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Exegesis for the Christian Year by Henry Gustafson


Henry A. Gustafson is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minn. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. This article appeared in No Other Foundation , Summer, l998, pp. 5-10. Copyright by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Gospel for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: Mark 9:2-9


Two lines in this narrative provide the foci around which the author’s thought can be examined. They are: "It is well that we are here," and "This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!"

In the first of these the reader sees Peter still wrestling with the issues which had been brought to light in the previous narrative. Therein, at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-38), the questions of "Who is Jesus?" and "What is a disciple?" had been given ominous answers. Jesus was presented as the Son of Man who was to suffer and die, and his followers, the disciples, were to share in his suffering. They were to lose their lives for his sake and the gospel’s.

The protest of Peter’s, that such a future for Jesus, God’s messiah, was impossible, was interpreted as a temptation. Jesus’ response to that temptation was "Get behind me, Satan!" And to that he added his belief that not only would he suffer, but they would too.

This Caesarea Philippi narrative is linked by the gospel writer to the text in Mark 9:2-9. The transfiguration narrative begins with a time reference: "six days later." What took place then is to be understood with the earlier experience at Caesarea Philippi in mind.

"Six days later" Jesus took his disciples Peter, James and John, "up a high mountain apart." Why? Mark isn’t explicit about this here, but the purpose of a similar visit mentioned in Mark 6:46 is clear. There Mark says that Jesus "went up on the mountain to pray." Luke (9:28) states that was also Jesus’ purpose on this occasion, when he, according to Mark, was transfigured. And readers familiar with the biblical tradition are not surprised. The mountain was a place where often God was encountered. (cf. e.g., Exod. 34:29-35; 1 Kings 19:8, 11; Matt. 28:16.) And in Mark’s ongoing narrative it was understandable that the tempted Jesus should have felt the need for such an encounter, both for himself and for his disciples.

Further, such an action was consistent with Jesus’ practice. He was a person of prayer. He came from a people who emphasized its importance as a way of opening up to the will of God. Like them he most probably recited the Shema every morning and evening (cf. Deut. 6:4 and 5-7; Mk. 12:29) and the Tephilla (a string of benedictions, cf. Mk. 12:26) at three separate times during the day (cf. Dan. 6:10, 13; Acts 3:1). And in addition to these there appear to have been numerous times that he responded to a felt need in prayer (Mk. 1:35; 14:32).

On the occasion described in our text Mark says Jesus "was transfigured" before them. The literal meaning of the Greek word translated "transfigured" suggests that he "assumed a different form." But a literal interpretation is not indicated here. Certainly Luke’s parallel text doesn’t view the event as a literal "transfiguration" or "transformation." He doesn’t use that Greek word. Rather, he simply interprets the happening on that mountain. It was like that which happened to Moses on another mountain when "the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God" (Exod. 34:29). Elsewhere in the New Testament that Greek word is used metaphorically to describe the spiritual "transformation" of believers into the likeness of Christ (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). Thus these texts indicate that whether speaking of this experience of Jesus or of later Christian followers the word could be used metaphorically to point to a relationship with God -- "transfiguring" or "transforming" relationship.

In Mark’s Gospel the statement about Jesus’ transfiguration is followed by a reference to Elijah and Moses. How were these persons involved in his relationship to God? Some believe that the priority of Elijah in Mark’s narrative shows that the Jewish expectation regarding the end time was uppermost in Mark’s mind. In the biblical narrative, Elijah was translated directly from earth to heaven (2 Kings 2:11) and by many in the first century world he was expected to return soon (cf. Mal. 4:5f). The role of Moses in first century eschatology was not so well developed though some rabbis taught that he, too, went directly into heaven. After all, his burial place was not known (Deut. 34:6; cf. also The Assumption of Moses). In any case, the appearance of Elijah and Moses in our text is thought to point to Jesus as God’s eschatological prophet who also would be assumed into heaven and then would return at the end of time.

