This upcoming Sunday’s gospel reading is from Luke, chapter 9, verses 28-36, the transfiguration episode. Immediately when we begin the passage in v. 28, “after he (Jesus) said this,” a notation that should spell out that this episode is connected to and to be understood in relation to the passage that just preceded it. So what was it that Jesus just said? In 9:22-27 Jesus predicts his suffering and death at the hands of the religious authorities and lays out some hard words about what is in store for those who will follow him: denial of one’s self, taking up the Cross, losing one’s life, and so on. His words to his disciples and other would-be followers come on the heel of Peter’s announcement that he is “the Christ of God,” the Messiah—a term fraught with cultural, political and religious baggage that all point to a Messiah who is like David was, i.e. a warrior-king. Jesus’ words in 22-27 are the beginning of his work to undermine the traditional understanding of Messiah and craft a new one.
So we have Jesus, with three of his disciples, ascending a mountain to pray in v. 28. The setting on a mountain should conjure up for us memories of other important events and figures related to ascending a mountain—not the least being the Exodus story, Moses and his various encounters with God. Throughout Scripture, the mountain is an “in-between space,” rising up from what happens below in ordinary life toward the skies and the realm of heaven. In Luke it functions here as a place of revelation, but also a setting for prayer. And for both these reasons, as well as additional ones, it is a contrast to the Jerusalem Temple, a different sort of place for prayer and revelation. It is interesting that the whole following scene unfolds on the mountain, perhaps purposely chosen as a contrast to the Temple where God’s presence was “officially” supposed to reside, amidst the official authorities and the cultic system and the economics of sacrifice.
On the mountain, Jesus is joined by and converses with Moses and Elijah. The question for us is why these two? Why not David? Or any of the patriarchs? Jesus’ association with these two should give us a clue as to which tradition Jesus stands in within the Judaism of his day. He doesn’t stand in the tradition of David the warrior-king, the quintessential Messiah figure, but rather with Moses—the liberator of slaves and opponent of Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire—and Elijah—the prophet par excellence who challenges the Israelite King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel over their greed and injustice. Like these two, Jesus in Luke’s gospel will be cast as one who challenges the powerful.
As Moses and Elijah begin to depart, the disciples awake, glimpse what is going on, but as Luke tells us in v. 33 in reference specifically to Peter, “he did not know what he was talking about.” Peter has misgauged what is happening and his attempt to “capture” the moment by erecting three tents or booths to memorialize the episode is emphatically shot down in the most ominous way possible: a voice from a cloud interrupts his nonsense in v. 34.
The voice speaks in a way that should recall the earlier passage after Jesus’ baptism, the revelation that he was God’s beloved son—a revelation that sent Jesus off into the wilderness to figure out exactly what that means (click here to read our reflection on that passage from last week). The voice this time speaks not to Jesus, but to the disciples: “This is my chosen Son! Listen to him!” The exclamation points belong to the passage, because the voice here speaks with power and emphasis. And it is the second part of what the voice says that catapults us back again to what Jesus said just prior to this passage in vs. 22-27, taking us full circle. Listen to him. Don’t get caught up in your tent-building Peter, or building statues or monuments, or tabernacles or worship. Don’t get excited about Jesus being the new David, ready to kick the Romans out and set up a new monarchy. Don’t get lured in by the miracles and healings. The important thing here is to listen to him. Pay attention to what he says, and then go live it. So difficult for the disciples then; difficult for those of us who call ourselves followers of him now. Do we really listen to Jesus? Do we take his words to heart and stand in that tradition with him, Moses and Elijah, speaking truth to power and advocating in behalf of the poor, oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized?
The verse ends with the disciples doing that first action that might lead to listening to him. They fall silent. And as the road turns toward Jerusalem for them and for Jesus, maybe we’ll fall silent too and start listening.