Commentary: Luke 9:28-36
A. The Lectionary Setting
Few Gospel readings render themselves so happily to the interweaving of the Hebrew scriptures, the Psalms, and the Epistles as the narrative of the Transfiguration. The effulgence of divine glory radiating in the face of Moses as he returns from his covenant-making encounter with God on the heights of Sinai (Ex. 34); the exalted majesty of a kingly God who reigns with justice high above the earth, his footstool, yet who condescends to talk and make covenant with those who obey his decrees (Ps 99); the pained yet ingenious haggadic midrash by which the Apostle Paul contemporizes the Moses narrative, shifting focus from the brightness of revealed glory to the shadowed veil of incomprehension (2 Cor 3),--each and all of these passages give height and breadth to the Transfiguration account in the synoptic Gospels, causing historical inquiry to grow silent behind faith's astonishing claim. They should be an elixir to theological imagination.
B. The Gospel Setting
Luke differs in geographical setting from Matthew and Mark, but not essentially in narrative context. The first prediction of the passion has occurred (9:22 par.), the conditions of discipleship stated (vv. 23-27). Again Luke differs from his Marcan source by relegating John the Baptist to a lesser role; John is no Elijah redivivus, as Luke's omission of Mark 9:9-13 shows. Luke's account is an expression of his concept of salvation history, in which John the Baptist is the end of the prophetic period and Jesus the beginning of the new era. The recurring declaration is that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, that through divine disclosure Jesus is aware of his destiny as one who must suffer and die yet be raised again from the dead.
C. Verse by Verse
v. 28--Whatever the historical facts may be, spatial metaphors have their place in the human psyche. God is up, not down; to be with God is to ascend "the" mountain, the place of revelation, where the public does not go, only chosen disciples. The abyss is the watery deep, a place far removed from God's presence (cf. 8:31ff.). In Luke, even Gathsemani is omitted in favor of "the Mount of Olives" (22:39).
v. 29 --Luke rejects Mark's term, "metamorphein," translated, "transfigured," perhaps to avert mistaken inferences. In this scene, certainly, the imagination is confronted by its own loss of words. What is intended is simply that the divine glory is reflected in a human face (THIS one), and that the whole human being (even "his raiment") is therefore "different" (Greek: "heteron"). v. 30 -- Moses and Elijah confirm Jesus as the recipient of divine glory by their appearance, and they confirm by speaking to him alone the nature of his destiny. It is thus Jesus who is to be the fulfillment of these two great authoritative traditions within Judaism: the Law and the Prophets.
v. 32 -- The disciples' incomprehension of the moment is conveyed by their inability to stay awake. It is a typology repeated on the Mount of Olives as Jesus prays (22:45).
v. 33 -- The opposite of what is appropriate is what the disciples suggest, and yet the desire to mark a place, to memorialize the past, to "make three booths," rather than to take upon oneself a new understanding is all too human. Perhaps the suggestion is rejected not because it attempts to temporalize the eternal, but because it equates the Son of God with the metonymic figures of law and the prophets. Luke repeatedly assures the reader that something new occurs in Jesus.
v. 34--As with Moses on Sinai so the miracle of divine revelation is hidden in a cloud: the deus revelatus is at the same time the deus absconditus.
v. 35--It is an event of which no one speaks, since its significance and full meaning become clear only with the resurrection.
How are we to think of the Transfiguration? Historical reminiscence? Narrative technique? Theologoumenon? Whatever one's opinion, the theological assertion being made is incontestable. Luke is saying that Jesus is God's doing. What one hears here, what one sees here, is nothing other than a radical fulfillment of yet departure from the past. One may sleep or keep silent, but the affirmation remains for the disciple to declare: This is God's Chosen; listen to him. In such a faith as this, Peter, John, and James were themselves changed. Luke knew that. He says that. It is not impossible that he knew one or more of them personally. Is it too much to suppose that in some measure the glory. the radiance, of what they had seen in the face of Jesus remained visible in their own countenance? Isn't this what incarnation is all about, that theological conviction is at the very heart of this narrative and the whole of Luke's Gospel?