Lectionary Commentaries for February 7, 2016
Transfiguration of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 9:28-36 [37-43]

Cláudio Carvalhaes

Today we have two lectionary texts that apparently don’t go together.

Some commentators even say that the preacher needs to choose one or the other. However, I think they must go together.

Here we have Jesus at the top of the mountain being transfigured, receiving the visits of Moses and Elijah and they are talking about Jesus’ departure. They were celebrating the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles where people celebrated the protection offered by God during their wanderings in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:39-43). Moses and Elijah have been interpreted as the law and prophecy, now reunited with the Messiah. When the disciples see this gathering they want to build a booth for each so they can stay with them but Jesus says they need to go back to the people. Elijah and Moses disappear into a cloud that overshadows them. From this cloud appears a voice from God saying who Jesus is and that the disciples are to listen to him.

For the rational mind this is a very strange text, because it is about transfigurations, people who didn’t die reappearing, and a voice coming from a cloud. If you have ever read anything from Gabriel Garcia Marques, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende or Laura Esquivel, among others, you know that this transfiguration text can easily be counted among the Latin American magical realism literature.

Magical realism is about different levels of reality working at the same time. The binary realms of the real/unreal do make sense since the real happens in the fictional but the fictional is real. The natural must be counted by the supernatural and the fantastic is just a true presence as a three in the way. The stories with people of all kinds, ghosts, and other presences are ways that figure, disfigure, unfigure, and transfigure our realities.

Thus the transfiguration story is a real-magical story that has tremendous theological realities and social consequences. Let me name just a few. First, the apparent trinity at the top of the mountain is wrapped up in glory! A glory that is shared, that illuminates each other, that strengthens each other’s lives, and gives meaning to the past and future events. Second, when they disappear they disappear into a shadow, a cloud, and from that cloud comes the voice of God affirming Jesus. Third, the transfiguration of Jesus is a metamorphoses (“transfigured” in Greek: metamorphothe), a transfiguration, a radical change and shift, an event that transforms those who go through it. This transfiguration does not serve only Jesus but prepares him to go back to the people and continue his ministry until his departure. Fourth, before the sacred, we also learn to keep in silence.

One of the lessons of this text is that the glory of God is only possible if lived together, in community. Nobody, not even Jesus, could shine alone! The work of that trinity shows that only when we are together that God’s radiance can light each other’s lives. Also, we can only make sense of ourselves if the people who came before us are presence in our struggle. Our ancestors come to us to give us a thick sense of the present and to say that they survived under the name of God and we can do that too. Glory is only possible if shared and that means that we are to share the light of Christ to the world, especially those placed in the shadows of our society. This is related to the second theological point that the shadow, in which they disappear into, carries the voice of God affirming Jesus. In that way, when we light the lives of those placed in the shadows of society, we must know that it is from those shadows, from those clouds that the voice of God appears, affirming Jesus! Third, this metamorphoses directs Jesus back into his mission. While the disciples wanted to hang out there amidst those giants of faith and basking in the glory and transfiguration of Jesus, they were demanded to go back to their lives. However, in between the transfiguration and the noisy streets of our lives, we keep in silence trying to figure out the transfigured Jesus, knowing that we are part of this transfiguration and that means that God will refigure our lives, our thinking, our actions our path. When we meet the transfigured Jesus we are disfigured, transfigured, and refigured.

At this juncture we can understand why this text needs the following text that talks about the miracle of healing of this disgraced boy. This boy is in psychological and social chains; the demons have taken hold of his life. There is way too much realism in his magical life, so Jesus has to intervene! The disciples were not transfigured enough to deal with it and the transfiguration of Jesus shows that Jesus has little patience with their lack of power, their lack of understanding/figuring out who he is and what message he has to offer. Thus, Jesus’ indictment of the faith of the disciples “‘You faithless and perverse generation,” sounds true to us as disciples of Jesus today. Our world is dashing the poor against the rocks of despair, hunger, and abandonment everyday. The economic beast controlled by few demons is making our people convulse day and night. The homeless, the immigrant, the incarcerated, those mothers who work three jobs to make a minimum wage to feed three, four kids, they are like that boy, thrown into the shadows of our society, convulsing day and night right in front of us! And we, who seem to not know anything about the transfiguration of Jesus or our own transfiguration (metamorphoses) are looking at these people while asking Jesus: can we dwell in our worship tabernacles basking in your glory, away from the people and their pressing needs?

