The Bible in the time of Jesus – and still in Judaism to this day – was made up of the books of Moses (the first five in the Bible) and the teaching of the Prophets, chief amongst whom was the prophet Elijah. (The Jewish Bible contains nothing of what we call the New Testament of the four Gospels, Letters of Paul, Peter and others.)
The story we have just heard describes how Moses and Elijah, the key figures in the Jewish Bible, ‘appeared’ to Jesus. It’s more than likely that this experience occurred when Jesus, in the presence of his disciples, was studying and praying over some of the writings of Moses and Elijah as related to his mission from God. It is in this sense that Moses and Elijah, through their words in the Bible, were ‘speaking’ to Jesus, essentially about how he would be the Suffering Servant of God
This experience had such a profound effect on Jesus that his companions saw a visible change occur in him. Thus the event is known as the Transfiguration of Jesus.
The text says “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” When a first century Jew heard or read of this, he/she would have known straightaway that a similar thing had happened to Moses when he experienced God’s presence on Mount Sinai. The same happened to the prophet Elijah when he was on a high mountain. And the Transfiguration of Jesus took place ‘on a high mountain’. In the Bible high mountains were the usual place where great figures experienced God’s divine presence.
So by using imagery and language from the Old Testament to describe this significant experience, Jesus is presented as an equal of Judaism’s greatest spiritual leaders, Moses and Elijah. Towards the end of the first century when this Gospel of Matthew was written, relating this story was important for people who had never met Jesus and, consequently, might only know that he had been crucified and appeared to have been a failure.
An equally important part of the story is that the disciples heard a ‘voice’ proclaiming Jesus to be God’s “Son” and that they (and everyone hearing this story) should “listen to him”. This meant that from now on God wanted people to listen to the teaching of Jesus rather than limiting themselves to the traditional teaching of Judaism. Jesus was now the definitive mediator between God and his people. So people should listen to him and follow his ways above all others.
So on a human level, two things were happening here. Jesus was discovering in a deep, mystical way his call to fulfil a mission from God that began with Moses and the Prophets. And his closest disciples were getting a first glimpse of who Jesus truly was and why they should believe in him. They were learning about the nature of Jesus’ relationship with God and this is summed up in the declaration: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.”
In this penitential season of Lent we are being called to think afresh about how much WE ‘listen’ to Jesus. For instance, do I accept him to be the authentic voice of God, the Creator of the Universe? When there are so many other competing voices vying for our attention, is his the one voice, the authority above all others, to whom I look for guidance and support in my life? Do I have principles and convictions that come from him rather than being someone who ‘goes with the flow’ of popular opinion? And if I accept that God does speak through the teaching of Jesus, is there something in my life – an unhealthy attraction, perhaps, or a bad habit or an addiction – that I need to tackle as my personal way of responding to Jesus as he asks?
Holy Name, Jesmond
8 March 2020