Before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus was proclaimed as Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God, as Lord, Redeemer, and Saviour of the World. Those claims of Roman imperial theology were found everywhere in the Mediterranean world in texts, images, inscriptions, and structures. These medians were the ancient equivalent of modern advertising, billboards, social media, and tweets.
As I mentioned last Sunday Christians differ from one another over whether the resurrection of Jesus should be understood literally or metaphorically [some would say parabolically]. This is a discussion about mode, which is not an unimportant discussion. But a discussion about meaning is I believe much more pertinent.
An example of this is our reading today from Luke about the journey to Emmaus. Is this a description of a literal, factual event; or is this a parable? Regardless of your answer, the question of meaning remains. What is the meaning of this episode/story, and why was it included in Luke’s exposition of the Good News of Jesus?
To return to the Son of God and Saviour, aka Caesar Augustus, we have no idea how many people at the time took those claims of imperial theology literally or metaphorically. But we do know that a large percentage took them programmatically. By this I mean people accepted, supported, and internalized Roman imperial theology and entered the world it was creating as the only 1st century reality.
The followers of Jesus espoused both beliefs and a way of life that programmatically directly challenged this reality of imperial theology. The programme of Jesus and Paul, in tweet brief, was ‘peace through non-violent justice’, not Caesar’s ‘peace through military victory’.
Rome was not the evil empire of the first century, the ‘axis of evil’ in the Mediterranean world. It was no more or less than normal imperial civilisation – because such civilisation has always been violent and unjust. It is only a question as Dom Crossan says ‘of who has lost it, who has got it, who wants it, and who is next.’
That’s why it is necessary to take literally [not metaphorically!] the statement of Jesus that his kingdom is not of this world – not of the world of normal imperial civilisations. Jesus’ answer to Pilate, staged in the trial scene of John’s Gospel (John 18:36), is not about some extra-terrestrial heavenly place! Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world because it is not a violent one and so his companions will not attack Pilate to release him. It is equally necessary to take quite literally Paul’s claim that a just and nonviolent world demands a “new creation”, demands a world we have never experienced and can only gropingly imagine.
So to return to the matter of Jesus’ bodily resurrection: it could be imaginatively possible, if one understood it in a miraculous sense of a dead man coming alive, for a 21st century secular person to congratulate Jesus on his wonderful defeat of death. The 21st century person might say, “How nice for Jesus. I’m so happy for his family.” The question of ‘so what difference does it make to my life’ hangs in the air unanswered.
And this is where the Jesus counter-programme, and interactive with it the community counter-programme, stands in contrast to the imperial programme and expected community life of the empire. For the resurrection is a declaration that the counter-programme of the Jesus vision has begun, that believers are living the resurrected life that incarnates the topsy-turvy realm of the God who was revealed in Jesus. We are not waiting for God to act. God has already acted and is waiting for us to react, to collaborate, to cooperate, to get with the divine counter-programme.
Let’s return to our reading today. A couple, presumably male and female and possibly husband and wife, since with standard Mediterranean patriarchal arrogance only the male is identified, encounter Jesus as they leave Jerusalem on what we call Easter Sunday. Unlike all other such risen apparitions in the biblical accounts, Jesus is disguised as a normal stranger. Their hearts, as they said, burned within them as he opened the Scriptures to reveal his destiny but it was only in the breaking of the bread they recognized him; and he then vanished from their sight.
That climatic revelation only happened because of these preceding verses: “As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them.” Only when the stranger was invited to share their meal in what was presumably their home was he revealed as the Risen One. Jesus opened his Scriptures for them and they opened their table for him.
With Dom Crossan I would say ‘Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens’. It never happened because it’s a parable; but its historicity (or mode) is not what’s important. Emmaus always happens because it encapsulates the essential programme of the early Jesus movement.