Luke offers another suggestion. He declares that the subject of the conversation of Jesus, Moses and Elijah was the "departure (exodon) which he [Jesus] was to accomplish in Jerusalem." This view picks up the motif of the passion prediction at Caesarea Philippi and was carried forward in the thought of the Early Church as it speaks of Jesus as a servant who "became obedient to the point of death -- even death on the cross" (Phil. 2:8).

Another possible interpretation of the relevance of those names to Jesus’ relationship to God emphasizes the representative character of these persons. Using the order found in Matthew and Luke, "Moses and Elijah," they are viewed as representatives of the "law and the prophets." These, the law and the prophets, were their scriptures, and were of great importance to both Jesus and his disciples. They had been taught from childhood to search their scriptures to learn the will of God for their lives.

Each of these interpretations is possible. However, it is in the light of the last possibility and of its relevance to the emphasis upon spirituality in our culture today that I suggest we consider Peter’s response. If the phrase "Moses and Elijah" refers to the "law and the prophets," then we may imagine Jesus in the immediate context opening to the disciples the scriptures in a way that would account for Peter’s words: "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here."

This positive response to Jesus’ interpretation of their scriptures is posited elsewhere in. the gospels. In Luke’s narrative of the Emmaus Road experience, we have an example: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" (cf. Lk. 24:32, 45).

That Jesus sought help from the scriptures for understanding his life and mission is clear. He knew how to listen to them and how to interpret them in relation to their own highest utterances (cf. Mk. 2:25; 12:29-31). For him they were not merely sources in the present (cf. Matt. 9:13; 12:7). They spoke of God as our creator, sustainer, and redeemer; the loving giver of bread and forgiveness and protection from evil; the One who calls humans into relationships of love to Himself, to their neighbors, to their worlds, and to themselves.

Along with Jesus and Peter, Christians have discovered the inspirational value to their scriptures. They have found the Bible to be a "soul-book," a book which deals with issues of life and death, of good and evil, of sin and guilt, of love, forgiveness, and freedom; a book of guidance and inspiration.

In our text, it appears that Peter was moved by the way in which Jesus interpreted these scriptures. Listening with at least part of his mind to Jesus’ "conversation" with these sources, he declared: "It is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Staying up there on the mountain with Jesus and those sacred sources was for Peter like attending some spiritual retreat for the modern Christian: the quiet time, the holy place, the aids to worship: stained glass windows, helpful spiritual directors, rich meditations, prayers and songs, celebrating with thanksgiving the gifts of forgiveness, acceptance and freedom.

But there may be a problem here. Is Mark suggesting that this was Peter’s way around the rebuke he had earlier received from Jesus? If he, Peter, could keep Jesus on the mountain, at prayer, interpreting the scriptures, perhaps he wouldn’t need to worry about the ominous possibility of a Messiah who suffers and who calls his followers to share his cross. But no matter what was Peter’s intention, it was clear to Mark that the divine will lay in another direction. For as he reports it, from an overshadowing cloud came a voice. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him." And what had the Son said? "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it."

Not infrequently in our spiritual quests, we Christians try to find life in the reading of scripture and meditative prayer, only to discover the practice lacks vitality and that life eludes us. Numerous observers of this phenomenon have said that a reason for this lack of life and vitality in meditative prayer is that we separate it from action (cf. John 5:39). But these must not be separated. How well we care about our neighbor is as vital to the spiritual quest as what we do when we are turning inward, in our quiet time. Prayer that does not make a difference in the character or our outward life loses its vigor. A pious life may flourish for a brief time, but unless it leads to a more caring and responsible relationship with other human beings and to efforts to change conditions that cause human need and suffering, it will most likely not endure.

With the injunction of the heavenly voice in Mark’s narrative, the spiritual retreat, the time of prayer, had come to an end. The disciples were with Jesus only and he led them down the mountain to a world in need where "on the next day" (Luke) they were confronted with human misery and with a call for help (Mk.9:14-29).

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