Lectionary Commentaries for March 3, 2019
Transfiguration of Our Lord
Commentary on Luke 9:28-36 [37-43]
Commentary on Exodus 34:29-35
Readers of the biblical text know good interpretation begins with the question, “What does the text say?”
This question is front and center because preconceived notions can interfere with one’s understanding of biblical passages.
Preconceived notions about wedding veils1 are likely the reason why this passage regarding Moses’s shiny face is often misunderstood. Since wedding veils hide a bride’s face, it is often thought that Moses’s veil hid his face from the congregation after his encounters with God. Hiding was thought to be indicative of the holiness of God. To the surprise of many, however, Exodus 34:35 actually reads, “the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.”
William Baker explains: “It is in fact when he [Moses] is doing his priestly duty of meeting with God and reading out the law to the people that he does not wear the covering.”2 The implication is that when Moses is engaged in everyday life, he wears the veil and when he is involved in priestly duties, he does not wear the covering. Whether veiled or unveiled, both signify that Moses has a unique relationship with God and in the Israelite community.
This story about Moses’s luminous face appears at the end of a narrative that covers Exodus 19-34. In Exodus 19, after their long arduous forty-year journey from enslavement in Egypt, Israel finally steps foot on the outskirts of the Promised Land, entering by way of Mt. Sinai. Here at Sinai, God makes a covenant with Israel and gives instructions for life in the new community. These instructions, including the Ten Commandments, teach the Israelites how to respect each other, each other’s property, and the land as well as how the tabernacle is to be set up (Exodus 20-31).
In Exodus 32, while Moses is on the mountaintop communing with God, in the valley the covenant is threatened by the Golden Calf incident. Not yet accustomed to worshipping a God they cannot see, weary of the forty day wait and uncertain that Moses will ever return, the people request an image to worship. Aaron, in charge during Moses’s absence, acquiesces. God informs Moses of the apostasy and tells him to go down to the valley immediately, threatening to destroy Israel and begin again with Moses. Moses intercedes, and God relents. Appalled by what he sees when he returns, Moses destroys the tablets. The Levites’ heeding of Moses’s call to put 3,000 neighbors and family members to death brings an uneasy peace to this chaotic situation.
In Exodus 33 God commands Moses and the Israelites to continue the journey to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but God will not go with them. The people are grieved that God will no longer be with them. They realize that the Golden Calf incident portends that something has changed in the relationship between God and Israel. Israel has crossed the line — and they know it. As with their longing for Egypt, they may want to go back to things as they were, but this time, they don’t even raise their voices in complaint. In an act of silent repentance, even before God commands it, they take off their jewelry.
Disheartened, Moses again intercedes, this time asking for a glimpse of God’s glory. Since Moses could not see the face of God and live, God promises to let Moses see, not God’s glory (face), but God’s goodness (back). In Exodus 33, God declares Godself to be a God who is merciful and gracious. In Exodus 34, in conjunction with the promise to replace the tablets that Moses had destroyed, God further explains that not only is “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness for the thousandth generation … [God is also a God of justice] to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7). The tablets are replaced, the covenant is renewed, and three national feasts are established to solidify Israel’s relationship with God and with each other.
When Moses’s face shines at the end of this story (Exodus 34:29-35), it is an affirmation of the renewal of the covenant. The shiny face is an indicator of Moses’s relationship to God, of his openness and vulnerability before God and before the community. It is a sign that Moses trusts God and that Israel, in turn, can trust God and Moses as their leader. Rav Alex Israel observes, “the people need only to look at Moses and realize that he had experienced the ultimate communion with God in receiving the second covenant.”3
Whether veiled or unveiled, Moses’s face is a reminder of the uniqueness of his relationship with God and with Israel. It is a sign of God’s care and continual presence, that God’s grace prevailed, even in the midst of Israel’s sin. In other words, Moses’s shiny face represents a “Reversal of Outcome in the Golden Calf Episode.”4 It represents hope in the midst of a national disaster.
