Gospel: Matthew 17:1-13
There’s a light upon the mountains,
and the day is at the spring,
When our eyes shall see the beauty
and the glory of the King;
Weary was our heart with waiting, and
the night-watch seemed so long,
But His triumph-day is breaking, and
we hail it with a song. (Henry Burton)
In the sparsely stocked Blinman General Store, the miracle of satellite TV was broadcasting a Donald Trump press conference. I was shaken by the persona I observed, and went back to the heat and head wind, wondering what would lead anyone to think he could fix things!? All my sensitivities about dysfunctionality and abuse had been triggered: I would veto such a person from Church Council; they would destroy the congregation.
While riding, I'd been thinking about the CentreLink extortion racket. Here in Australia, the government is sending out autogenerated claims of overpayment of benefits. The system seems deliberately obfuscated to deter even highly educated people from contesting the claims. Lawyers speak of demanding money with menaces; people have been close to suicide after receiving such letters and, now, actual suicide. The great majority of the letters are in error.
I had concluded this and other current policy decisions in Australia are not simply just rich people acting in ignorance within the insulated bubble of Canberra. The fallout from such policies is so well publicised, that to continue them— even double down on them, can only mean malice towards those in society who are poor and failing.
What drives such malice? Why do people lionise the very rich who oppress them?
It is fear; fear driven by the failing Australian dream. Those who have not yet failed double down on their efforts to punish those who are failing. This is a death fear. Richard Beck, as he explores McGill's Death and Life: An American Theology, says
The most crucial task is for people to create a living world where death seems abnormal and accidental. They must create a living world where life is so full, so secure, and so rich with possibilities that it gives no hint of death and deprivation. . . . According to this duty, a person must try to live in such a way that he or she does not carry the marks of death, does not exhibit any hint of the failure of life. A person must try to prove by his or her own existence that failure does not belong essentially to life. Failure is an accident, a remediable breakdown of the system.28
McGill’s argument is that what we tend to call “success” in American culture is often a neurotic delusion, a defense mechanism we use to deny the reality of death, both in our lives and the lives of others. The cultural expectation to be “fine” is at root an ethic of death avoidance:
Every American is thus ingrained with the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of his or her normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness. The ethic I have outlined here is often called the ethic of success. I prefer to call it the ethic of avoidance. . . .
I think this is also accurate for Australia. I keep meeting people at their first funeral in their forties.
Beyond maintaining personal appearances, the culture of death avoidance demands that reminders of death, disability, age, failure, and weakness be removed from public view. The poor, old, disabled, sick, and needy are pushed to the edges of public life and polity, since exposure to these people feels disruptive and unseemly. We like our streets looking spotless and deathless, cleansed of anyone who destroys the carefully cultivated and manicured illusion. These sorts of people are pornographic, reminders of something illicit that shouldn’t appear in public view. (From Richard Beck The Slavery of Death, pp33-4 Cascade Books)
And you can't give them disability benefits or unemployment benefits, without punishing them. They are too clearly a reminder of the failing dream that we can reach the mountain top of life through goods, success, and entertainment. The dream is failing because, after fifty years it is increasingly found be empty— no answer to the pain and the absurdities of life, and it is failing because the economy, and the biosphere underpinning it, are also failing.
So those who are in denial of our inevitable death, blame and scapegoat the others who show us the dream is failing.
How do we live in this? Is there a different mountain top which, to put it crassly, works? The Sermon Writer (Richard Donovan?) says of the Transfiguration, "The high mountain symbolizes the place where heaven and earth meet—the place where God is revealed."
This all seems very unlikely to a modern mind, including our own. "In his Annals, Tacitus (c. 60–120) sneered at the "pernicious superstitions" of believers," says Daniel Clendenin, reminding us of contemporary scorn about such experiences.
Clearly, the story reads back from the resurrection, especially verse 9. But it's not all a construction, or fabrication. It is just the kind of vision, (Matthew 17:9) although much mulled over, and then polished, which could have led to the "Jesus is the New Moses" insight we learn from Matthew.
To imagine that such an ecstasy is "made up" not only betrays a shallowness of experience— Richard Dawkins has a 'tin ear' for religion, says my friend David, but such imagining predisposes us to be closed to certain experiences of the spiritual, and closed to in-breakings of spirt. Just such a poverty has gone a long way to fostering the deadness of heart that marks our western culture, leaving our mountaintops empty. And it allows it to blindly rape the biosphere.
