Two men are walking away from Jerusalem. Probably on business, they’re talking over the latest rumor that is circulating about the prophet Jesus. Some women claim that his body is gone; that they had seen a vision of angels. They claim that he lives. Now they are mulling over these reports, wondering how much stock to put in the word of these two women. Doubtful.
A stranger joins them. In the tradition of Hebrew Scriptures, there is a common theme of God visiting humanity as an angel taking the form of a stranger. Abraham received visitors. Jacob wrestled with one. There is common thread of God coming to humanity in order to reveal or to test us. These two would have been aware of this tradition, could have anticipated the potential of entertaining an angel unaware. Added to this the report of the women and we would expect them to be looking out for such an occurrence. But as the stranger joins them, they fail to recognize him.
Perhaps also, like Mary, they were blinded by their experience of grief, of loss, such that they just weren’t looking for the risen Christ. It had only been a few days since they had witnessed the death of Jesus on a cross. An agonizing death and the loss of hope that God would usher in a new age, that Jesus would overthrow the Roman government. This would be enough to send anyone into shock.
But this answer isn’t a satisfying one, either. After all, it had been a few days, they were able to talk about the events that had occurred that week. They were trying to make sense of it. More than this, they had heard reports from the women who had visited the tomb that was cause for a glimmer of hope. It wasn’t because of their intense grief that they didn’t recognize Jesus. What could it be?
Maybe it wasn’t them, but Jesus. Maybe the body of Jesus had been significantly transformed such that it was barely recognizable. This is a good possibility. After all, they had last seen the body of Jesus hanging limp on a cross, all the life having been drained from it. Certainly the form of the risen Christ would have been significantly different. Something like a “spiritual body” as the Apostle Paul called it.
And yet this doesn’t fully answer the problem, either. After all, the body did not appear to them as angelic, but simply “as a stranger,” a common wanderer. Similarly, Mary thought the risen Christ was a simple gardener. Whatever form Christ took, it was more a physical form than a spiritual one.
So what is it that keeps them from recognizing Christ? I believe the answer is found within the story itself. I believe the answer is found within the story itself. In verse 25, the story takes an important shift. Christ speaks to them, saying, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
The stranger then begins to reveal the Scriptures to them, what we know as the Old Testament, expounding on the Messianic hope found in the writings and how this hope had been met. It wasn’t a political revolution led by a dynamic warrior, but the atoning death and resurrection of a suffering servant. This was God’s plan. This was the hope of Israel. This was what Christ had done.
They then sit down to table. The stranger and the two disciples. As the stranger blesses and breaks the bread, their eyes are opened and they recognize him as Christ.
There is something about the breaking of the bread and the expounding of the Scriptures which help them recognize the Risen Christ. This is the key. The presence of Christ is connected to these two events, the reading and expounding of Scripture and the breaking of bread.
The Word proclaimed in preaching and the Word remembered in the breaking of bread prompts us to recognize Christ in our lives today and look for him on the day he comes again.