The 20th Century American poet, Robert Lee Frost’s most well known poem, The Road Not Taken, concludes with the words, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less travelled by … and that has made all the difference!’ Frost spent the years 1912-1915 in England, where among his acquaintances was the writer Edward Thomas. Thomas and Frost became close friends and took many walks together. After Frost returned to New Hampshire in 1915, he sent Thomas an advance copy of this poem – intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together whenever they came to a junction in the path they were following and Thomas could never decide which path to take! Frost later expressed chagrin that most people seemed to take the poem more seriously than he had intended? Perhaps, in part, this was because Thomas himself took it seriously and personally, and it provided the impetus for Thomas’ decision to enlist during World War I – a decision that resulted in Thomas being killed two years later in the Battle of Arras.
The poem itself symbolises that life always gives us two choices. The final lines ‘I took the one less travelled by … and that has made all the difference!’ are often quoted as encouraging an individualist spirit of adventure! This interpretation is questionable, however, for whatever difference the choice might have made, it was not made on the basis of a discerned difference between the two paths that opened up before the traveller. The traveller confesses earlier in the poem that both paths may be equally worn and equally leaf-covered, and it is only in hindsight that the traveller can call one of the two roads – the one the traveller took – a road ‘less travelled by.’
Reflecting, during this Easter period in the Church Year, on the various ‘Resurrection Appearances’ of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, I found myself thinking about the story of Jesus’ appearance to the two travellers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) in the light of Frost’s poem. This story of two people travelling home on that first Easter Sunday, to the small village of Emmaus just a few miles from Jerusalem where they had been staying, is one of my favourite Biblical stories. I think that it is one of my favourites because in microcosm it typifies the journey that everyone of us is on – the journey of life. What is significant for me about this story – particularly in the light of Frost’s poem – is that although Cleopas and his companion are travelling on a single road, their journey actually contains two possible ways?!
Luke tells us here that as these two travellers – I like to think of them as Cleopas and Mrs Cleopas (although I could be wrong about them being husband and wife?) – were returning to Emmaus late on that Sunday afternoon, they were discussing the tumultuous events that had taken place over the previous few days in Jerusalem (v.14). We cannot be sure if these two were ‘card carrying’ disciples of Jesus, or simply ‘god-fearers’ – enquirers attracted to the mono-theism of Judaism in general and the unique claims of Jesus himself to be the ‘God-man’ or Promised Messiah in particular? Whatever … their hopes had seemingly been dashed by the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus (vs.19-21). Even the rumours about his supposed resurrection from the dead had done little to lift the ‘slough of despond’ and depression that they had sunk into (vs.22-24)!?
As they travel along the road to Emmaus they are debating the various events that have taken place – going over and over what had happened, again and again – without finding any answers or coming to any satisfactory conclusion? Luke tells us that as these two were engrossed in their conversation the Risen Jesus joins them and walks along with them on their journey … but they fail to recognise him for who he really is (vs.15,16)!? There have been many suggestions as to ‘why’ they failed to recognise Jesus – everything from the setting sun in their eyes making it difficult for them to see properly, to the fact that they were so depressed and inward looking that they couldn’t see any further than themselves at the time?! Perhaps the fact that we cannot be sure whether these two were ‘believers’ or ‘seekers’, or exactly ‘why’ they failed to recognise Jesus on the road with them, are both good things … especially when it comes to the application of this story for us today?! The simple fact of the matter is that in this ‘journey of life’ that we are all on, we are all ‘different’ when it comes to matters of ‘faith’ or ‘belief’, and equally there are a multiplicity of reasons why so many of us fail to recognise that Jesus is walking alongside of us in this journey?
As this story of Cleopas and his companion unfolds, it is made very clear that these two could have reached the end of their journey … only to have missed out completely because they failed to recognise that all the time Jesus himself was alongside them as they travelled along? Luke tells us here that ‘As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going further’ (v.28). If these two had not ‘invited’ Jesus into their home (v.29) he would undoubtedly have passed on by!? How many of us – down through the last 2,000 years, and across the world today – I wonder, travel along the road of life, without giving a second thought to the fact that Jesus himself, by his Spirit, is walking alongside of us simply waiting for us to invite him to come in and ‘stay with us’ (v.29)? What a difference it would make, along our journey, if only we were to walk it conscious of the presence of Jesus with us every step of the way?
