The Common Good
January-February 1998

A Light to the Nations

by Jim Rice | January-February 1998

Just Who is Transformed?

Psalm 99; Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43

Just Who is Transformed?
Psalm 99; Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43

Jesus, like Moses before him (as told in the Exodus passage), has the ultimate mountaintop experience. He goes up the mountain to pray, and there he meets God. That, of course, is the purpose of prayer. But for Jesus, the experience visibly transformed him. In Matthew’s (17:1-8) and Mark’s (9:2-8) versions of this encounter, Jesus is "metamorphosed"; Luke uses the much less colorful phrase "was altered."

We know that prayer is transforming. But who is really transformed here? Jesus has led for the most part a humble, ordinary human life. At the same time, he is the center of the divine event toward which all creation has been moving, and by which all creation is given the gift of salvation. His closest friends and disciples have heard hints of this extraordinary mystery—just a few verses before (9:22), Jesus foretold his death and resurrection—but this is their first glimpse of resurrection glory.

Peter’s reaction to this miracle, in typical salt-of-the-earth Peter fashion, is very practical: He wants to set up tents for Jesus and the distinguished visitors. But Peter just doesn’t get it—he did not know what he was saying, as Luke says. Some interpreters take this as a warning about the risk of trying to institutionalize a mountaintop experience, of trying to control and contain the mystical. Hiding away in tents, you might just miss the transfiguration!

Luke is the only one of the parallels that tells us what the three discuss: Jesus’ imminent "departure" at Jerusalem (9:31). Some translations say they talked of Jesus’ "passing" or his "decease." The Greek word ("exodus") is so much richer! This journey to Jerusalem and the events that will transpire there aren’t about death so much as life. The story isn’t about the imprisonment and execution of one man as much as it’s about the liberation and redemption of humanity. The Exodus of the people of God from captivity, commenced by Moses and Elijah—the Law and the Prophets—is finally in Jesus brought to fruition.

Jesus’ ministry began with his baptismal anointing (Matthew 3:17). That blessing ("This is my Beloved Son") is now echoed on the mountain, and Jesus’ story enters its culminating chapter as he begins the journey to Jerusalem.

Reflections on the complete, three-year lectionary cycle can be found in

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