In a day and time of all kinds of national upheaval and disasters, one may wonder, is there any hope? No matter how dismal, no matter how unpromising the times, this story from ancient Israel is a reminder to all, even when there is much work to do, in the words of the spiritual, “Hold on just a little while longer, everything is gonna be alright.”
- Peter Krol, “Context Matters: Moses Shining Face” http://www.knowableword.com/2018/06/08/context-matters-moses-shining-face (accessed November 17, 2018).
- William Baker “Did the Glory of Moses’ Face Fade? A Reexamination of katarge/w in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 10.1 (2000): 6. https://www.ibr-bbr.org/ files/bbr/ BBR_2000_a_01_ Baker_ MosesGlory2Cor3.pdf (accessed November 17, 2018).
- Rav Alex Israel, “The Face of Moses,” https://www.etzion.org.il/en/face-moses (accessed November 17, 2018).
- Craig Evan Anderson, “The Tablets of Testimony and a Reversal of Outcome in the Golden Calf Episode,” Hebrew Studies, 50 (2009), 41-65. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27913924?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=Tablets&searchText=of&searchText=Testimony&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3Ffilter%3D%26amp%3BQuery%3DTablets%2Bof%2BTestimony&refreqid=search%3A977f521284686ee2479c3054832e476b&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (accessed November 17, 2018).
Commentary on Psalm 99
J. Clinton McCann, Jr.
All the other readings for the day mention Moses; and it may be that Psalm 99 was chosen simply because it too mentions Moses.
Plus, the “pillar of cloud” (verse 7) can be construed as at least a catchword-connection to the cloud mentioned twice in Luke 9:34. But something much deeper and more profound comes into view when Psalm 99 is read in conversation with Luke’s account of the Transfiguration.
At first sight, the Transfiguration seems to be all about God’s transcendence and otherness. Incredible things happen. Moses and Elijah suddenly appear, and a cloud engulfs Jesus and the disciples, who are understandably “terrified” (Luke 9:34). The biblical word that best describes such an experience of God’s otherness is the word “holy,” and “holy” is the keyword in Psalm 99. “Holy is he!” is the phrase that marks the conclusions of the first two sections of the psalm; and the word occurs twice more in verse 9, including a final affirmation of God’s holiness that recalls verses 3 and 5.
In Psalm 99:1-3, the traditional sense of holiness is operative. There is trembling and quaking (see Exodus 19:7-25) at the presence of God who is “great and awesome” (verse 3). Even within this section, however, there is a hint of what is to come as Psalm 99 proceeds. As it will turn out, the holy God is not wholly other.
Rather, this transcendent, unapproachable God can be experienced “in Zion” (verse 2), a very specific earthly place. Furthermore, the mention of “the cherubim” (verse 1) is almost certainly a reference to God’s earthly throne that was located in the Temple on Mount Zion (see also verses 5, 9). As Psalm 99 unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that the holy God is actually invested not only in a particular place, but also in particular people and the human situation.
Verse 4a is problematic and might better be translated, “The might of a king (is to be) a lover of justice.” In any case, verse 4a goes on to affirm emphatically (the two “you”-pronouns in Hebrew provide the emphasis) that God has established “equity” (see Psalm 96:10; 98:9), as well as “justice and righteousness.” According to Psalm 82, the enactment of justice and righteousness is what constitutes true divinity; so it is not surprising that the enthronement collection (Psalms 93, 95-99), of which Psalm 99 is the culmination, twice portrays God as having come into the world precisely to do justice and righteousness (see Psalm 96:13; 98:9, which I translate in part as “[God] has come to establish justice on earth. He establishes justice in the world with righteousness …”).
It is crucial to note that justice, righteousness, and equity are relational terms. If God is capable of being wholly other, God has chosen not to be. God has invested Godself in the world to set things right among the “families of the peoples” (Psalm 96:7), so that “The world is firmly established” (Psalm 96:10; compare Psalm 82:5 where the injustice of the gods destabilizes the created order). Fittingly, the whole creation celebrates God’s arrival (Psalm 96:11-12; 98:7-8). In short, in the enthronement collection, including Psalm 99, holiness is re-defined. It is not simply otherness and separation; rather it is involvement and relationship.
