Transfiguration and the Prophetic Imagination

6 08 2009

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

– Matthew 17:1-5

Although I’ve always thought Peter’s suggestion (“Lord, let’s build three shelters”) is incredibly random and slightly ridiculous, I do understand the sentiment behind it–or at least, I thought I did.  This is a “mountaintop experience,” and Peter wants to hold onto the moment for as long as he can, as if by erecting tents he might be able to prolong the vision.  Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge the suggestion, because, of course, there’s work to be done below.

That’s the interpretation I’ve always heard.  However, if you could not tell from yesterday’s blog post, I am in the midst of reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination.  And as I made my way through the second chapter, I began thinking about the Transfiguration in a different light.  So here goes:

In Matthew 5, Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.  And previously, I thought chapter 17 was a pretty clear allusion to that fulfillment: Moses represented the Law, and Elijah represented the Prophets.  Obviously.

But Brueggemann expands the notion of prophecy to include Moses as a prophet, as well, and devotes the entire first chapter to the alternative consciousness that Moses represents, in complete opposition to the Egyptian empire.  The gods of the Egyptian empire were “static” — meaning, the religion existed only to serve the ruling elite.  Under such a system, the poor and oppressed — that is, the Israelite slaves — had no reason for hope; after all, if the gods were on Pharaoh’s side, why should they care about their plight?

But the Israelites cried out to the LORD, and he heard them.  And into this prosperous and stable empire entered a God who would change everything.  Omnipotent and all-knowing, this God answered to no one.  He did not confine himself to a temple or to the Pharaoh’s palace; he was, in Brueggemann’s word, free.  Free to do as he wished, free to answer the cries of the Israelites.

This God was a god of the wilderness.  He led his people through the wilderness, and in spite of their complaining and at times, lack of faith, they followed their God through the wilderness, hoping to reach the Promised Land.  His Ark of the Covenant lived in a tent, and that suited Him just fine.  He, of course, was not confined to a tent; he appeared in a burning bush, in a cloud of smoke, in a pillar of fire.

This was the community from which arose the prophet Moses.  This was the God for Whom he prophesied.

Fast-forward several hundred years.  God, of course, did not change; he never does.  But the community of Israel had left the wilderness and moved into the cities.  Against God’s wishes, they appointed a king and set up an empire.  They even built a temple for God within the city of Jerusalem.  They wanted their God to stay in one place, where he might be more manageable.  Brueggemann notes that “Solomon was able to counter completely the counterculture of Moses: 1. He countered the economics of equality with the economics of affluence … 2. He countered the politics of justice with the politics of oppression … 3. He countered the religion of God’s freedom with the religion of God’s accessibility.”

But, of course, God did not just go quietly into his little temple and stay there.  No, he commissioned prophets to confront the kingdom and imagine another consciousness for the people of Israel and their religion. This alternative consciousness was concerned with justice and with sacrifices that actually meant something; it recalled a time of wilderness for both God and His people.  These were the prophets who shaped our collective understanding of prophecy: Samuel, Nathan, Abijah, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, Daniel, Amos, etc.

And then we have this passage of the Transfiguration from Matthew 17.  What should we do with it? How should we understand Peter’s suggestion?

Like Moses and Elijah, Jesus spoke out against the prevailing culture and religion of his day.  Interestingly, he spoke often of the kingdom of God, even proclaiming that the “kingdom of God is at hand”   (Mark 1:15).  His audience loved it. They thought their Messiah was igniting a revolution against the ruling Romans and paving the way for Israel to re-establish its kingdom.  They expected a king-Messiah who would use force to take over and save them.

They were missing the point. And so was Peter. Whether consciously or not, I think Peter’s suggestion displays a Solomonic affinity for temple-building, for putting down roots and erecting long-lasting structures.  But the kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke was vastly different from the Davidic monarchy.  He had not come to build a temple: he was the temple (John 2:19), free to call and choose and love both Jews and Gentiles, and by so doing, to set them free, as well.  Like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus was in the business of proclaiming an alternative consciousness and an alternative kingdom.  His was the sort of counterculture that could — and can — only be found by stepping into the wilderness and meeting God there.

Listen to Him! Listen to his vision, his prophecy, his new Law, his transformative message! Listen to His voice, crying out in the wilderness to proclaim His kingdom! Listen!

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23 08 2009
Prophetic Imagination and the Lord’s Prayer « Creative Theology

[…] 5: Criticism and Pathos in Jesus of Nazareth.  Click for more food for thought about chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, or chapter […]

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