heart may open right up.

When Viktor E. Frankl was at the end of his rope in the horror of Nazi concentration camp deprivation, every possession lost and every value destroyed, someone gave him a piece of bread. "I remember how a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration," he said. "It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at the time. It was the human 'something' this man also gave to me - the word and the look which accompanied the gift."

Keep on the lookout for that "human something" the next time you break bread with another person. Their words may offer more nutrients than the bread in your hand. Their look may open the eyes of your heart. It might all be a small taste of the first Emmaus.

Taken with permission from the June 2012 issue of The Lutheran magazine.