In its context, Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social Science Commentary) say the story affirms the "ultimate honor status of Jesus," contrasting it with all the stories of the doubters of this person who has stepped out of the place village society had for him. Could it function, for us, as some kind of affirmation of the in-breaking divine, in a sometimes equally parochial culture, which sees no place for humans to relate to the divine, or doubts there is any spiritual realm external to our own minds?
Can we find a mountaintop experience which not only weathers the scorn of the sceptics, but leads to enough confidence to be compassionate toward them, rather than discomforted by them? Might there be a mountain top experience which even energises us for life?
At the same time, can we avoid what Clendenin reminds us about ourselves; namely that we seem driven "to tame the ineffable, trivialize the indescribable, to cut and trim God down to our size so that we can manage Him." (Perhaps this is part of what Peter does in offering to build the booths.)
The answer, for me, has been to hear— mostly by accident, to be honest— the text which not only affirms Jesus, but also says, Listen to Him.
Unless we listen to the Sermon on the Mount, we are just cutting Jesus down to size, and not hearing the challenge of the mountain top. Listening means acting; living out the sermon. This involves a profound and frightening trust/faith in God
Richard Rhor says “we try to engineer our own transformation by our own rules and by our own power.” (Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 4. Quoted by Sermon Writer.) We are a society that thinks it builds itself. We have evolved from chance chemistry and biology, and now we create our own autonomous future; perhaps geo and climate-engineerings would help the current crisis? We have no sense that perhaps we need to sit and listen, be directed, or be inspired. Being gentle and compassionate, rather than succeeding in life, and rather than solving the climate crisis—none of that seems sensible to us. We already wonder if it is too late even for decisive action at a global level, yet here I am saying, "Stop and listen!" (I don't mean we do not stop our stupid consumerism; being gentle and compassionate, and doing justice, demand that we stop that.)
And if the listening to Him should involve walking on the way to Calvary with him, trusting in some thing called resurrection? We'd rather not… just like Peter in Chapter 16. It's a ridiculous solution, we say— no solution at all. And how would one ever get the strength to do that, anyway? How do we conquer our fear; we are just as susceptible to fear as are those who succumb to malice.
We need a vision. Verse 9 has Jesus call the transfiguaration a vision. Matthew has added this to the story he has edited from Mark.
Dylan Breuer says this is not only a vision of the prophets Elijah and Moses, which is given to the disciples. It's
also a vision of the prophets in the sense that it is a vision claimed by God's people who recognize the Spirit's speech and action in the ministry of Jesus.
It's a vision given to us so that we can be the prophets— the see-ers and proclaimers of gospel; that is, of a different victory in life, which provides us a mountain top that works.
But this gift is no thing about which to be arrogant. We do not speak to a lost world from the mountain top. We come down to the valley, to dirty, fearsome ministry, in a place where the vision has faded and we have only a very human Jesus alongside us.
And, we cannot manufacture vision. We do not even begin with vision! We begin, hopeful perhaps, but powerless, like the disciples who remained on the plain. We can only be open to the spirit in which all life is immersed— or remain closed.
And vision is not transparent; perhaps not even immediately obvious. We reflect upon it, even upon moments of high ecstasy, and meaning slowly emerges— sometimes over years.
Years ago, struggling to say anything articulate about my deep sense of the presence of something called "God," I was holidaying in The Grampians. Each night, Venus was hanging low over the mountains, and each night after we came home, I would look to the west and talk to the star as a small symbol of this distant yet close, and inexplicable yet inextinguishable sense of light within me.
Riding all night for three nights this last week, I found Venus hanging over The Flinders! It tracked along with me, and I remembered Paul Feyerabend, in Against Method, mentioning cosmologies built around something divine in the moon, which seemed to walk with people at night. How much the sense of peace and certainty has grown in these last years!
But it has come from abandoning, in many ways, any attempt to achieve spiritual insight, or to look for a vision. It's not to be ordered up, nor to be cultivated in some practice of prayer, as I had once hoped might be done. Not for me, anyway.
The peace has been found by coming down from the mountain, and beginning the dirty work. We begin the dirty work of the gospel of compassion, even if we are completely out of our depth, like the disciples who had remained on the plain. It is in the doing that symbols become clear, and shine. It is in the doing that mundane experience, or even tiny moments of fantasy, gradually become live, and powerful, and life giving symbols. They catch us by surprise! And we look at the star tracking along with us above the mountain ridge, or upon some other symbol which is ours— live to us, and realise we are being transfigured, even if only slowly, and only a little. But if we will not listen, we risk seeing only distant stars in a cold and fearful night.
