Gospel (Cycle A): Matthew 17:1-9

Seeing Is Believing

What things continue to amaze people, in spite of scepticism?

As the old saying goes: “Seeing is believing.” People love to entertained with the spectacular and the unusual. Illusionists and magicians prosper from the seemingly impossible and improbable.

A gloss reading of this gospel tempts us to place the Transfiguration in the stories of the amazing. That, however, would do an injustice to the impact of the story. For its impact lies not in the appearance of Jesus (as important as that was) but in the faith life of the Peter, James, and John.

Popular Translation

Peter declared Jesus was the Messiah. 1 Six days later, Jesus led Peter, James, and James’ brother John up a mountain, so they could be alone. 2 There, Jesus changed right in front of them. His face shined like the sun. And his clothes were as white as sunlight. 3 Suddenly, the three followers saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. 4 Peter spoke up, “Lord! We’re lucky to be here! If you want, I’ll pitch three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

5 While Peter was speaking, suddenly a light-filled cloud covered them. Just as suddenly, a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is the Son I love. He pleases me. So listen to him.”

6 When they heard the voice, the three followers were so afraid, they fell down and put their faces on the ground. 7 Jesus came up and touched them. “Don’t be afraid. Get up!” Jesus said. 8 When they looked up, they didn’t see anyone else but Jesus. 9 As they climbed down the mountain, Jesus gave them an order. “Don’t tell anyone what you saw until God raises the Son of Man from the dead.”

After the Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus led the earliest followers up a mountain to reveal his place before the Father.

Literal Translation

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter responded, “You are the Christ!”

1 After six days, JESUS took Peter, James, and John, his brother, and led them up to a high mountain (top) by themselves. 2 HE changed before them. HIS face shone like the sun, and his clothing became white as (sun) light. 3 Look! Moses and Elijah, talking to HIM, appeared to them. 4 Answering, Peter said to JESUS, “Lord, it is fortunate for us to be here. If you desire, I will pitch three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was speaking, Look! a bright cloud overshadowed them, and Look! there was a voice out of the cloud, saying “This is my SON, my BELOVED, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to HIM.” 6 Hearing (the voice), the disciples fell on their faces and feared greatly. 7 JESUS approached and, touching them, said, “Rise up. Do not be afraid.” 8 Lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, only except Jesus. 9 As they descended the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell no one the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”

17:2 “changed” is literally “metamorphorized” in Greek. The Latin word (which has made its way into English) is “transfigured.” The change is described as light, which reflected the appearance of God in Psalm 104:1b-2a

O Lord my God, thou art very great!
Thou art clothed with honor and majesty,
who coverest thyself with light as with a garment. (RSV)

17:3, 5 “Look!” was emphatic sign. The three events Matthew emphasized were 1) the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus, 2) the bright cloud, and 3) the voice from the cloud. Each “Look!” signaled a point of revelation. Notice, the transfiguration in Matthew (17:2) led up to these three points. The change of Jesus was a means to an end for Matthew, not an end in itself.

17:4 “...it is fortunate for us to be here...” The word fortunate is literally “good.” Peter either referred to the joy they felt at seeing the revelation (“It feels good for us to be here”) or the obligation to serve at the sight of a revelation (“we are fortunate to be here, so we can serve all of you”). In light of the Peter’s suggestion to pitch three tents, the later interpretation seemed to be the one intended.

17:5 “bright cloud” paralleled the transfiguration of Jesus in 17:2. The presence of God is symbolized in light (Jesus’ change and the bright cloud).

“This is my Son, my beloved...” the term “beloved” can either be translated as a noun (“my Son, my Beloved One”) or an adjective (“my beloved Son”).

17:6 The fear caused the disciples to fall to the ground, not the other way around.

Jesus took three of his first disciples he called (and his closest friends) up to the mountain top. [17:1] In Matthew’s gospel, the mountain symbolized key moments in the life of Jesus. Jesus was tempted on a mountain (Matt. 4:1-11). He proclaimed the core of his teaching (the Beatitudes sermon) from a mount (Matt. 5:1-7:29). He prayed to the Father on high mountains (Matt. 14:23). He was betrayed by Judas on a mount (Matt. 26:30-56). A key moment on the mountain would change his relationship with these men.

