Matthew 17:1-23; 2 Corinthians 10-12 (Paul’s Fools Speech), various
Because of the moon-based Easter calendar, Christendom skips Matthew 7 (4th, 5th, and 6th Sundays after Epiphany) and 9 and picks up on 10. Matthew 8 is never read (see 7th and 8th Sundays in Epiphany 2011). Even though this is an unusual Year A, with the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday plunging everyone else into Matthew 10, it seems once again that – theologically – consideration of the legend of Jesus’ transfiguration is more appropriate now than right before Ash Wednesday. Combining moon-based with sun-based liturgical and lexionary calendars seems a daunting enough challenge to send anyone to the liquor cabinet, if not the fridge for a cold one. The Elves are not entirely to blame.
Matthew 17 begins quite logically in terms of the narrative, “six days” after Peter has identified Jesus as the Messiah. The disciples witness a collective vision, hear God’s thundering voice, and are “frightened out of their wits.” Matthew’s Jesus tells them to “get up; don’t be afraid.” He also tells them not to tell anyone until after the son of Adam has been raised from the dead. No other evangelist reports any words. They then agree that John the Baptist was the Elijah that was prophesied to be the harbinger of the apocalypse, and they are warned that the son of Adam is also going to suffer at the hands of the same religious leaders who did not believe John. Matthew follows all this with a miracle healing of an epileptic, which the disciples were not able to do. Matthew must have been exasperated with a recalcitrant Jewish community that did not possess even the amount of trust found in a mustard seed. Jesus says, “You distrustful and perverted lot, how long must I associate with you?” And he heals the epileptic himself. After that, the section ends with the prediction that Jesus will be killed and rise on the third day, and the disciples were very sad.
Several points need to be made about the transfiguration scene. First, Mark (so far as scholarship can determine) is the one who started it (Mark 9:2-8). Matthew copied it wholesale, but added words for Jesus to say. Second, revelatory vision has been fairly common to human experience since the beginning. Post-modern people tend to attribute the experience to wheat mold, or other hallucinogenic substances such as mushrooms, or to psychotic episodes, but the experience seems to be acknowledged as a natural phenomenon, whether it is regarded as meaningful or not. Third, while ecstatic vision, sightings of people returning from the dead, and other paranormal occurrences seem to have been more common in pre-modern times, first-century people were just as likely as twenty-first century people to take a skeptical view when presented with the story.
For example, 20 or so years after Jesus’ death, and 20 to 30 years before Mark and Matthew put their gospels together, the apostle Paul cautions his community in Corinth:
I wish you’d let me play the fool for a little while. But of course you will. I am so deeply and passionately concerned about you. I am protective about you. For I arranged to deliver you to God’s Anointed as if I were presenting a virgin to her husband. But I fear that, just as the snake seduced Eve with his cunning line, your sincere [and pure] thoughts about the Anointed have been corrupted. For if someone comes along, proclaiming a “Jesus” whom we did not proclaim, or you embrace some other supposedly divine power that you did not receive [from us], or some strange message you did not get from us, you are easily taken in. 2 Corinthians 11:1-4 (Scholars Version).
Paul is defending himself to the Corinthians, who have apparently bought into another interpretation of who Jesus was. Paul’s sarcasm is scathing, especially when he sends up the vision as proof of apostleship in 12:1-6: “I know a man who belongs to the Anointed who fourteen years ago was carried away – whether in the body, I don’t know, or out of the body, I don’t know, God knows – carried off to heaven’s third level . . . to Paradise and heard indescribable words which no one may speak.” He tops it off with a mocking reference to the healing provided by gods such as Asclepius:
So I wouldn’t get a swelled head from an overabundance of transcendent experiences, I was awarded a painful disability, a messenger from Satan to pummel me so that I would not get too carried away. Three times I begged our lord for it to go away. He spoke in an oracle to me: “My favor is enough for you, because my power achieves its ends through [your] limitations.” . . . For when I accept my limitations, then I am empowered.
Paul makes fun of the kind of mountaintop transfiguration scene described in the gospels. Instead of claiming some special revelation of signs and wonders, he acknowledges that even though he begged Jesus in prayer three times to remove the “thorn in the flesh,” as traditional translations put it, that did not happen. Instead, he reiterates his own transformational theology: the power of God is not seen through unlikely miracle; the power of God is experienced through what is perceived by society as weakness. That extraordinary reversal of what is expected of a god, or of one Anointed as representing that god, is illustrated in the fact of Jesus’ execution as a terrorist – a state criminal – because he opposed the empire of Ceasar and proclaimed covenant with the empire of God; because he undermined conventional retributive justice with non-violent distributive justice-compassion.
Paul’s interpretation of who Jesus was probably never crossed paths with the later gospel writers. Or, if it did, most of his theology was misunderstood. By the time Mark and Matthew wrote their gospels, the legend of the transfiguration vision that clearly indicated Jesus as the Messiah was taken as photographable fact. One wonders what Paul would have thought of that development. It seems that the “super apostles” Paul was mocking won the day after all.
Matthew reflects Mark’s impatience with the Jewish people in Jerusalem who refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah. In Matthew’s version of the story Jesus’ disciples were not able to perform the miracle and heal the epileptic from falling into the fire and water. Instead of using that example as Paul does his own disability (whatever it was) as a demonstration of his transformational theology, Matthew rages that the followers of Jesus do not trust the promise that they too can do the same things Jesus did. Matthew’s Jesus tells them, “Even if you have trust no larger than a mustard seed . . . nothing will be beyond you.” The NRSV uses the term “little faith.” This has been interpreted to mean weak or non-existent “belief.” But whether one interprets the words as “trust,” “faith,” or “belief,” scholars are generally in agreement that the saying probably does not go back to the historical Jesus. So we are dealing with post-Easter, early Christian tradition.
What is important to Matthew is the proof that Jesus was the Anointed One. But by the time the gospels were written, the proof was based on auditory and visual hallucination, not by a fundamental shift in the paradigm of human civilization. Nevertheless, Matthew’s Jesus is the only one who does speak to that possibility.
Transfiguration as holy light is inevitable in the natural world, where the kenotic God rules in justice and life. Only humans seem to prefer the unnatural world, where God is dead and injustice holds sway. Jesus was forever reminding everyone he talked to that the Kingdom of God – God’s Imperial Rule – God’s Realm – is within us, and all around us. All we have to do is look and listen. God’s Covenant of non-violent justice-compassion may have originally been consummated in the flesh and blood of the best of the herd, eaten in a meal shared with God through a roasting, consuming fire – an elemental meaning that repels post-modern people. But Matthew’s story makes two points that still resonate despite our post-modern divorce from God’s natural world. The first is that God says, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” The second is that Matthew’s Jesus says to his freaked-out disciples, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”
Like the Groundhog, who is frightened by his own shadow – so much that he dives back into his safe home, leaving the rest of the world to the deprivations of winter – we are terrorized by the shadow: the spectres of war, famine, disease, and death, and also by our own shadow selves, whose purpose eludes us, and whose nature we are afraid to look at. But Jesus tells us to get up – don’t be afraid. Have the trust in the rhythms of the natural world that the grass has – which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the oven. Get up – don’t be afraid. Those who hunger and thirst for justice will have a feast. Get up – don’t be afraid to do what you know you are supposed to do. Transfiguration.