Unless we get out of the fortress of our worship spaces, and rebuke the unclean spirits of the powers that be, and shed light into the lives of the poor of our communities, we will never know what transfiguration means. Glory will be an unknown word and experience. We can have a sound theology and say that in that passage, Jesus is the point of beginning and end, the past and the future giving weight to our present, the conciliation of opposite poles, the connection between the shadow and the light of God, the incarnation of the most divine glory. However, if in the name and by the grace of God we cannot heal the boys and girls of our own people and give them back to their parents we will never know what transfiguration means, what shared glory looks like and we will never be “astounded at the greatness of God.”

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 34:29-35

William Yarchin

After the deliverance from Egypt and the establishing of the covenant at Mount Sinai, God had Moses go back up to the mountaintop, a distance removed from the Israelite camp.

On the mountaintop, over the course of 40 days, God conveyed to Moses instructions for crafting the various Tabernacle appurtenances. The sustained attention to the Tabernacle shifts the narrative’s focus away from God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt towards God’s dwelling with the Israelites in the wilderness. The tabernacle instructions continue from Exodus chapter 25 to chapter 31, concluding with God’s instructions to Moses: “When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (31:18 NRSV).

If we skip over the golden calf episode in Exodus 32-34, and begin reading at today’s lesson, we see that there the story picks up exactly where 31:18 left it off: Moses now comes down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant in his hands (34:29). This tells us that the golden calf episode is a self-contained story that interrupts the smooth flow from 31:18 to 34:29. Reading directly from the former verse to the latter verse, one would never know that the golden calf incident had taken place at all.

At chapter 35 the story returns its focus to the tabernacle, as though indeed the golden calf incident had not happened. So, the general structure of the second half of the book of Exodus looks like this:

God gives tabernacle instructions [25-31]

Interlude: golden calf episode [32-34]

Israelites construct tabernacle according to instructions [35-40].

The golden calf episode, then, is given to us as a self-contained story. Our lesson tells the epilogue to that story, and it touches upon key themes that had emerged during the golden calf story.

  • The covenant between God and Israel: Even “before the ink had dried,” the Israelites violated the covenant through idolatry. The story demonstrates the gravity of this violation in a dramatic way, when Moses, angered by the Israelites’ unfaithfulness, literally smashed the tablets of the covenant (Exodus 32:15-19). In our lesson, however, Moses later brings the (newly re-inscribed) tablets to the Israelites, clearly signaling that the covenant dimension of the God-Israel relationship had been restored.
  • The presence of God within Israel: the idolatry of the Israelites had removed God’s presence from them. This calamitous effect was dramatized by God’s proposal to have an angel, instead of God, guide them henceforth in the wilderness, because “you are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you” (Exodus 33:5). As a result of the removal of divine presence, Moses must leave the camp, away from the Israelites, in order to meet with God (33:7-10).
  • The role of Moses as mediator between God and Israel: Although the Israelites recognized that Moses had led them out of Egypt, they had decided that he would not lead them as a worshiping community (Exodus 32:1). The events of the golden calf episode — Moses’ intercession on their behalf (32:30-32), and his confrontation with God insisting that the divine presence be restored (33:11-16) — proved that Moses was more than God’s agent for Israelite deliverance by God. He would also serve as the appointed agent for Israelite worship before God.

Our lesson captures all these themes. At the foot of the mountain the Israelites can clearly see that Moses is indeed the mediator of God’s presence; this is indicated by the radiance of his face, which we are explicitly told was a lingering effect of the divine presence that Moses brings to the people.

The Israelites can likewise recognize that Moses mediates the restored covenant as he would “tell the Israelites what he had been commanded” (Exodus 34:34). The Hebrew grammar of these verses designates that Moses’ covenant mediating role was to be an ongoing, continual reality in the life of the people.

As an epilogue to the golden calf episode, our lesson — without even mentioning the golden calf — effectively repudiates all idolatrous mediation of the divine. Here, no mere object of gold can mediate the divine presence. Instead, the radiance of the divine shines directly through the face of God’s living servant.

But despite the prominence given to the visual sign designating Moses as Israel’s mediator, our lesson makes it clear that the substantive mode of Moses’ mediation is verbal: these few verses bear an unusual density of “speaking” terminology. Henceforth, the Israelites will know the divine will because it will be revealed to them as Moses speaks to them the commandments that God first speaks to him.

Today’s Gospel reading dramatizes the ultimate instance of divine-human mediation, as Jesus radiated divine presence while praying, and then as he engaged with the two preeminent Old Testament agents of divine mediation at the Mount of Transfiguration. Just as the Israelites, at the foot of the mountain, were enjoined by Moses’ visage to pay heed to his words as covenant mediator, so also were Peter and James enjoined by the voice from the cloud (in another allusion to the Sinai events) to recognize Jesus as God’s chosen one, and to obey his words.

Our New Testament lesson, taken from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, emphasizes this theme of divine covenant mediation directly through human agency in Paul and his entourage who speak as “persons sent from God and standing in his presence.” Reception of the divine word, now mediated through Christ and his sent ones, makes it possible for us to approach God “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord.”


