Commentary on Matthew 16:24—17:8
Risk-benefit analyses dominate many of our decision-making processes. High school seniors ponder the risks and benefits of attending an expensive private school rather than a public university. Will it be worth it? Business people debate whether to add new personnel. Will their contributions outweigh the cost of employing them? Whether we are considering a marriage, a move, or a new job, we stack up the advantages on one side and the disadvantages on the other, trying to determine which decision will benefit us most.
Jesus’ call to discipleship and his subsequent transfiguration imply a risk-benefit analysis too, but the calculus could hardly be more different from our usual thought processes. Jesus turns our usual calculations upside down. Much more is at stake here than a comfortable income or a satisfying career. The disciples’ entire lives are on the line.
The context of today’s reading makes it clear that when Jesus invites prospective disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, he is not merely indulging in a dramatic metaphor. The conversation leading up to this call began at Caesarea Philippi, a location named for a human ruler whose coins proclaimed him as a son of god. There Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. After pronouncing a blessing on Peter, Jesus predicted his own suffering, death, and resurrection. When Peter insisted that Jesus’ prediction must never come to pass, Jesus promptly rebuked him, saying “Get behind me, Satan,” calling him a stumbling block, and telling him that he had his mind set on human things.
If Peter thought that the titles “Son of God” and “Christ” should be equated with power, not suffering and death, who could blame him? After all, they were titles for kings. And surely all the disciples imagined that being the new king’s first and closest followers would lead to extra privileges and power. After all, that’s how the world works.
But that is not how God works. Jesus follows up his rebuke by issuing a new call to all prospective disciples. Echoing his words to Peter, he invites us all to get behind him and to invest all that we are in following him. He is the Messiah, the Son of God, and he is going to be killed. Are we willing to follow him even if it means that we will be killed too?
The contrast between the human mindset and the divine mindset could scarcely be more stark. Caesar’s way and Christ’s way could hardly be more different. What we usually count as profit is loss, and losing everything is profit. Living by our customary values and worldview means that we risk losing our very selves. Walking in the way of Jesus may cost us our reputations and our comfortable incomes and even our lives. Yet though following Jesus may get us killed, in the process we will find out what true life is. Not only that, but Christ’s way leads through death to resurrection.
The end of Jesus’ call to discipleship points beyond individual concerns toward the reign of God. Jesus invites his disciples then, and his disciples now, to consider what will happen when the Son of Man comes. Our decision-making usually focuses narrowly on ourselves and on the effects that our choices have on our own lives. But what effects do our choices have on other people and on the rest of creation? The Son of Man shows us what it means to live as God wants us to live. How will our lives measure up when he returns as judge?
Six days after Jesus issues his call to disciples, he leads them up into a high mountain and is transfigured before them. The time reference links the two scenes, inviting the reader to consider how they are connected. It also brings to mind Exodus 24 and the six days that Moses spent waiting on Mount Sinai before God called to him out of the cloud.
Set so soon after Peter’s confession of the Christ and Jesus’ first passion prediction, the transfiguration serves both as confirmation of Jesus’ identity for the disciples and as reassurance for Jesus. Though Peter thinks that he is honoring Jesus by placing him on the same level as Moses and Elijah, the heavenly voice soon clarifies the issue: Jesus is nothing less than what God named him at his baptism, God’s son, with whom God is well pleased.
The transfiguration is a reality check for the disciples. Caesar’s might and the power of any earthly ruler pale before the eternal majesty of the Creator. There on the mountain, in the presence of the holy, they are overcome with awe. What are their small human lives worth before the One who made heaven and earth? But God does not demean or threaten them. Instead, the divine voice calls them to listen to God’s own Beloved. In the presence of the transfigured Christ the disciples catch a glimpse of what it might mean to lose their lives and yet find true, divine life.
God’s command, “Listen to him,” returns to an important Matthean theme. Listening means more than letting the words go in one ear and out the other. Listening means obeying. Calling Jesus “Lord” is meaningless if we don’t do God’s will (Matthew 7:21). Listening to Jesus’ words without acting on them is like building a house on the sand; only those who put Jesus’ words into practice build on rock (Matthew 7:24–27). At the end of Matthew, Jesus commissions his disciples to go into all nations, baptizing them, “and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Following Jesus is not simply walking behind him; followers must do what he says.
The scene ends with Jesus saying to the disciples what God’s messengers always say: “Do not be afraid.” Jesus calls us not to fear, but to faith; not to self-promotion, but to service; not to power, but to love. That is the way of the cross, and the way of the Christ. May we, like his first disciples, look up and see Jesus himself alone.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Radiant God, you revealed yourself in your son, Jesus, when he was transfigured on the mountain before his disciples. Reveal yourself to us daily, so that we might enlighten others with the good news of your love. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Come, follow me, the Savior spake ELW 799
Praise and thanks and adoration ELW 783
Take up your cross, the Savior said ELW 667
Transfiguration, Kathryn Rose