Lent 2, Alternative Reading
March 16, 2014
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This passage requires reading the First Testament passages about the prophet Elijah, 2 Kings 2:1-12, and Moses' encounters with God on Mt. Sinai, Exodus 24:12-18 and 34:29-30.
Verse 1. "Six days later" means 6 days after first telling his disciples (in the preceding verses at the end of Chapter 16) that he must go to Jerusalem and be crucified. Eugene Peterson in his Bible translation, The Message, makes an interesting connection between the last verse of that passage in Chapter 16 and the first verse of this one which begins Chapter 17:
Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.
Matthew 16:28, NRSV
Six days later, three of them saw that glory.
Matthew 17:1, The Message
Jesus selects Peter, James, and John to accompany him. He leads them up a high mountain. Although unnamed and unstated, a "high mountain" is a "thin place," a place that is close to the spiritual realm, a place for sacred encounters.
As I am fond of saying, when reading the Bible do NOT get distracted by the special effects. Do not try to explain them - or explain them away. Do not diminish the reality of what happened / what the disciples experienced by saying, "Oh well, that was then, and now we have modern science and don't believe in such things." We have modern science and yet here we are in church still talking about God - a reality that classic modern science totally rejects.
Like special effects in movies, the special effects in the Bible testify to a simple truth:
There is more to be known about what is really real than the eye can see.
If you don't believe that try telling someone you love what is lovely about them by only telling them what your eyes can see.
So instead of focusing on the special effects, focus instead on the relationships: Who is present? Who are they? What is their history? Who do they represent or stand for? What do people say to and do with each other?
Elijah and Moses represent the Prophets and the Law. Their talking with Jesus would signify the high spiritual status of Jesus.
Because Elijah was lifted up into the heavens before his physical death, he is still looked to by Jews today as a fore-runner of the Messiah.
(An interesting experience that Elijah, Moses and Jesus share is their 40 day fast: Exodus 34:28, 1 Kings 19:8, and Matthew 4:2)
Why does Peter offer to build three dwelling places? Frankly, I have not found a plausible historical suggestion for this.
The title, "my Son, the Beloved," was earlier heard by Jesus at his baptism as a voice coming from heaven while he was praying. (Matthew 3:17)
It is now confirmed to Peter, James and John by a voice coming from a cloud. They are also instructed to "Listen to him," which suggests that Jesus is of higher status than Elijah and Moses.
The voice from the cloud would be understood to be the direct voice of God speaking. Just as in Luke 5:8, where Peter falls down and urges Jesus to "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man," so too here the disciples are deeply aware of their mortal unworthiness to be so much as even hearing God's own voice. Thus they fall to the ground - as an act of humility; and are afraid - because they are unworthy to be in the presence of One so much more exalted than they.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.