This re-construal of holiness proceeds apace in the final section of Psalm 99. God’s involvement extends to particular persons — Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. Although these three may have “kept his decrees” (verse 7), the people they presided over certainly did not. This implies that Moses’, Aaron’s, and Samuel’s crying out to God consisted of requests for forgiveness (see, for instance, Exodus 32:1-14).
This conclusion is reinforced in verse 8, which, like verse 4, shifts from third-person to direct address. Furthermore, there is another emphatic “you”-pronoun in verse 8: “you answered them.” If the next line is any indication, the divine answer is God’s willingness to forgive, even though there are always consequences for disobedience (a reality communicated by the next line, which describes God as “an avenger of their wrongdoings”).
The re-construal of divine holiness as intimate involvement rather than otherness and separation is even clearer when one realizes that the word NRSV translates “forgiving” actually means “to bear, to carry.” The holy God is so present among the people that God is bearing the burden of the people’s disobedience! At this point, Psalm 99 recalls Hosea 11:8-9, where God’s response to God’s wayward child, Israel, is not punishment, but rather forgiveness.
In Hosea 11:9, the divine voice describes Godself like this: “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst.” In short, what makes God divine is the willingness to forgive unfailingly. Holiness has been radically re-construed. No longer does holiness consist of separation from the source of sin, but rather of intimate relationship with the sinner. Divine holiness is grounded in grace.
Perhaps Moses’ face shines in Exodus 34:29-35, the Old Testament lesson for the day, not only because he is carrying the two newly-given “tablets of the covenant” (Exodus 34:29), but also because the tablets have been given by the God who has just introduced Godself as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). The very existence of the new tablets is a sign of God’s willingness to be in ongoing relationship with a sinful people.
Now, back to the Transfiguration — reading Luke’s account with Psalm 99 in mind invites careful attention to the literary context of Luke 9:26-38. The Transfiguration is immediately preceded by Jesus’ announcement that he must suffer, be killed, and be raised (Luke 9:21-22). While the Transfiguration account itself is dominated by traditional holiness-phenomena, its context communicates that divine holiness is manifest ultimately as intimate relatedness on behalf of the other — that is, holiness is grounded in divine grace and suffering love, as Psalm 99 suggests as well.
Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2
Frank L. Crouch
This week, more than usual in the lectionary, all the lessons have obvious interconnections.
This particular lesson joins the others in establishing the context of ministry — our ministries, our congregations’ ministries, Christ’s ministry — within the overarching story of God’s saving action on behalf of all people. It speaks of Moses, of Christ, of the larger history of the people of God –for better and for worse. Our stories — our ministries — are preceded by and rooted in past actions of God and, at their best, are moving toward the future that God has in store for us and for the whole creation.
The passage begins by referring to ideas that have just been stated in the letter: our ministry flows out of “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:8) and is a “ministry of justification” (3:9, being made right or, perhaps better stated, becoming increasingly aligned with the ways of God). When our actions align with the leading of the Spirit and the ways of God, God’s glory becomes visible; the ways of God become embodied in us and what we do. And, when our actions embody the ways of God, whether it seems apparent or not at the time, that has lasting impact (3:10-11) — in the Gospel of John’s words, becomes a light that shines unconquerably in the darkness.
On that basis, this pericope proclaims, we have reason to act with hope and boldness. Not timidly, not reluctantly, not with anxiety over how outsiders (or even insiders) might perceive, understand, or oppose our ministries. Not shrinking back from uncertainty over our future or the future of our congregation or denomination, but boldly placing the life and future of our ministries in the hands of the God who assures that their impacts will endure.
While charting that course, it’s important to remember that in this letter (and others), when Paul speaks about the limitations of “the Jews” or “the people of Israel,” he’s generally not contrasting the Christian faith and the Jewish faith. Generally, since there wasn’t even a firmly established concept of “Judaism” as opposed to “Christianity,” these remarks referred to different groups within the body of Christ. Some believers clung more rigorously to traditional Jewish practices as part of their discipleship and others (including Paul) saw themselves as being made free to move in new directions with new practices (“… where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” 3:17).