There were primarily three subversive counter-cultural practices – what I’m calling the programme - of Jesus. Firstly, he undermined the patriarchal family system by creating a new family without biological or wealth privilege. So in the early creed we heard from Galatians today the followers of Jesus are now part of a new family in God, without a patriarch, without a hierarchy based on order of birth or maleness. In the new family of Jesus there were a whole bunch of misfits and expendables – trans-class, trans-race, trans-gender. This was a kingdom without privilege and sanctions, a kingdom not of this world.
Secondly, these nuisances and nobodies, these followers of Jesus, all ate together. The encouragement for anyone to come in off the streets to dine breached the purity codes that were deemed essential for personal and community holiness. What food you ate, who you touched or were in close proximity with, who you spoke to, was believed to affect not just your health and social standing but also your relationship with God. For a male to dine with say a menstruating woman was to lower his status to her inferior status. He became polluted. It was similar with a leper, or child, or tax collector, or someone sick. Jesus was saying that who you ate with didn’t affect your spiritual status; and he was proclaiming this in a world that believed the opposite. Crossing the boundaries of table rules was a sign of the-Kingdom-not-of-this-world.
Lastly, Jesus’ counter-cultural programme deliberately undermined patronage. Normally a leader/master would establish a base of operations and be the patron to those who sought assistance from him. The paramount disciples would be the brokers. We catch glimpses of this in the gospels – like the story of the boy bringing his loaves and fish to Jesus via Andrew.
As a king is located in a palace and has a number of minions whom normal people have to go through in order to get an audience, so it was with a first century patron and their clientele. This system made sure the patron’s power would grow and the clientele would always be dependent. The 1st century social world was structured with a hierarchy of patrons. Their clientele were then patrons to others. At the top of the pyramid was of course the emperor aka the Son of God, God from God, etcetera.
Instead of creating a patron/client relationship with his followers Jesus was deliberately itinerant. He kept moving so his power and others’ dependency did not grow. Healings came free. Free health care!! Wisdom came without copyright. His vision was that people did not need a brokered relationship in order to relate to God or to each other. Jesus programme was radically egalitarian. His programme was not ‘of-this-world’.
So now think again of the Emmaus story. Cleopas and partner were unknowns. They weren’t disciples of status, part of a privileged inner circle. Instead they were just nobodies, any old bodies, who came to join this new Jesus family. The parable is saying that these two nobodies could be you and me.
Secondly, they walk, talk, and eat together. This is the model of the early Jesus communities – out and about, talking on the road, in the market place, wherever. Learning, studying, arguing… and then, importantly, dining together. It was in the dining together they became known to each other and came to know a different God – one ‘not-of-this-world’. This was transformative.
Thirdly, they learn from and dine with a leader who leaves them. Yes, Jesus just up and leaves. He doesn’t hang around and makes their home a synagogue or church or base of his operations. He just up and leaves. He isn’t creating a power and dependency model, but rather encouraging a diffuse flat network of religious subversives. Jesus didn’t see himself as the permanent priestly go-between for people to get to God. He had confidence that everyone could access the Divine like he did. You don’t have to be good enough, old enough, rich enough, wise enough, well-connected, or a minister or elder. He was showing a Way, a programme, a kingdom not of this world.
The parable of the Emmaus road is a post-crucifixion parable that points us to the counter-cultural programme of the Jesus movement. Any old bodies, any 2 or 3 who gather in His name (Matthew 18:20), talking, learning, being hospitable, can experience the power of the ongoing spirit of Jesus. It doesn’t matter about your skin colour, your sexuality, your wealth or lack of it, that spirit of Jesus is there among you. It doesn’t matter who is with you. Their otherness won’t pollute you. Strangers don’t have to first be screened. And you don’t have to have permission from a patron or patriarch or moderator to meet and eat together. For we are a community marked by mutuality and radical equality. Our vision and programme is not of the world of normal civilisation, normal relationships, normal business, and normal violence. The meaning of the resurrection is simply that in us, any old bodies, the programme of Jesus lives on. Caesar beware!