Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, Matthew 17:1-9, March 20, 2011
Transformed was how his mother described Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi when she visited her at a Islamic boarding school in east Java. According to Simon Elegant (in his article, “Untangling the Web” in Time magazine), when she brought her his favorite food, her son told her that he was fasting, even though it was not a fasting month. Feeling proud that her son chose to live piously, she cried. The school where Fathur got his piety and brand of religion was founded by Abubakar Ba’asyer, a Islamic cleric believed to be a leader of a network of terrorist cells called Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian version of al-Queda, with possible links to Osama bin Laden. Fathur is believed to be responsible for a bombing spree in Manila that killed 22 people and injured 80. Comments Time: “Fathur absorbed enough of Abubakar’s ideology to choose a path that would eventually lead him to the prison cell in Manila army headquarters where he now resides awaiting trial, a sentence of death hanging over him.” A somewhat similar transformation occurred to John Lindh, a 20-year old American who sought himself and by June last year “had become so passionate about radical Islam that he went to Afghanistan to join the Taliban.” Calling himself Abdul Hamid, he was training at a camp run by al-Queda. If the Hindus could say that “you are what you eat,” both Fathur and Lindh confirm the theory that “you are what you listen to.” In a sense, one can always attribute what they became to the word they absorbed from those who had it.
In a way, the people of Israel could be described in that manner. If they were constituted as God’s people, it is because they listened to his word, and that call began with Abraham: “The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you…’ Abram went as the Lord directed him.” (Gen 12:1-4, First Reading). It was because Abraham listened to Yahweh that God was able to create in him a great nation. And the future of Israel as a nation was defined by its ability to hearken to him: “Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. This is what you must tell the Israelites” (Exod 19:5-6). Of course, God has no mouth; so, if they were to become what they ought to be, they must listen to Moses, through whom God has spoken. Of course, Moses was not always with them; but what God has spoken through him became the Law, which for the Jews was God’s expression of his very will. That is why for them the Law held a central place in their life as a people, for it defined their way of life, and therefore they must listen to it if they wished to see the fulfillment of God’s promises: “You (must) carry every word of this law. For this is no trivial matter for you; rather, it means your very life, since it is by this means that you are to enjoy long life on the land…” (Deut 32:46c-47a).
But who should the Christian community listen to? In today’s Gospel, Matthew gives us an account of the transfiguration of the Lord (Matt 17:1-7). This event, in which Jesus changed his appearance, his face as dazzling as the sun, his clothes as radiant as white, is really an epiphany story—Jesus unveiled to his chosen three disciples his glory shining through his human body, transforming even his clothes! Jesus was beheld as he truly was. Matthew utilized this story to confirm Peter’s confession of Jesus’ messiahship, linking the suffering Son of Man with the glorious Son of God. But what is of relevance for our purpose is the appearance of Moses and Elijah. In the Old Testament, both Moses and Elijah received word or revelation from God. Moreover, God promised to raise someone like Moses (Deut 18:15) and to send Elijah (Mal 2:23) in the last days. Since the Scriptures note that the present constitutes the last days, the appearance of these two men signifies that Jesus is the promised prophet-like Moses and the Elijah who returned. This easily fits well with the claim that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17). In other words, all this means that God today speaks to us through Jesus. Thus, “in times past God spoke in fragmentary and various ways to our fathers through the prophets; in this the final age, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb 1:1). No wonder that in today’s epiphany of Jesus, God informs us who Christians should listen to: “This is my beloved Son on whom my favor rests. Listen to him” (Matt 7:5b). It does not mean, of course, that the Christian community no longer listens to Moses; but it means, though, that it finds the completion and fulfillment of Moses’ word in Jesus, and understands Moses in relation to Jesus, not apart from him.
The Christian community, then, is a community because it received word from Jesus; it is his word that formed it, and continues to inform it. The Christian community is therefore a people of the word. This means not only that it lends it an attentive ear, but also opens its heart to it and puts it into practice: “Anyone who hears my words and puts them into practice is like the wise man who built his house on rock” (Matt 7:24). Precisely because it is a people of the word, it is obedient to that word, and it is this obedience to the word, which Paul calls obedience of faith (Rom 1:5; 10:14-16), that transfigures the community. By word, Matthew of course means not only what Jesus has spoken, but also what he did, and especially what he preached (Matt 5-7). By putting the word in its life and practice, the community is changed into the likeness of Jesus in such a way that it really becomes of body of Christ, sharing his life and destiny. If the teaching of Abubakar can be seen in the action of Fathur, the word of Christ shines through in the community that transforms it into his very word. The community itself becomes a living word of Jesus. It would be unfortunate if a Christian community determines its life by what it reads even from well-known authors of books or from politicians and social or political commentators, for it will be judged on the basis of that word: “If anyone in this faithless and corrupt age is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes with the holy angels in his Father’s glory” (Mark 8:38).