Paying Attention: context

TransfigMatthew 17:1–9  1 After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  2 And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.  3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.  4 Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  6 When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.  7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.”  8 And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.  9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”Not part of the Sunday Gospel but normally included with the other verses:
Then the disciples asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 He said in reply, “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; 12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Context. The “Transfiguration” is the traditional gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in Lent.  In the weeks of Ordinary Time between Christmas and Lent we read from Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5-7; Year A).  On the 1st Sunday in Lent we move “back” to Matthew 4 for the “Temptation/Testing” of Jesus in the wilderness – and now we “jump” ahead to Matthew 17.

Matthew 17 has many themes that are flowing around and through it.  Jesus and his disciples are no longer in Galilee – they have withdrawn to the area of Tyre and Sidon (15:21).  But they have not escaped on-going conflict with different sectors of secular and religious life.

Conflict is one of Matthew’s key themes which occur throughout the gospel. This key motif moves the plot and portrays the struggles involved in the advance of the Kingdom (cf. 11:12). At the outset of Matthew’s story, there was conflict between Herod the Great and the infant Messiah just born in Bethlehem (ch 2). John the Baptist announces Jesus and conflict arises between him and Israel’s religious leaders over genuine righteousness (3:7ff). Satan himself tries to tempt Jesus to gratify his human needs and accomplish his messianic mission in ways that were disobedient to the Father (4:1–11). Once Jesus’ public ministry began, his teaching about righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount clashed with that of the religious leaders (5:20–6:18), and the people were quick to pick up on the contrast (7:28–29). This led to further, more intense controversies about the forgiveness of sins (9:1–8) and Jesus’ associating with sinners (9:9–13). His ministry of exorcism led to the Pharisees’ charges that he was collaborating with the devil (9:34; 12:22–24). Soon he had to warn his followers that their ministries would be attended with much opposition (10:16ff; cf. 24:9). Many of the people who heard Jesus’ teaching and saw his miracles did not repent and follow him, and he denounced them for their unbelief (11:16–24). The rules of Sabbath observance occasioned a heated dispute (12:1–14); and after that, skeptical religious leaders with evil motives asked Jesus for a sign (12:38; cf. 16:1–4). Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of Heaven also spoke of conflict engendered by varying responses to the message of the Kingdom (13:19–21, 38–39). Even the people in his own synagogue in Nazareth did not believe in his message (13:53–58). Jesus’ teaching about inner purity clashed with the Pharisaic tradition of ritual purity through washing hands before meals (15:1–20; cf. 16:5–12).

Yet Jesus draws the good from the conflict: he prepares his disciples for mission (Mt 10) and for leadership following his own eventual departure.  A key aspect of that preparation is that the disciples clearly know the identity of Jesus:

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:13–21)

With Jesus’ identity confirmed among the disciples, their formation continues. R.T. France refers to the section surrounding our gospel readings as “Private Ministry In Galilee: Preparing The Disciples” and outlines it as follows:

A.  Teaching on Jesus’ mission (16:21–17:27)

  1. First announcement of Jesus’ suffering and death (16:21–23)
  2. Discipleship will also involve suffering (16:24–28)
  3. A vision of Jesus’ glory (17:1–13)  <—- our reading
  4. The power of faith (17:14–20)
  5. Second announcement of Jesus’ suffering and death (17:22–23)
  6. The question of the temple tax (17:24–27)

B.  Teaching on relationships among the disciples (18:1–35)

  1. True greatness (18:1–5)
  2. On stumbling-blocks (18:6–9)
  3. Care for the ‘little ones’ (18:10–14)
  4. ‘If your brother sins …’ (18:15–20)
  5. Forgiving personal offenses (18:21–35)

At the beginning of Mt 19, Jesus and the disciples return to Judea.

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