Text Notes: Matthew 17:1-13
1Six days later,
Immediately before this, Peter has confessed Jesus as the Messiah, and then shown he has no idea what he is talking about; "God forbid it, Lord! [Crucifixion] must never happen to you." (Matt 16:21-27) The mention of six days is meant to point us back to this event.
David Lose says that for Jewish readers the six days may also be "… recalling the six days the cloud enveloped Mount Sinai before speaking to Moses in today's reading from Exodus." (Exodus 24:12-18)
And the phrase “harkens to creation itself. Jesus’ transfiguration is the seventh day, the day God rested…. That day of rest is the day of perfect activity in which we are invited to enjoy God in perfect concord” (Hauerwas, Stanley, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006) quoted by Sermon Writer.]
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John
Three disciples—Peter, James, and John—accompany Jesus to the mountain, just as Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu accompanied Moses (Exodus 24:1-9), Sermon Writer) but there is a contrast: Moses took Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu with him to the mountain, but only Moses was allowed to come into the presence of God (Exodus 24:1-2). There is something here about the immediacy and intimacy of the new experience of God offered to disciples of Jesus.
and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
Mountains feature in Matthew. Not only does the Transfiguration happen on the mountain, but it is the place of the last appearance of Jesus, (Matthew 28:16) and also the place (thanks, John Petty) of Jesus' key teaching; the Sermon on the Mount.
2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Dylan Breuer says: This presentation of Jesus as a prophet is underscored by Jesus' transfigured clothing -- not regal purple, like the pretenders to the title of “Lord” who call themselves Caesars, nor like richly multi-colored robes worn by the Temple hierarchy and purchased with revenues from poor Israelites, but pure, simple white (a point made by Neyrey's Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew).
3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Jesus is ranked above the two great prophets; they talk to him. He is not only given his proper status here, but the story resonates with expectations of the returning of Elijah before the coming of the Messiah. (See below, at verse 11)
4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Is Peter overawed— let's do anything to cope with this experience?
Or is he trying to make it permanent— "institutionalize the vision by letting them build three monuments?" (John Petty)
Or is this a reference to the Feast of Booths— "skenas [booths or tents] also brings to mind the Feast of Tabernacles. Zech. 14:16-19 prophesies that all nations will come up to Jerusalem to worship at the feast of Tabernacles. Peter may think that the final age is come” (Johnson, The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951) quoted by Sermon Writer).
5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
These are the words we heard at Jesus' baptism. We hear him reaffirmed by God, "with the addition of: "Hear him." The exhortation to "hear" recalls Deuteronomy 18:15 where Moses says that, some day, God would bring another prophet-like-Moses: "him shall you hear." (John Petty)
6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.
As you do. The story highlights the overwhelming reality of the Divine Presence.
7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
There is a constant raising and healing motif in the gospel: "just as Jesus' touch cures a leper in 8:3, cured Peter's mother-in-law in 8:15, raised Jairus' daughter in 9: 25, and healed two blind men in 9: 29, so his touch here calms the fear of the disciples. "Rise, and have no fear!" On the strength of his touch, and the power of his word, the disciples are able to "raise up their eyes." Petty]
8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Petty makes an interesting comment on this verse.
The so-called "messianic secret"--"tell no one"--pops up here and there throughout the synoptics. This is a challenge for modern-day Christians who seem to think that Jesus was some kind of first century evangelist who went around urging people to accept something called "protestant theology."
Rather, in Jesus' life, we see "the new world" of God, a "new world" marked by open table fellowship, gender equality, non-violent resistance to oppression, a ministry of compassion, good news for the poor. This "new world" is rejected by the powers-that-be, but radically vindicated by God in the resurrection.
Our puzzlement about "the secret" really does betray our neutered and tamed vision of God. We forget that people of faith "dodge between the powers." The "messianic secret" severely questions the validity of high visibility church— how does it exist so unscathed by the powers, unless… ?
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ 10And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ 11He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ 13Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
Matthew had one small problem to resolve. People of the day--and since--believed that Elijah would be a forerunner of the Messiah. If he shows up here on the mountain, after the ministry of Jesus has already begun, how can he be said to have been a forerunner? Matthew will solve this problem by reminding his readers shortly (17: 12) that Elijah has already come in the person of John the Baptist.
When Jesus comes down the mountain, he is confronted by a particularly gritty experience of human dysfunction. Possession, epilepsy— however we name things— this story presents unvarnished human meltdown, or falling apart, which still terrorises us. It symbolises hospital Code Black calls, police Ice Cells, and frightening, poverty stricken, falling apart people at the church door; all examples of those we are called to serve with compassion as we are led down from the mountain top.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Previously on One Man's Web
Matthew 17:1-9 - The Mountain in the Valley
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