Commentary on Psalm 99

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 99 is the last of the six “Enthronement Psalms” in Book Four of the Psalter.

They include Psalm 93 and Psalms 95-99 and celebrate God as sovereign (or king — melek, as in many translations) over all of creation (see 93:1; 95:3; 96:10; 97:1-2; 98:6; 99:1, 4). They further declare that God is the creator and sustainer of the world (93:1-2; 95:4-6; 96:10); that God is the judge and arbiter of the world (93:5; 96:13; 97:8, 10; 98:2, 9; 99:4, 8); and that God is righteous, holy, and majestic (93:4; 96:6-8; 97:6, 12; 98:1, 9; 99:3, 5, 9).

In response to the holy God who creates, sustains, and judges the world, the Enthronement Psalms call on all creation, not just humanity, to praise God. In Psalm 93, the floods, the waters, and the seas lift their voices (vv. 3-4); in Psalm 95, humanity is called to worship, bow down, and kneel before God (v. 6); Psalms 96 and 98 enjoin all the earth to “sing a new song” to the Lord (96:1 and 98:1); Psalm 96 calls on the heavens to be glad, the earth to rejoice, the field to exult, and the trees to sing for joy (vv. 11-12); in Psalm 97, the earth, the coastlands, and the heavens rejoice and are glad (vv. 1, 6); and Psalm 99 calls on all peoples to praise God’s holy name.

An interesting component of the Enthronement Psalms, one that appears prominently in Psalm 99, is the character of the praise that is due God. We read in 99:1, “let the people tremble . . . let the earth quake” (NRSV). The word translated “tremble” is from the Hebrew root word ragaz and literally means “to tremble, to be afraid.” The word translated “quake” is from the Hebrew root word nute and literally means “to shake.” Similar language occurs in 96:9 and 97:4-5. The presence of God is an awe-invoking experience. The proper response of humanity and the rest of creation is indeed “trembling with fear and shaking.”

Psalm 93:1, though, states that God “has established the world; it will never be moved.” The word translated as “moved” in the NRSV is mute, which literally means to “shake, totter.” How do we reconcile the firm stability of the earth in Psalm 93 with the call to the earth “to quake, to shake” in Psalm 99? The Hebrew words used in the two psalms provides, I think, the answer. In Psalm 93, the word translated as “earth” is tebel, a word that occurs repeatedly in the Enthronement Psalms (93:1; 96:10, 13; 97:4; 98:7, 9) and is best understood as the “inhabitable world,” the world that God formed as a dwelling place for God’s creation. The word translated as “earth” in Psalm 99:1 is ‘erets, better translated as “land.” ‘Erets is used primarily in the Old Testament to designate national lands, political boundaries, thus providing a good tie to the call to “all peoples” to praise God in v. 2.

Psalm 99 is unique among the Enthronement Psalms in that it does not include a call to creation to praise God such as we encounter in the other Enthronement Psalms. Rather, it focuses on humanity, all humanity. Verse 1 says “let the peoples tremble.” In Hebrew, the word for people, ‘am, indicates a single people group, such as the Israelites, the Philistines, the Moabites, etc. When the word is plural, ‘amim — “peoples,” it indicates more than one people group. Verse 1 of Psalm 99 is thus a clear call to people groups beyond the children of Israel to “tremble” at the presence of God, who is a “lover of justice,” who has “established equity and executed justice and righteous in Jacob” (v. 4).

With verse 4’s words, “in Jacob,” the psalm singer moves the focus of the psalm from all humanity to God’s chosen people, the children of Jacob. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel are named perhaps as representatives of the children of Jacob. According to verse 8, “they cried to the LORD, and he answered them.” And verse 9 references “the pillar of cloud,” the physical appearance of God to the Israelites as they traversed the Sinai Wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land (see Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19, 24; 33:9-10; Numbers 12:5; 14:14). A physical appearance of God to humans is called a “theophany,” and Psalm 99 celebrates the continued presence of God, the theophany to ALL of the people throughout the Wilderness time. The presence of Samuel is a bit puzzling. Samuel’s connection to Moses and Aaron can be made in that they each cried out to God about the sinfulness of the people of Israel (see Exodus 32:7-14; Numbers 16:20-22; 1 Samuel 7:5-11). And Psalm 99:8 states, “You answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.” God is gracious, but God will mete out justice to the children of Jacob and to all peoples.

