Vol 42 No 2
The theme of journey in Luke
OF ALL THE THEMES that may be teased out from the rich weave that is the Lukan text, one that speaks with clarity and resonance to modern readership is that of the journey. Journeys abound in Luke’s Gospel-Acts. The undeniably central one is that undertaken by Jesus towards the cross; in Acts, we see the journeying of the disciples, culminating in their arrival in Rome; and lastly, the journey of the implied auditor towards God.
In this paper we shall make a brief examination of this recurrent theme, with a special focus on the Emmaus story. In so doing, we aim to establish the metaphor of journey within the context of a theology of ‘end-time’ fulfilment. We hope also to underscore the thought that the journey in Luke is an invitation to believers to see the life path as God’s glorious gift to humanity: we have been granted the thrill of the open road, and with it creative freedom, to make of life what we will. All this, and then at the end of the road an assured eternal life in God awaits.
Every journey undertaken has purpose and a final destination in mind. It progresses in a linear fashion towards an end point. For the evangelist there is firm intent to reflect the motif of journey in the very structure of the narrative. We note this in the logical sequencing of events that he is at some pains to establish. Each little section in the plot has a ‘separate but complementary function’. (Johnson, p10,11.) Every consecutive event is like a little step along the way, making up in sum the whole journey. The reader is moved purposefully from one event to the next, and we are asked to trust in the accuracy of the author’s chronology.
We are reminded by Johnson that Luke’s Gospel is only half of the story, to be read in conjunction with Acts. The end of the former is but a hiatus along the way, waiting for the remainder of the story to be picked up. Acts will continue the account, with a focus on the journeying of the early Church.
Not content with placing his story within a logical framework, Luke seeks to position the journey within the wider context of world history. Thus, his emphasis on establishing a firm chronological base will be an attempt to lend legitimacy and a measure of historicity to his account. What began in the Galilean hills decades before, will end with Paul’s arrival in Rome. The story of Jesus will lead naturally to the story of the early Church. But Luke’s narrative will hark back even further, retracing its antecedents all the way to Adam (Lk3: 38). It will begin with the telling of the story of Israel (Lk1:5), and progress chronologically, mapping the journey of all God’s people since.
Luke is concerned with the ‘prophecy and fulfilment pattern within the narrative’. (p12) At the beginning of his account, we are made aware that the story he is about to re-tell is actually the culmination of something begun long before. (Lk 1:1) The writer, Johnson reminds us, establishes a firm link between the story of Moses and that of Jesus. (p19) Thus the reader will have the sense that there has been but one long and uninterrupted journey from the Hebrew Testament to Acts. Yet another ‘fulfilment’, (referred to at the end of Acts) is still in store, that of the eschatological promise. There is the guarantee of an eternity dwelling in God. This moment has not yet arrived; and the book of Acts finishes on a note of open-endedness. As in all the best creative acts and works, there has been room allowed for endless potentialities. Future progress is in the hands of the reader. The story and the journey are far from over.
If we situate the origins of Luke’s journey narrative with the first response of the Israelites to God, it becomes clear that the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem will occupy a central position within the linear movement of the story. After the crucifixion event will come the journey of the witnesses of Acts. Then, further along the continuum will be the stories of believers still to come. But it will be against the pivotal journey made by Jesus that the success of all the other journeys in Luke is to be measured. The movement towards Jerusalem is a steadfast embrace of the Father’s will; and this will become the point of each journey, either side of the central one. It is in this light that all the journeys—both those that precede the Jesus journey, and those that come after— will need to be viewed: as movements towards the ultimate fulfilment of God’s plan; as progress towards complete rapprochement between God and humanity.
The journey leitmotif is inextricably linked in Luke with the theme of discipleship. Indeed, it might be said that one cannot be properly considered without the other. Whoever embarks on the journey to God will listen, as Jesus listened to the Father. The disciple is the one who follows and, hearing the word, responds. It is interesting to note the similarity between the Greek terminologies for ‘listen’ and ‘follow’ (respectively, akouo and akoloutho); the one an expansion of the other; suggestive of a theological link that Luke wants to establish between the two. The closing verses of Acts assure us that in listening, God’s people will know salvation (28:28). We observe that the final chapter of both the Gospel and Acts has been reserved by the evangelist for an unequivocal message: an exhortation to discipleship. He specifies what this will entail: namely, one must listen to the word of God. In biblical Greek, words carrying the most weight tend to be placed last in a sentence. This being the case, it is safe to assume that such positioning of the chapters, on both counts, at the tail end of the narrative, has been a deliberate act by the writer to underscore something he considers of utmost importance. Thus it is that in the closing chapter of Luke’s Gospel we arrive at the Emmaus story.