This is important because over the centuries the church has tended to see verses like these as indicating how much better Christianity is than Judaism. As if only “the Jews” or “the people of Israel” have ever looked at the ways of God from behind a blurring, protective veil. As if these words don’t describe a tendency commonly found among people of all faiths, including Christians. Unfortunately, the NRSV reinforces that tendency in how it punctuates 2 Corinthians 3:18. As translated, it comes across as “all of us, since we as Christians have had the veil removed, see the glory of the Lord and are being transformed — unlike those followers of Moses.”
The Greek, however, lacks that kind of “clarifying” punctuation (not just here, but throughout the New Testament). It could equally or even more likely be translated as something like “all of us who follow Christ and who have actually had the veil removed see the glory of the Lord and are being transformed — unlike those followers of Christ who still look from behind a veil.”
If we are to respond to scripture as if it is living scripture, a word of God active today, it’s helpful to see it speaking not only of the good, the bad, and the ugly of people back in the first century. First century believers were no more and no less likely than we are to stand on a continuum of spiritual growth ranging from limited, stunted, and resistant to hearing a new word from God to expansive, vital openness to the Spirit’s leading. Paul can speak to us as well as he spoke to them because we exhibit the same tensions, disparities of insight, and conflicts that they did. And, we have the same potential as the community at Corinth to be open to a still more excellent way.
Looking at the world from behind a veil of fear and timidity rather than discerning possibilities based on hope and boldness leads many of us and our communities to shrink away from God’s call. If one looks back over a year, five years, ten years in one’s life or the life of a community or denomination, can one see signs of being “transformed into the same image [of the Lord] from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18)? Even if we account for our propensity for sin and error, which holds us back from transformation, can we see something that at least shades over into a new degree of glory, of transformation, of vitality that finds its source in the ways of God and the leading of the Spirit?
We continually have to take care not to overestimate the level of our own righteousness. But at the same time, Paul encourages us to recognize that we can and sometimes do grow in faith, hope, and love. Those changes in our actions on behalf of others are to be celebrated, to serve as building blocks for more growth and more transformation, from glory to glory. It’s not often simple to see that in any given board meeting, committee meeting, planning group, or moment of ministry. But it’s often there, and we ourselves are the ones resisting the removal of the veil, clinging to what is comfortable, to what we already know, shielding our own eyes from the glory.
Paul reminds us, “… when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:16-17).” The freedom, the kingdom, the power, and the glory all wait for us to reach for and be changed.
Luke’s disciples need a revelatory experience in order to appreciate Jesus’ true identity and vocation.
Unfortunately, even a mini-apocalypse proves insufficient. What will it take for us preachers to come to know Jesus and share that experience with assembled congregations who long for an encounter with glory? A significant dimension of Luke’s transfiguration account also points toward the Gospel’s distinctive interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The transfiguration provides the apocalyptic component of a critical revelatory sequence. Having fortified himself with prayer, Jesus asks his disciples how they understand his identity. Likewise, the transfiguration will follow a moment of intimate prayer. The sequence moves through (a) Peter’s confession of Jesus as messiah through (b) Jesus’ teaching concerning the Son of Man and (c) Jesus’ forbidding invitation to would-be disciples on to (d) the transfiguration itself. The previous revelatory moments are mediated in words; the transfiguration bathes words in glory.
If Peter correctly identifies Jesus as God’s messiah (Luke 9:20), Jesus emphatically prohibits a promotional campaign. Luke’s literary crafting suggests the reason: If Peter rightly names Jesus’ role, it is left to Jesus to spell out what that role entails. The Son of Man “must suffer many things” before being raised from the dead. If Peter’s confession entails a revelation, all the more so for Jesus’ instruction. How could the disciples possibly anticipate Jesus’ words? They have no reason to imagine a messiah who suffers prior on the way to glory.