Psalm 99 is a fitting lectionary reading for Transfiguration Sunday. Paired with the reading from Exodus 34 — the shining face of Moses as he descended a second time from receiving the “torah” on Mt. Sinai, and with 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 — a further elaboration and interpretation of that incident in Moses’ life, these readings provide a deeper level of understanding and appropriating the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus told in the gospel of Luke. The Transfiguration story in the New Testament is yet another theophany, another appearance of God. Jesus, the man, is transfigured into his godly likeness. The only response humanity can offer is “trembling with fear and shaking” as we praise the appearance, knowing that our creator God has firmly established the “habitable world,” and it will never “be moved” or “shaken.”

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

David E. Fredrickson

What is Paul up to in 2 Corinthians 3, one of the most challenging portions of all his letters?

Christian interpreters have for the most part ignored its difficulty by turning it into a rant against the presumed legalism and ceremonialism of Jews. Since the time of Eusebius (c. 260-341 CE) the two covenants work like this: the old covenant was a matter of local, specific, and temporally limited laws for the Jewish people, but the new covenant is universally applicable law. The thing to notice in this approach is that both covenants are considered to be law. The new law is better than the old, it is argued, because it can be applied to all people and in all times. Jesus, who advocates the law of love, is a better lawgiver than Moses. Now all of this is quite convenient for Eusebius, the architect of Christianity as the religion of empire after the conversion of Constantine (312). Empire needs universals as it erases the singularity, difference, and strangeness of each and every other. 2 Corinthians 3, twisted in Eusebius’ hands, fits this bill. We live with and repeat his misappropriation of this text to this day.

Yet perhaps there is a way to resist Eusebius. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) had a wild idea about eternal progress and found biblical support for it in the phrase from “from glory into glory” in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Maybe this is a thread we can pull on to unravel the anti-Judaism later interpreters drew from the letter. By “progress” Gregory did not mean moral improvement. Rather, he took seriously the implication for spiritual life when God is regarded as truly infinite. Not very, very big, but beyond calculation. And not just beyond human calculation but any possible calculation. If God is infinite then our approach to God is, Gregory reasoned, experienced as a perpetual deferral of seeing or having God. Unlike Augustine (354-430), who sought God in order to rest in God, Gregory wrote about an unceasing, insatiable desire for God without rest and without end.

I am not unaware of how unsatisfying Gregory’s idea of perpetual deferral is for those of us whose Christianity rests in the Augustinian tradition. Siding with Gregory we would miss our beatific vision of God. Many of us have been quite looking forward to that. But Paul was not a Christian and not an Augustinian. In 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 there are other motifs of deferral in addition to “from glory into glory” and our chances of making sense in a non-Eusebius way of this text increases when we pay attention to them. One of them, I believe, is the motif of “face.” (See 2 Corinthians 1:11 2:10; 3:7,13,18; 4:6). Moses places a veil over his in 2 Corinthians 3:13. The veil comes off it in 3:16, which should be translated just as Paul quotes it from Exodus 34:34: “when he [Moses] turned to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul has every face in his readership unveiled. If I can show that there is something infinite about the human (and divine) face, something that entails perpetual deferral, then the “new covenant” has a chance of being something other (and quite other) than the universal law of love.

Imagine a friend seated across the table. Her arched eyebrow, curled lip, darting eyes, and thousands of other movements on the page-like surface of her skin invite you to look upon her inner self. Her face seems to be put to use by her personality to give nonverbal expression to her thoughts and feelings. As a face reader you come to know your friend better by carefully observing all of the signs written on her face. Theoretically, then, if you gaze on her face forever you would know her perfectly.

Yet, there is something wrong about this version of face reading. Faces are indeed portals of the soul — and then again they aren’t. Why not? For one thing, as you gaze at your friend she gazes back at you, and in response to what you have read on her face your face changes, which she notices and changes her face, and so it goes with no end in sight. Now consider this also: when your eyes look into hers you see in her pupils your own reflection. So, now you have two faces to read instead of one, hers and yours, and since she now sees herself in your pupils her reading list has doubled. And so it goes ad infinitum. You friendship has become a hall of mirrors. Gazing at your friend across the table has resulted in more mystery not less, more desire to know her but the growing realization that you never will. Is this what 2 Corinthians 3:16 tells us Moses discovered? The more you look the more uncertain you become about who you are and who she is, about what she wants from you and what you must do to respond. Looking upon a face promises an unending search in which meaning, presence, and immediacy will always, as long as you gaze face to face, be deferred. In such a posture your non-satisfaction is guaranteed. That is the new covenant, always new.

The new covenant is not another, better law. “New” and “law” really can’t be in the same sentence. If the new shows up deferral is laid to rest and it won’t take long for the new to become old. But “new” and “deferral” love each other greatly. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul pictures the church as a community of faces gazing at one another lost in a hall of mirrors in a dizzying transfiguration into the image of Jesus, the Christ, the one who is to come, always deferred. From glory into glory …