Transfiguration

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:13-21

Luke 9:28-36

In Mark’s Gospel, the account of the transfiguration follows culminates a section that follows on the feeding of the 4000. Mark arranges a big chunk of the first half of his gospel (before the transfiguration and turn to Jerusalem) around the device of sea crossing/3 miracles/instruction/feeding. The sea crossings and feedings are reminiscent of Moses, while the healings are reminiscent of Elijah/Elisha. Mark is using material from one or several early groups organized around a wide open table fellowship. People like the woman with the flow of blood, Jairus’ daughter, the man with the legion, the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter and the deaf man are crossing dangerous social boundaries to discover themselves miraculously fed in a new wilderness. They are the new Israel, formed by Moses and re-formed by Elijah/Elisha to include the unclean, and some of these groups (perhaps formed after Jesus’ resurrection — cf. that he is not in the boat with the disciples the second time across the sea, but appears as a ghost) include even Gentiles.

Mark uses this traditional material (see Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence), but wants to claim for his own community the right to succeed these groups. The block of material that follows the sea crossing/miracle/instruction/feeding doublet claims the Epic of Israel (Moses/Elijah) for a new group, the christians, rather than for a newly formed and reformed Israel. This block is bracketed by the healing of two blind men. The first blind man (Mark 8:22ff) is not completely healed the first time, and Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46ff) is the only person in Mark’s Gospel who gets it, who “follows Jesus on the road.” In the middle of this block comes Peter’s confession and Jesus’ transfiguration. What is important about the transfiguration in Mark’s construction is that at the end of the event, Moses and Elijah are off the scene, and Jesus remains alone. Also in this block come the three predictions of the Passion. Mark’s community, replacing the Moses/Elijah community before it, is formed around Jesus’ passion and death — they are expecting martyrdom themselves. It is not simple open table fellowship that marks Mark’s group, but a willingness to imitate Jesus in his death.

Luke, of course, uses Mark as a source, and follows Mark’s plot fairly closely (Luke eliminates on set of the sea/feeding doublet). The purpose of the Transfiguration, even in Luke, is to move Moses and Elijah out of the story. In Luke’s telling, they are speaking to Jesus about his “exodus,” and the conditions of discipleship are softened somewhat in Luke. The expectation is that Jesus’ passion and death serve as an example of a virtuous death, rather than as a death to be imitated — Jesus can be imitated by living a good life, for Luke.

Is there a way of hearing the transfiguration without hearing a repudiation of the past? Mark’s Gospel is an early shot in the bitter internecine strife that would give birth to Christianity and Judaism. Can we hear the stories of open table fellowship in new, wild places without needing to claim those stories exclusively for ourselves? What would have happened if Peter had built his three booths?

August 6 is of course also the day Little Boy exploded over Hiroshima. Perhaps that blinding light results from humanity’s attempts to lay an exclusive claim to God’s glory.

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