Commentary: Luke 9:28-43 Part 2
This reading contains two incidents: The "transfiguration" of Jesus and the healing of a demon-possessed boy. Implied connections between the two may include (1) a contrast between Jesus' healing power and the disciples' weakness; (2) a confirmation of Jesus' identity given in the transfiguration; or (3) the necessity of moving from the heights of religious experience to the human needs in the valley below.
Luke follows Mark (his probable source) in connecting the two stories, except that he leaves out Mk 9:9-13 (the return of Elijah). He also drastically shortens Mark's account of the healing of the boy, and eliminates Mark's emphasis on the necessity and efficacy of prayer in healing (Mk 9:14-29). 2 Pet 1:16-18 reflects a tradition that is close to Luke's account of the transfiguration; note that in 2 Pet 1:17, Jesus "received honor and glory from God," which is conceptually closer to Luke's "face changed" than to Mark's "was transfigured" ("transformed").
Although Matthew makes more of Jesus as the "New Moses" than Luke does, similarities with Moses' experience in Ex 24:15-18 and 34:29-35 suggest that those narratives might have played a part in Luke's narrative and its source.
Luke makes other changes in Mark's account. Luke's "after eight days" has no clearer purpose than does Mark's "after six days," and probably means "about a week later." Luke adds an emphasis on prayer, as he frequently does at important occasions in Jesus' life (Lk 3:21). Only here does Luke follow Mark in having Peter, James and John share in special occasions (not at the raising of Jairus' daughter or in Gethsemane); here he reverses the order of James and John, anticipating the special joint role of Peter and John in Acts.
Luke omits Mark's language of metamorphosis ("transfiguration"), possibly because that term had connotations in Greek mythology of a god whose human disguise was momentarily lifted. Instead Luke speaks only of Jesus' face changing in appearance and his clothing becoming "dazzlingly white" (like lightning). Like Moses, whose face glowed (Ex 34:29), so Jesus, after praying, showed the radiance of one who had been in the presence of God.
The disciples see Moses and Elijah in conversation with Jesus and sharing at least partially in his radiance (9:30-29, "glory" or "radiance"). Why these two? Possibly representing the law and the prophets, signifying that the scriptures bear witness to the necessity of Jesus' suffering and death (cf. Lk 24:26); possibly because both had experienced God's presence in unusual ways; possibly because both were expected to return in some way (see Dt 18:15,18, "a prophet like Moses" and Mal 3:23, the return of Elijah); possibly because both were associated with past occasions when God delivered Israel at times of crisis (Moses when Egyptian slavery threatened the future of the people, Elijah when Baalism threatened the future of faith in Yahweh). Luke adds to Mark's narrative the remark that these two figures speak with Jesus about his "departure" (exodus) which he will accomplish at Jerusalem. His "departure" includes (in Luke's narrative) his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. The disciples awoke (NRSV v. 32 note) from sleep just in time to see this trio in conversation; as in 22:24, faithless sleep contrasts with faithful watchfulness.
Peter's wish to make three "dwellings" (tents) derives from his ignorance of what to make of the scene. His wish might indicate a misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus' messiahship, a hope that Jesus will bring the political deliverance associated with Moses and Elijah (the disciples maintain that hope in Acts 1:6). As they enter the cloud of God's presence, a voice tells them that Jesus is the one to listen to; he provides the basis for interpreting the law and the prophets even more than they provide the basis for interpreting him. Note that in the immediately preceding passage (Lk 9:18-27), Jesus had spoken of his impending suffering as the way to fulfill God's purpose, and had invited them to participate in his way. The voice confirms that Jesus' way is God's way.
The voice confirms the voice at Jesus' baptism, identifying Jesus as God's Son (3:22); now the disciples hear the identification. As the earlier voice expressed God's pleasure with the Son, this voice commands the disciples to listen to him. In combining "Son" and "Chosen" the voice also reflects the baptismal voice, where Messiah from Ps 2 and Servant from Is 42:1 are brought together in one person, Jesus. That combination moves messiahship away from the Davidic model toward that of suffering servant: Jesus is Messiah not as military and political ruler but as the Servant whom God exalts after he gives his life for others (Is 52:13-53:12).
HEALING THE DEMON-POSSESSED BOY
Peter wanted to stay on the mountain, in the midst of religious figures of the past and in the presence of the radiant Jesus. The disciples' task, however, like that of Jesus, was in the valley in the midst of suffering. As noted above, this story might have been placed after the mountain experience in order to emphasize that religious experience leads one back into and not out of the world of suffering humanity. The recognition of Jesus as Son of God should empower the healing of the nation, represented in this sick child. The anguished father pleads for his son, whose passivity indicates his inability to deal with what victimizes him.
Jesus' irritation or anger (v. 41) may be directed against the disciples, against the crowd, or against the demon. "This generation" suggests the whole set of circumstances in which the healing power of God is available, and yet the crowd and the disciples do not avail themselves of that power. They remain helpless rather than exercise the faith that could bring wholeness; thus their helplessness of culpable.