Lectionary Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9 (February 19, 2023)

by Rev. Dr. Bob Jon

I remember Rev. Yoo Cha Yi in our conference, who loved to hike the mountain. I enjoyed meeting her at the annual conference as she greeted novice pastors like me with her gentle smiles and hospitality. Unfortunately, she passed away untimely due to lung cancer in 2019. When she was diagnosed with cancer, Rev. Vicki Woods and her partner graciously took her to their house and took care of her for a year. In the midst of her vulnerability and struggle, she shared a story of generosity, hospitality, and grace. As we gathered in Eliot, ME, to celebrate her life, many people shared Rev. Yi’s love for the mountains. Whenever she climbed up the mountain, she could not only clear her mind but also feel closer to the presence of God.

The story in Matthew 17 also tells us about Jesus, who hiked the high mountain bringing with him Peter, James, and John. Jesus had already told his disciples what kind of fate was waiting for him in Jerusalem: “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised” (16:21) Peter took him aside and rebuked him saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (v.22) Chapter 17 does not tell us how Jesus’s disciples felt as they climbed the mountain with Jesus. Given what they just heard from Jesus six days ago, I am sure that they felt the heaviness in the air. Or maybe they needed some mental break from all the stressful anticipation of the future.

On the mountain, Jesus transfigured before his disciples. His became so bright that Matthew tells us that his face “shone like the sun,” and his clothes “bright as light” (v.2). If this was not enough, there appeared before them Moses and Elijah who spoke with Jesus. If this happened today, people would pull out their cellphones, taking their selfies with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah together. They would have wanted to capture that moment so that they could brag about what they witnessed to the other disciples. Isn’t that what Peter tried to do here? He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (v.4). In other words, please don’t go anywhere, especially Jerusalem. Stay where we can find you anytime we want.

While many might debate what motivated Peter to respond in such a way, I believe the previous verses again give us a clue. Maybe Peter did not want Jesus to go down and fulfill what he predicted would happen to him. “This must never happen to you!” He had been following Jesus for three years, abandoning his job and family. “Jesus, after all those things I have done for you, is this how you repay me?” Or maybe he wants to cling to Jesus because of his love for him. He could prolong the moment of the mysterious event on the high mountain so that Jesus would not necessarily face the fate he foretold. Douglas Hare comments, “Peter wants to rejoice in the ‘heavenly Jesus’ rather than go to Jerusalem to watch his master suffer a painful death” (Hare, Interpretation: Matthew, 199). In other words, who would want a suffering Messiah?

I remember elsewhere in N. T. Wright’s book that in the early churches, becoming a bishop was not such a glorious thing, as we often imagine these days by shouting in celebration. Instead, if you became a bishop, you would be the first one to be arrested and martyred. In other words, from the birth of Christianity, suffering was a necessary consequence for those who claimed Jesus Christ as their Lord and committed to following his way, forsaking the way of the world. Therefore, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “As we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death… the cross meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship). As disciples of Christ, we take the cross because Jesus is the one who said, “If you wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

As Peter tried to cling to Jesus by building his dwelling on the high mountain, a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” This is exactly what God said as Jesus was baptised, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). Upon hearing these words, the disciples fell to the ground and filled with fear. While many of us tend to associate the presence of God with comfort, peace, and love, encountering and hearing the voice of God would cause fear, awe, and vulnerability. After all, God told Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).

As his disciples were overcome by fear, Jesus came to his disciples and said, “Get up and do not be afraid” (v.7). As they lifted their heads, they saw “no one except Jesus himself alone” (v.8, NRSV). While Mark says, “they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus,” M. Eugene Boring points out that Matthew adds the word “himself” to emphasise that it is Jesus who still stays with his disciples (Boring, NIB 362). While Peter believed that he can build a dwelling or tabernacle for Jesus, Jesus is the tabernacle, “the reality of God’s abiding presence with us” (Boring). Our Messiah came down the mountain to set his course to Jerusalem where he would be crucified to bear the sins of the world and free us from the dominion of our sins and death. And the question for us is “Are we also willing to follow him where our world groans in pain today and see what God will do through us?”

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