Moses and Elijah

This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Lent in Lectionary Cycle C taken from the Gospel of Luke 9:28-32 describing the Transfiguration of Jesus:  And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (vv.30-31)

The presence of Elijah and Moses has been much discussed by various scholars. (1) Do they represent the different kinds of life endings (burial versus being taken up to God)? (2) Is their presence an indication of endorsement by great prophets and wonderworkers of old? (3) Is Jesus the fulfillment of the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) – and so listen to him? (4) Or is it that Moses points to the expected great-prophet-like Moses, while Elijah suggests the eschaton’s (end days) arrival – roles fulfilled in Jesus.

One should be aware, that although Luke is not writing for a Jewish audience as is Matthew, Luke makes the Moses connection explicit in various texts (Acts 3:18-22; 7:35-37), while Elijah is consistently a figure of eschatological hope (Lk 1:16-17, when John the Baptist is pictured as such a figure). When Luke does associate Elijah with Jesus, it is to cast Jesus as one who, like Elijah, engages in a prophetic ministry in which the power of God is active on behalf of those not normally regarded as the elect—that is, Gentiles, Samaritans, and the poor. Moses is also portrayed along dual lines—first in his identification with the law of God (e.g., 2:22), but more pervasively as the great prophet of God.

The two may also have christological significance in that Jesus has demonstrated his mastery over the sea and fed the multitude in the wilderness (fulfilling the pattern of Moses at the exodus) and has multiplied loaves, cleansed lepers, and raised the dead (fulfilling the prophetic works of Elijah and Elisha). It should be noted that Moses and Elijah also appear “in glory” seemingly indicating that they share a status of those who belong to the heavenly court – and, unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke gives us some indication of the topic of conversation: “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

Luke seems to draw specific reference to the Exodus story (esp. Exodus 24–34)—for example, the presence of companions, the setting on a mountain, the explicit mention of Moses, Jesus’ change of countenance, reference to tents (or tabernacles), the cloud, the motif of fear, the clear allusion to Dt 18:15 (“Listen to him”).

I would suggest that the intent is to frame Jesus’ story as also an epic story of freedom from bondage; this time a new Exodus. Recall Jesus’ “mission statement”:  18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” The event suggests two great periods of Israel’s history, the exodus and the end-time hope of deliverance. (Luke 4:18-19). “Consequently, the transfiguration scene calls upon this choir of voices especially to stress the image of Jesus as liberator from bondage, his ministry as one of release from captivity in all its guises. How is this release accomplished? Clearly, release has already been available in Jesus’ itinerant ministry in Galilee and in the extension of that ministry in the missionary activity of the twelve. Luke’s account of the transfiguration does nothing to discount the effectiveness of Jesus’ powerful ministry of liberation heretofore, but does go on to intimate the redemptive power of his upcoming journey through death to exaltation.” [Green, 379]

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