By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, Commentary on Readings for Feb 7, Transfiguration Sunday
Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Our gospel this week finds Jesus and a few companions taking some time out on the earth for what Dorothy Day might have called “clarification of thought” or others have called “illumination.” Luke has just shown that the disciples don’t understand who Jesus is. In the wider narrative context, Luke has Jesus ever more clearly revealing that the divine power he embodies and offers to disciples is not that of the warrior “messiah,” but of the suffering Human One (9.20-26). But the disciples, like so many “Christians” through the ages, cling stubbornly to the hope that he would be the military leader who would remove the Romans by force (see Lk 24.21). Even worse, they seem utterly deaf to Jesus’ Good News of radically inclusive hospitality and leadership from below. Surrounding the Transfiguration scene are numerous situations where we see how out of tune they are with the song Jesus is singing. Consider this sequence of encounters:
They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (8.24-25)
The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish–unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” (9.12-13)
Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” (9.38-40)
“Let these words sink into your ears: The Human One is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But they did not understand this saying, its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. (9.44-46)
Jesus said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” (9.48-49)
On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. (9.52-54)
Even John the Baptist, who recognized Jesus in the womb, now isn’t so sure:
When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.” (7.20-23)
At the same time, though, Luke portrays a near-opposite sequence of women’s responses to Jesus’ word:
And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet…Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. (7.44-47)
The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who deaconed (Gk, diekonoun) for them out of their resources. (8.1-3)
When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (8.47-48)
Mary …sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (10.39-42)
This contrasting set of stories helps lead us into the heart of the meaning of the Transfiguration passage: the male disciples need to become more like the women disciples, who take the position of a student at his feet and listen to Jesus.
Let’s enter the story more closely. We hear immediately that Jesus has taken the leading male disciples with him to the mountain to pray. As we wrote a few weeks back on Jesus’ baptism, Luke, more than any other evangelist, emphasizes the centrality of true prayer to discipleship. But it is not until 11.1 that we hear the disciples ask, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Without the discipline of regular, embodied encounter with the Holy One, the disciples remain stuck in the imperial mindset in which they were formed. They have absorbed the ancient and long-standing idea that their measure as men is the public action they take that exerts power over others. As with so many church men to this day, they grow sleepy at the prospect of not “doing” something powerful (9.32). But the moment they awaken, they see Jesus’ gloriously transfigured presence along with Moses and Elijah. Luke adds a sly detail to the story he has borrowed from Mark, to emphasize the disciples’ ongoing deafness. We learn not just that Moses and Elijah were “talking with Jesus” (Mark 9.4; Matt 17.3), but that they “were speaking of his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk 9.31). The disciples may see the glory, but they aren’t hearing the music. Hence, the divine voice from the cloud that proclaims, “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him!” (9.35).
For Jesus, prayer is empowering. Prayer opens him to receive the presence of the Holy Spirit (3.21-22). It enables him to know who to choose as “apostles” (6.12). Prayer allows him to remain who he is in the face of abuse (6.28; 23.34). Prayer strengthens him for the confrontation with empire (22.41-45). And prayer would do all these things for the disciples, too, if they were willing to receive the presence of the One who is the source of all true power. This experience is described twice in Luke as being “overshadowed” (Gk, episkiazō, 1.35, 9.34). The same word is used in the Septuagint for God’s presence covering the tent of meeting in the wilderness (Ex 40.35) and people in times of trouble (Ps 91.4; 140.7). In other words, the prayer that empowers is not about persuading God about one’s own holiness (Lk 18.10-14), but about being open to receive the transforming Presence that reveals definitively the nature of God and who Jesus really is. It is the power that enables the transformation of mind and heart that goes by the name “repentance” (Lk 3.6, 5.32; 15.7; 24.47 Gk, metanoia).
As so often in Luke, the women, for the most part, get this much more easily than the men. Biologically speaking, women are naturally receivers. Culturally speaking, though, their social formation into fixed gender roles prevents them from accessing this empowerment. Luke shows women acting against their social formation that would deny this to them. Mary and Elizabeth are both portrayed as acting powerfully. Peter’s mother-in-law “deacons” to Jesus (4.39), as do the many other women noted above. A bleeding woman’s touch releases Jesus’ healing power (8.43-47). Most importantly, we find the “woman of the city” and Mary of Bethany at Jesus’ feet, the traditional place of a disciple in relation to her teacher. Mary is said to be doing precisely what the heavenly Voice told the men to do: listening to him.
It is only after the resurrection, after the male disciples have run away, denied Jesus and disbelieved the women’s witness to Jesus’ new life, that they finally begin to “get” it. We hear this at the beginning of Acts: “All these [men] were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1.14; also, 2.42). As Jesus did, they pray to discern who should join the circle of apostles (1.24-25). As Stephen faces his executioners, prayer keeps him centered on Jesus (7.59).
Our guess is that the majority of people who identify with the label “radical discipleship” are male, eager to commit bold public witness against the powers-that-be, engage in controversial conversation over “big” questions,” and stand in “manly” firmness against opposition. Both the Civil Rights Movement and the early anti-nuclear weapons movement were dominated by strong men, while women were often kept “in their place.” The invitation of the Transfiguration remains before us: to take time apart, on the earth, and simply listen and receive the Presence and true power of our loving God, known in and through the person of the Risen Christ. Without such spiritual discipline, we remain likely to see the men around Jesus, rather than the women, as true models of discipleship. May our minds, hearts and bodies truly hear the powerful Word of Jesus and be ready eagerly to do it.