The messiah/Son of Man interaction staggers under the weight of its own significance, but congregations themselves will stagger under the burden of confusion. Listeners may assume that Son of Man functions as a near-opposite to Son of God, the human counterpart to divinity. That, of course, is a mistake. We should not lower the pulpit into a lecture podium, nor should we reduce Luke’s Christology to the interplay of technical terms. But it is significant that Jesus counters Peter’s messianic confession with teaching concerning the Son of Man.
The transfiguration mediates the glory that Peter, James, and John had perhaps anticipated. Whatever our comfort level, we find ourselves immersed in apocalyptic imagery: dazzling light, heroes from Israel’s history, glory, a cloud, a heavenly voice, and mortals who struggle in responding to the visionary moment. Peter, James, and John cannot overcome sleep’s alluring gravity.
Jesus’ disciples, it seems, long for glory. Soon they will debate which of them is the greatest (Luke 9:46-48). Here they receive the revelation they need — and the instruction too: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (9:35). They have been unable to receive Jesus’ teaching concerning the Son of Man’s fate and concerning what it means to follow him. Perhaps this revelation will equip them, and us, to integrate the glory of Jesus’ being with the rigors of his vocation.
To this point in Luke’s revelatory sequence, the disciples haven’t yet misunderstood — yet in the very next passage, their failure provokes Jesus to declare them “faithless and perverse” (9:41). He then repeats his teaching concerning his passion, yet they still do not understand. The disciples debate which of them is the greatest. Only three disciples have experienced Jesus’ transfiguration. At best, we may say the effect hasn’t proven contagious. More likely, its effect has yet to take hold at all.
We preachers do best not to show too much of our homework. Luke redacts this section of Mark in significant ways: Jesus’ disciples show only partial misunderstanding, but Luke softens the edges of their resistance. For example, Peter never scolds Jesus after identifying him as messiah. The disciples will still compete for status, but Luke reduces this scene to just three verses (9:46-48). And Luke completely skips by the request by James and John that they may receive the seats of authority when Jesus receives power.
Elijah and Moses discuss Jesus’ “exodus” (“departure” in the NRSV), a strong reflection of how Luke interprets Jesus’ death. Very soon Jesus will set out for Jerusalem, where his prediction will play out. At that point Luke refers to the time for Jesus to be “taken up” (9:51), as only Luke’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ ascension.
None of the Gospels provides a discursive explanation for the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but Luke’s language on these points indicates a unique sensitivity. Jesus’ death possesses no atoning power on its own; indeed, Luke tends to mute the significance of the crucifixion while amplifying that of the resurrection. The exodus imagery evokes liberation, a primary motif for Luke. As Moses led the people out of Egypt, so Jesus’ death and resurrection usher an era of salvation and blessing.
The presence of Moses and Elijah gives interpreters lots to chew on. The two figures comport themselves well with the scene’s apocalyptic imagery. Judaism’s great literary apocalypses tend to associate themselves with legendary figures of the past, notably ones with mystical credentials.
Elijah is said to have ascended into heaven in a whirlwind accompanied by a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11). Although Moses is supposed to have died and been buried, no one knows the place of his burial (Deuteronomy 34:6). Moreover, Moses is one of few to have experienced a visual encounter with YHWH (Exodus 34:6-9) — so intensely did his face glow afterward that the Israelites could not look upon it (2 Corinthians 3:13). More probably Moses and Elijah epitomize the law and the prophets, a shorthand for God’s revelation to Israel (Luke 16:29). According to Luke, one may proclaim the gospel by explaining Moses and the prophets correctly (Luke 24:27, 44; Acts 26:22; 28:23).
Soon after the transfiguration Jesus and his disciples will venture to Jerusalem, where Jesus will indeed come to his exodus. Luke stands out for its extended travel narrative, which runs from 9:51 through 19:27 and encompasses some of the Bible’s most beloved material, including the story of Zacchaeus and parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. At no point will the disciples demonstrate full comprehension of Jesus’ vocation or of his glory — nor will Jesus ever abandon them.