Wonderfully, this story also reveals how Jesus repeatedly takes the initiative – provides various pointers – time and again, to help Cleopas and his companion ‘join up the dots’ that make the picture clearer. Reflecting on this later, Cleopas and his companion recall how during the journey Jesus ‘opened the Scriptures to us’ (v.32), and how ‘our hearts burned within us’ as he did so (v.32), and how Jesus was ‘made known to them’ when ‘he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them’ (v.30)! And it is much the same for us today – whoever we are, and whatever we believe at this precise moment in time?! God still speaks to us through the Bible, the ‘Holy Scriptures, which are able to impart the wisdom that leads us to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Timothy 3:15)! God is still at work in the world today by his Spirit, who continues to ‘convince the world that Christ has paid for our sin, that God’s righteousness is now available to us in Christ, and that Christ has taken the judgment, rightly ours, upon himself’ (John 16:8)! God still makes himself known to us through the Breaking of Bread (or the Lord’s Supper or Communion or the Eucharist, as the sacrament is variously known) in bread and wine symbolising the broken body and poured out life-blood of Jesus Christ himself on the cross (John 6:53-58)!
It is, of course, easy to be wise in hindsight, and it is only in retrospect that these two travellers realise the various ways in which Jesus sought to enlighten them (v.32). Perhaps they had a growing subliminal sense as they travelled along the road together with this ‘stranger’ – and especially as he ‘opened the Scriptures’ for them – that this man was different? It was, however, only when they stopped and ‘invited’ Jesus to come in to ‘stay’ (v.29) that they finally recognised him for who he truly was!? And it is one thing for us to travel through life with a vague sense that ‘God is with us’ somewhere or other on our journey, and quite another thing to know for certain that he is there in the Person of Jesus! It is the stopping, and the inviting, and the recognition that ‘makes all the difference’!
We are all involved in this journey we call life. The real question is not ‘are we on this journey’, but ‘which path will we choose?’ Will we recognise Christ’s presence … or will we neglect or even reject him? As we have already seen, the final verse of Frost’s poem concludes with the oft quoted lines, ‘Two roads converged … I took the one less travelled by … and that made all the difference!’ That final verse, however, begins with the line, ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh’ suggesting that the traveller is looking back over his or her life and reflecting on its value? The ‘sigh’ can be interpreted as one of regret or of self-satisfaction. Whichever the case, the irony lies in the distance between what the traveller has just told us about the similarity of the two paths before him or her, and what his or her later claims will be?! When the traveller made that initial choice … did he or she make the right choice? Whatever the choice of path was … it made a difference …for good or bad?!
For Cleopas and his companion the recognition that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, that he was alive and with them in their journey, made all the difference! From a place of dejection, despair and hopelessness, we find them transformed. They are now full of faith, confidence, hope and purpose – so much so, Luke tells us, that there and then they rush all the way back to Jerusalem, despite the fact that darkness has fallen, to share the Good News with their equally despairing friends and acquaintances whom they had left behind just a few hours earlier (Luke 24:33,34)!
And it will be just the same with us when we too recognise that Jesus himself is with us in the journey we call ‘life’ – opening up the Scriptures to us, filling us with his Spirit, feeding us with his grace! And with this discovery comes a new understanding as to the meaning of life, and a new purpose for living that life to the full! What is more, at every juncture in our journey – and life has many such junctures – he will help us to make the right decisions and take the right path.
Of course to recognise the presence of Jesus Christ in life, and to respond to his call to walk through the rest of life with him, may well be in and of itself to choose ‘a road less travelled’. On another occasion Jesus suggested that this way is a ‘narrow way’ and that sadly, only a minority of people choose this path (Matthew 7:13,14). Nevertheless recognising the claim and the call of Jesus Christ on our lives – as well as his presence with us on life’s journey – does indeed ‘make all the difference’ both in this life and in the life to come! God forbid that any of us should reach the end of our life journey, only to look back with a ‘sigh’ realising that we have simply lived life as a wasted journey?! Fortunately, for most of us, there is always time for us to rectify things, and graciously God can ‘restore the years that the locusts have eaten’ (Joel 2:25). The wealthy Victorian, Edward Studd (the father of Charles Studd, the famous England cricketer and missionary,and founder of WEC) became a committed Christian only late in life. He only lived for three years after his conversion, but it is said that he achieved more in those last three years of walking with Christ than he had in all the previous years of his life put together!
We do not know how old Cleopas and his companion were? I would suggest that neither of them were ‘spring chickens’? Possibly the majority of the years of their lives now lay behind them … but without doubt, the best years of their lives now lay before them! As Philipps Brooks – another American of a bygone generation, a preacher this time – once famously said about those who feel that they have wasted most of life’s opportunities: ‘The only thing you can get out of a life you are ashamed of is a future!’ It’s never too late to start afresh!
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
~ Robert Frost (1874-1963)