In a heart beat, the face of Jesus revealed the Father’s glory as the Son. [17:2] More than any other part of the body, the face reveals the person through the words spoken and through facial expression. Here, however, Jesus did not simply reveal his mind, will, or character. He showed his disciples the who the Father really was. The words Jesus spoke were the words of the Father. The love shown in the face of Jesus revealed the Father’s love. Jesus and the Father were one because Jesus was truly the Father’s Son. The voice from heaven affirmed Jesus as the revelation of the Father when it said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” [17:5]

Not only did the appearance of Jesus reveal the Father, the moment of glory revealed who the Father was. The God of Israel acted in the events of history. He differed from the gods the pagans found in constant cycles of nature. From the call of Abraham through the freedom of Exodus and the kingship of David, YHWH intervened and changed the course of human history. This moment of transfiguration would sum up all God had done with the appearance of Moses (who represented the Jewish Law) and Elijah (who represented the prophets). [17:3] Since “the Law and the prophets” were code words for the Hebrew bible, Moses the Law-giver and Elijah the Prophet were living, breathing Scripture. Because Jesus stood with the two men, he stood at the core of the Bible’s revelation. All of Scripture focused upon Jesus. This moment revealed the Father acting through Jesus. This moment revealed Jesus as God’s chosen, the Messiah.

Realizing the importance of the moment, Peter suggested they build three booths in honor of the men. [17:4] The booths alluded to the festival of Sukkoth (also called the feast of Tabernacles or of Booths). Originally the fall harvest festival, Sukkoth evolved into a celebration of the Exodus (see Leviticus 23:39). The faithful lived in temporary booths that represented the shelter God provided the Israelites in the wilderness. Since travel was an underlining theme, Sukkoth became one of the three major feasts for pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So, Peter’s request for the booths foreshadowed Jesus’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The disciples fell prostate when the shining cloud overshadowed them and the heavenly voice boomed like thunder. [17:5-6] Living in semi-arid conditions, the Israelites needed the life-giving rain clouds brought. So, clouds represented the creative and powerful presence of God. Masked in a cloud, YHWH led the Israelites through the desert. Now a voice from the cloud identified Jesus as the Father’s Son and commanded the disciples to hear him. The disciples could now find God’s word, indeed his very presence, in Jesus. They no longer needed the power of a cloud to encounter the Father.

After the powerful revelation, Jesus calmed the fears of disciples, just as he would after he rose from the dead (see Matthew 28:10). As Jesus revealed God’s power, so he would comfort with God’s peace. But, both God’s power and his peace would not come in its fullness until the resurrection. So, Jesus instructed the disciples to remain silent until then. [17:7-9]

Catechism Themes: The Transfiguration (CCC 554-556) and The Revelation of God (CCC 51-67)

The Transfiguration was a moment of revelation, a grace-filled moment of clarity for the disciples. But it was only a moment along the journey of their lives.

The all-powerful and unknowable God revealed himself gradually to his people. God showed himself through the majesty and beauty of his creation. In spite of humanity’s sin and folly, God still revealed his care for all creatures. He made covenants with the upright, like Noah and Abraham. He blessed his people with a leader, (Moses), a Law, and a Land. He sent judges to seek the right, kings to rule with honor, and prophets to return the lost. Along the way, there were divine moments of great clarity.

All of God’s activity points to Jesus, for he sums up the totality of God’s revelation. In Christ, we know the Father intimately. In Christ, we know his Word, his will, his purpose. In Christ, we know his love. Like the Transfiguration, we may see our life with the Father in Christ snap into focus. But, there will be other times away from the mountain, times of struggle and darkness, times of reflection and prayer. We need this time to fully realize so overwhelming a gift as the Father’s grace.

Just as in our lives, so to the Church needs time to unfold the full value of God’s revelation in Christ. The totality of revelation lies in the Church, but its significance has not been made fully explicit. While revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, the Church constantly realizes and proclaims anew what intimacy with the Father in Christ truly means. The Church proclaims Christ’s transfiguration as it is transfigured by God’s grace.

How has God called to me in my life? What changes do I see now from his call?

Yes, the transfiguration amazed Peter, James, and John. The amazement, however, led to fear of losing control and the peace that came with trusting God, not the entertaining awes of simple disbelief. The amazement helped change Jesus disciples from common fishermen to uncommon apostles.

As Jesus reveals himself to us (as he did to the three disciples), he changes us. Revelation can shake us up. It can mean losing control of a situation, only to be opened to new opportunities of grace. In small ways and large, Jesus constantly calls to us for a deeper walk with him. Do we heed the call and take the chance?

How is God calling me now? What can I do to hear that call?