The account of the journey to Emmaus has an appealing and accessible universality about it. It is the perennial, personal story of every human. Like the Matthian account of Peter’s attempt to walk on water, it resonates deeply within us. For it is an authentic representation of our humanity at its weakest; yet, when buoyed by the power of Christ, that same humanity becomes capable of magnificent resolve.
On the face of it, Emmaus is a story where nothing much happens. A couple of disciples, fleeing the city after the crucifixion, are headed for an inconsequential village a short distance from Jerusalem. They meet a stranger who talks scripture at them, allays some of their fears, and proves himself a comforting companion. They invite him to dinner and, at the breaking of the bread, they suddenly recognise in their fellow traveller the risen Jesus. He vanishes at this point. Then, we are told, with joyful hearts they return to Jerusalem to tell their friends. End of story.
But there is far more to the account. Emmaus is, in fact, a cameo depiction of the human journey through life. That is me on the road, running away, as one often does in life, from a difficult situation, a situation that is demanding far too much from one little individual. I am deeply troubled, confused and frightened. I have lost a beloved friend in the very worst of circumstances, and I have not even begun to grieve. I had set such store by him—and now he is dead. Luckily, I have a companion with whom to share my woes and fears. The only problem is that he is not much good at assuaging my pain, since he is in the same predicament as I am. In reality, we are nigh on useless to each other.
Then a stranger joins us on the way. He reminds us of predictions and promises made long ago that certain events would come to pass. The more we listen, the greater the assurance and comfort that we draw from his words. As he makes to leave, my friend and I cast about for ways to prolong the moment of contact with our new companion. He makes us feel safe, and ridiculously, hope has begun to burgeon within us. We invite him to join us for dinner. As we begin the meal there is something he does, some little gesture that is immediately familiar. In that instant we recognise the stranger in our midst. We understand that our friend who was dead, now lives. And we remember how he foretold even this.
At the moment of clarity, our friend disappears from sight. No matter. His physical presence is no longer required. We have all the validation we need to keep going. He is everything he said he was. And we can rest our faith on all the things that he told us over time, for we know them now to be true. The Promiser fulfilled all the prophecies. And now it is our turn to keep promises. We had said once we were ready to follow him, to help spread the Good News. Now we are sure of our mandate. In the little village of Emmaus we turn around and face Jerusalem from whence we fled. We are ready to make the journey back, to fulfil the mission.
If the mark of discipleship is the preparedness to ‘ hear the word’, then the Emmaus travellers have not earned the right to call themselves disciples: at least, not until that moment on the road when they allow Jesus’ words—his explanation of the scriptures to them—to percolate deep into their understanding. Before that instant they were the antithesis of disciples: their behaviour characterised by a profound alarm and anxiety. (Kealy, p245) Their blind fear had prevented them from recognising God in their midst. But when they truly began to listen, the scales fell from their eyes, and Jesus was revealed to them.
We may extrapolate from the account that sometimes it is all right, and even important, to move away from the centre—the Jerusalem of our traditional faith—in order to gain greater clarity. Luke makes a case for those on the fringes—the outcasts, the vulnerable— repeatedly having the best recourse to God. Jesus himself was a man of the margins. (Moxnes, p 10.) Often it will be that the one running away becomes aware, to his joy and amazement, that Jesus—the very one we were seeking to elude—is there, running with us.
The acquisition of clarity and firm purpose are only possible, though, if, on our journey we allow ourselves to become open to what God is telling us, whether through the Scriptures, or through the people we meet along the road. If we are prepared to listen with the heart, even though we are standing outside the centre of things, we may well become the outsiders who are enlightened by an encounter with the risen Lord. (p22, Johnson.) As we progress towards our Emmaus, we begin to glimpse the fulfilment of God’s word in our own lives. We see it acting in our midst. And like the Emmaus travellers, we too begin to believe the promises. We understand that the journey undertaken must be brought to completion in executing God’s plan for us. And for this, Jesus is the key. He is the companion we must first invite into our midst. Then we must be willing to hear his message, and permit it to take root in our hearts. For this to happen, we must cultivate a certain open disposition, a receptivity to the delicate movements of God within us.
The road stretching before each of us is not endless, but it is open. We have creative freedom to enact all our choices. We can either keep going, on past Emmaus, or we can return to confront our private Jerusalem. If we really want to commit to the life of a disciple, we know that what we have to do is listen and follow our road through to its completion. Jesus, the fellow-traveller and guide, will supply for all the rest. He is the one mandated with the fulfilment of the end-time.
Leslee Sniatynskyj teaches at St Ignatius’ College, Adelaide. She is married with four children, and studies theology at the Adelaide College of Divinity.
Johnson, L.T. The Gospel of Luke. Daniel J. Harrington S.J. (Ed.) Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991.
Kealy, Sean P. Luke’s Gospel Today. Chicago Studies, 1991.
Moxnes, Halvor. The Social World of Luke-Acts. Henrickson, 1991.