Commentary on Luke 9:28-45
Even with the Narrative Lectionary, we will still need to provide some context to appreciate today’s passage that begins with the Transfiguration.
If possible, you might consider expanding the reading to include 9:18-51, since this section is interwoven in a number of ways. (I’ve bolded the words/topics that provide the links.)
- Verse 18 in the passage immediately preceding our text states, “Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him…” Verse 28 reads, “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” The time reference and the situation link these two accounts. Verse 37, which indicates what happens “on the next day,” then ties in the story of the boy with the demon. In verse 51, the days are fulfilled, and Jesus heads to Jerusalem.
- In verses 18-27 Jesus questions the disciples about his identity. After hearing speculations that he is John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the ancient prophets, the exchange culminates in Peter confessing that Jesus is “The Messiah of God.” In the Transfiguration, we can ‘see’ that Jesus is indeed not Elijah, nor is he Moses who was regarded as the greatest of the ancient prophets. The reader is likely supposed to think of Deuteronomy 18:15 where a prophet like Moses is promised to whom people are to “listen,” just as the disciples are told by the voice in Luke 9:35that Jesus is God’s “Son, my Chosen,” and they are to “listen” to him.
- In 9:22 Jesus delivers his first Passion prediction regarding the Son of Man (and note that in Luke, Peter does not rebuke him). This matches with 9:44 where Jesus declares that the Son of Man is going to be betrayed.
- 9:23-27 follows with a description of what is involved in following Jesus, a topic that is revisited in 9:46-50.
- In 9:26-27 Jesus also speaks of the coming of the Son of Man in his glory and the presence of the kingdom of God. In 9:31, Jesus the Son of God appears in his glory.
- In verse 29, Luke reports that Jesus’ face was “changed.” (Luke does not actually describe it as “transfigured” as Mark and Matthew do.) In 9:51, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem.
- In verse 31, Luke notes that Elijah and Moses were talking to Jesus about his departure (in Greek, exodus) that was to occur in Jerusalem. 9:51 is a critical hinge in Luke’s gospel: “When the days drew near [Greek: were fulfilled] for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
- In verse 33, Peter blurts out his idea of making three dwellings on the mountain, “not knowing what he said.” In verse 36, the three disciples “kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” In verse 45, the disciples do not understand Jesus’ saying and are afraid to ask him.
What this careful interweaving of texts accomplishes is a much more nuanced picture of Jesus.
- In 9:18-21, we are presented with various positive assessments of Jesus, but it culminates in Peter’s confession that he is “The Messiah of God.” In 9:22-25, however, we see the other side of the coin. Jesus must suffer and die, and a similar calling is given to those who wish to follow him. This is balanced with 9:26-27 where the promise of future vindication is given when the Son of Man comes in his glory.
- In 9:28-36, we get a glimpse of that glory and a heavenly affirmation that he is indeed the God’s Son, the Chosen One. Even in this glorious moment, however, we hear rumblings of the fate that awaits Jesus as Moses and Elijah speak with him about his “departure” in Jerusalem. (For those of you who recall the Jaws movie, I liken this to that bum-bum, two-note bass line that alerts the viewer of imminent danger.)
- In 9:37-43, Jesus miraculously heals the boy so that everyone is amazed, but in verses 44-45 Jesus immediately points ahead to his upcoming betrayal.
- In 9:46-50, true greatness is defined in terms of being least. This concept applies both to Jesus and his disciples, and Jesus begins to enact it in 9:51 as he heads to Jerusalem.
Throughout this whole section, we also see people and Jesus’ own disciples struggling to figure out who he is. There are the misguided speculations followed by Peter’s correct pronouncement and a stern warning from Jesus not to tell anyone. In the Transfiguration scene, however, Peter doesn’t know what he is talking about when he proposes the three dwellings, and the three disciples say nothing about it “in those days.” The father who brings his son to Jesus has the right idea of Jesus’ capability, but Jesus responds with a rebuke to that “faithless and perverse generation.” When Jesus talks about his betrayal in verse 44, the disciples fail to understand and are afraid to ask him about it. They further mess up in their sense of greatness and in who is an acceptable follower.
Note, however, that what Luke is portraying here is not the same as the Gospel of Mark with its so-called “Messianic Secret” and the ‘duh-sciples.’ Mark perhaps allows for more ambiguity. The father of the boy is able to make his memorable plea in Mark 9:24 – “I believe; help my unbelief!” — a statement that is absent in Luke. If Mark tells his gospel to invite the reader into the story and either sympathize or reject or strive to do better than its characters, Luke is more straightforward. He is indeed recounting history, providing explanations for why Jesus’ disciples did not fully understand him during his ministry, and laying a foundation for his readers to perceive and believe.
The passage in Luke makes for a rather straightforward sermon. Hearers are not asked to explore the complexities of faith nor wonder about the true nature of Jesus. Anyone with any sense should be able to figure it out and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son. “Listen to him!” Don’t think, however, that Luke’s clarity means it is all so simple. What Luke also makes very clear is that in the midst of a “faithless and perverse generation,” following Jesus is an “exodus” to life, but it goes through the way of suffering and death.