Cleopas asks Jesus, Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days? (v.18). But Cleopas himself appears to be uninformed about the transformation that took place among the multitude at the Cross.
The popular mind thinks that there was a murderous mob around the Cross crying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” But such was not the case. The city of Jerusalem was and is relatively small with limited public space. Pilate’s judgment hall could not have held more than a few dozen people. The High Priest and his supporters were naturally present for the political trial of Jesus. There is no hint that the supporters of Jesus were allowed into the room. On that occasion the High Priest’s men (in the hall) responded to Pilate with the cry, “Crucify him.” But on the street it was a different matter.
Throughout Holy Week the crowds around Jesus were so sympathetic that the authorities were unable to arrest him in the daytime, lest there be a riot. They were obliged to bribe Judas into leading them to Jesus at night when the protective crowd was dispersed. What then happened to that supportive multitude on Good Friday? The answer is simple: they were in attendance.
Mark and Matthew make no mention of any crowd and refer only to the hostility of “those who passed by.” In like manner John says nothing about a crowd and only mentions that the crucifixion occurred in a public place. But Luke tells us three things about the crowd. (1) The crowd followed Jesus to the Cross (23: 27). (2) As Jesus was crucified the people stood by, watching (23: 35). (3) After Jesus died and the centurion affirmed his innocence, we are told, And all the multitudes who were assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned (hupostrepho) beating their chests (23:48). What does this mean?
The only other place in Scripture where someone beats his chest is in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-17). The latter beats his chest in deep remorse as he cries out, Make an atonement for me, a sinner. This gesture is incorporated into Latin Christian piety where during the confession of sin the priest and the faithful strike the chest cavity with a clenched fist signaling deep repentance. Many English language Bibles have translated Luke 23:48 “they returned home.” But the word “home” is not in the Greek, which simply reads, they returned. Furthermore the key word hupostrepho used here translates the great Hebrew word shub, which means “to repent/return.” The second century Old Syriac version of this text adds an interpretive expansion and reads, they returned/repented, beating on their chests and saying “Woe to us! What has happened to us? Woe to us from our sins.” This may be original and was dropped from the text. On the other hand, if it is an early interpretive expansion, it is clear that the Syriac translators understood the crowds to be repenting. The beating on the chests that takes place in the text would alone lead the reader to this conclusion. Luke affirms therefore that the crowds around the Cross were led to repentance by what they saw transpiring on that historic day.
We need to factor this awareness into the remarks of Cleopas who mildly criticizes Jesus for being the only person in Jerusalem who was ignorant regarding what had just happened in the city. Cleopas tells Jesus about the works of Jesus, his arrest by the chief priests, his deliverance to Pilate, his condemnation and his crucifixion, but does not mention the great corporate act of repentance that took place at the end of the day. Cleopas like Anna (Luke 2:38) was hoping for the “redemption/ liberation” (lutroomai) of Jerusalem/Israel. But Anna spent her days and nights waiting in the temple (2:36). For her, that redemption meant more than an evacuation of foreign troops and the political liberation of the nation.
Somehow, in Cleopas’ mind the “liberation of Israel” was not related to the radical change that took place in the hearts of the people who witnessed the crucifixion. Granted, political liberation for an occupied people is a profound and valid concern. But if all Roman troops had left Judea, Samaria, and Galilee a month before the Cross, would not critical components of the evil forces that caused his death have remained? What is involved in the authentic liberation of any people?
To this discussion must be added Jesus’ parable of the “Self-emptying Vineyard Owner” (often called “the Unjust Vinedressers” Luke 20:9-19). The master endures three rounds of the brutalizing and insulting of his personal representatives. He then rejects retaliation, and re-processes his anger into grace as he sends his beloved son with the wistful hope that “they may feel shame” before him. When the son approaches alone and unarmed, the vinedressers are challenged to allow the nobility of the owner and his son to awaken their sense of honor and surrender to the son in his total vulnerability. Is this what happened to the crowd around the Cross? Is this what Cleopas failed to understand?
Jesus responds to Cleopas’ disappointment with a further question, Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:26). Glory, in the popular mind, has to do with praise and adulation of the kind that is offered to a military commander who wins a great battle. But here glory is attached to suffering. In I Peter 5:1, the big fisherman claims to be a witness of the suffering of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed.” Peter cannot mean the Cross, because he was not there. Rather this text must refer to the agony of rejected love that Jesus endured throughout his ministry as he came to his own and his own received him not. In his life and death Jesus managed to cope with the unfathomable alchemy of suffering and transform pain into kabod (Glory). The root of the Hebrew behind the Greek has to do with wisdom, weight, reliability, strength of character, and the ability to overcome. Aeschylus, who in the 5th century B.C. fought at Marathon, understood a part of this mystery when he wrote,
It is God’s law that he who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop
upon the heart; and on our own, despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
Yet Jesus’ words to Cleopas go significantly beyond Aeschylus. For Jesus it is not merely wisdom that emerges from the Cross, but glory. In this text, the resurrected Jesus is talking. He has not merely received perceptive insight into the human predicament that can be called wisdom. He has reached beyond wisdom and entered into his glory. That glory includes victory over sin and death. It is not the Cross alone that saves, it is the Cross and the resurrection that matter (I Cor. 15: 16-17). An overemphasis on the substitutionary theory of the atonement misleads many into thinking that once the price has been paid for our sins salvation is assured. Paul affirms that this is not the case. At the Cross, costly love is demonstrated in response to evil, and at the empty tomb victory is won over that evil. Following this path the Messiah enters into his glory and a new world is born for all of us.
Kenneth E. Bailey is an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies, living in New Wilmington, Pa.