Today, as I read the gospel lectionary passage, I want to use it to think about how scripture is approached. I think it is an important subject and one which I find intriguing. Before I delve into the passage, I want to add a quick general principle.
The study of hermeneutics has for a long time been a fast-growing area of the study of the ancient texts. There are many different ways of interpreting scripture. I’m not going to go into them today. I do cast a fairly brief glance at them in the chapter on interpretation in my book Corporal Punishment, Religion and US Public Schools for any who are interested.
For today, I’m going to simply say that it is a person’s best effort to grapple with scripture and come to an understanding which is meaningful. There is always a danger in interpretation of thinking there is one correct way of understanding a text. It is even worse when it is written or spoken about as if this one understanding is the absolute truth. Then there is an implication that anyone who thinks differently about a passage is wrong. Over the years — even over centuries — this has caused much division.
So, when reading or studying scripture it is much better to offer an interpretation as personal thinking with the expectation that others may think differently —and that is okay. It invites dialogue which, hopefully, will enrich all.
When I approach a text I like to read it “against the grain”. This is a little phrase that I first read in Anne Thurston’s book, Knowing Her Place. Reading against the grain is looking beneath the most common or most obvious understanding of a text. I like to think about it as challenging assumptions. It is really helpful in opening the mind to other possibilities.
Today’s lectionary gospel passage is a really helpful passage in challenging assumptions (Luke: 13-35). It is the story of the two people on the road to Emmaus. They were walking the seven miles home from Jerusalem when a third person joined them. When they arrived home, they urged the stranger to stay the night with them as it was getting late. Over bread they realized it was the risen Christ who had joined them. Ultimately, they returned to Jerusalem to tell others of their experience.
It is a great story and one which is commonly depicted. The assumption I want to challenge today is that these were two men. Often the scriptures are approached through a patriarchal lens. So therefore, the assumption is these two who the risen Christ walked with must be men. Why?
I googled “Old Masters + Road to Emmaus” (try it) and loads of famous and not so famous painting are shown. All depict two men with the Christ. I also tried it with children’s book — also two men are usually illustrated although I did find one cute YouTube video that included a woman.
Anyway, back to the text. Only one person is named in the Gospel of Luke. That is Cleopas. The other remains unnamed — sadly often, in the scriptures, the women are left unnamed. Therefore, it is possible that the second disciple on the Emmaus Road was a woman. Furthermore, I think that it is very probable that it was Cleopas’ partner. Actually, Mary the wife of Clopas is noted as one of the women at the foot of the cross.
“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.” (John 19:25)
I know the name in the Gospel of John is Clopas rather than Cleopas but it is accepted that this was the same person. Clopas is the Greek form while Cleopas is the Aramaic form of the same name. In the same way Paul is the Latin transliteration of the Greek name Saul.
To my mind, it makes much more sense to assume that the two on the Emmaus Rd were Cleopas and Mary. It is clear from the text that they share a common residence in the village where they lived.
I just want to offer this interpretation to challenge the status quo. Ultimately, after studying, some reading this may still prefer to accept the more common interpretation —that it was two men journeying and living together. That is absolutely fine. The important thing is to let any text challenge the patriarchal mindset and to enrich beyond the accepted norm.
That is the beauty of reading against the grain.