Lectionary commentary: second Sunday of Lent, year A

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READINGS

A reading from the book of Genesis, 12:1-4

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 33:4-5. 18-20. 22 R/. v. 22

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy, 1:8-10

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 17:1-9



Last Sunday the first reading was from the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. The myth of a garden of Eden, its two habitants, a talking serpent, and a concerned God invite us to meditate on the realities of human existence. We who walk the ways of this earth do not walk the way of God. Men and women, indeed, creation itself, is not a true reflection of the image and likeness of God. To be sure, humanity has eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But unfortunately, the myth underlines the sad fact the we have not eaten of the tree of life, the tree that would have given immortality. We must always remember the ending of the story:

The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

Then the
Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Genesis 3:22-24

Yet the Lord God has not left humanity. For the whole of creation is forever God’s concern. So our reading from the Book of Genesis today jumps over the troubles and tribulations of human existence and the violence and corruption that mar the face of the earth. Our Lectionary does not present some very essential elements in the myth which must be recognised if we are to understand the call of Abraham.

This is what God said to Noah when recommending him to build a boat:

I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.

Genesis 6:13-14

We all know the story of the Ark. But when the rain ended, the birds flew off to build their nests, and Noah built an altar and offered a thanksgiving sacrifice. But the outcome of all these events is beyond amazement:

the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

Genesis 8:21-22

What have we here? We gave God making,

AN ACT OF REPENTANCE

and

A FIRM PURPOSE OF AMENDMENT.

Blessing flow from the repentant God:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

Genesis 9:1

But the killing must stop; there is no room for violence:

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

Genesis 9:6

Then our myth with its blessings concludes with great hope and heartfelt thanks. It is the first covenant, the first expression of God’s determination to be with us, to be a safeguard for all flesh that is on the earth. Before we come to the call of Abraham and to the covenant embracing the people of Israel, it is important to meditate deeply on God’s promise to the whole of humanity. The paragraph is long but it is what the Lord God found in his repentant heart and declared to every man, woman, and child who will ever walk on the face of the earth. Our myth may be an imaginary story but it does what myths in our Bible do. It speaks utter unchangeable truth:

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.

Genesis 9:8-17

When I meditate on the Noah story with its boat and its covenant I cannot stop my head reminding me of the words of a spiritual song that comes from below the Mason-Dixon line in the United States:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign:
No more water!
The fire next time!

A reminder that we are made in the image and likeness of God and that means every human being is born into responsibilities.



A reading from the book of Genesis 12:1-4

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the
Lord had told him.

The word of the Lord.

We have listened to or read the mythical account of creation and the succession of events that followed the fall from grace. That is, we have mythical accounts of the beginning of the world, of the origins of the world’s people and animals and the outbreak of disobedience, failure, and violence (Genesis 1-11). Now the story turns from the beginning of the world to the beginning of Israel. The rest of our Bible’s story concerns all that follows from the call of Abraham to the creation of a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). In other words, at Genesis 11 we leave the past and embrace the future.

Notice that we are in the realm of promise:

I will show you …
I will make you …

I will bless those …

I will curse …

All the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Turn back to the myth of the serpent, the man, and the woman:

Because you have done this,
Cursed
are you
of all cattle
and all beasts of the field.

I will terribly sharpen your birth pangs,

In pain shall you bear
children.
And for your man you shall have longing,

and he shall rule over you.

Cursed
be the soil for your sake,
with pangs shall you eat from it
all the days of your life.
Thorn and thistle shall it sprout for you,
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you shall you eat bread
till you return to the soil,
for from there you were taken,
for dust you are and to dust shall you return.


The letter to Hebrew Christians

As the end of the New Testament draws near the author of the Letter to Hebrew Christians provides an insight into what it is that began with Abraham:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

Hebrews 11:8-12

Today’s reading from Genesis is a beginning. We will understand that beginning the better byr reminding ourselves of its ending. The faith of Abraham and Sarah, our father and mother in faith was bedded in promises:

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:39-40

But most good stories must have a happy ending:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2

When we read of Abraham, the founder of our faith, we must look to the perfecter of our faith who for us and for all humanity has endured the cross and gone to the right hand of the Father.



Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 33:4-5. 18-20. 22 R/. v. 22

R/. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.

For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice
;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. R/.

Behold, the eye of the
Lord is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
that he may deliver their soul from death

and keep them alive in famine. R/.

Our soul waits for the
Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you. R/.

Notice the plural pronouns. It is “us” upon whom we pray God’s steadfast love may descend. “We” declare our hope in the Lord. It is “we” who “wait for the Lord. We are all invited to sing a new song.

So the psalm sounds like a hymn, and a hymn is meant to be sung by a choir or any crowd of prayerful people. The song is a joyous shout for all that the Lord has done; his steadfast love fills the earth. This is the Lord who, by his word, made the heavens and the earth. There is a reminder here of Genesis 1:1-3 where God called the earth into being by speaking his word (and notice John 1:1-2).

Every heart longs for the Lord’s steadfast love. “With every breath” (“our soul” is how some English translations render this this) we wait for the Lord for the Lord is our help and our shield. What we yearn for beyond all other desire is “steadfast love”.



A reading from the second letter of St. Paul to Timothy, 1:8-10

D
o not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

The word of the Lord.

While there is almost insuperable evidence to establish that St. Paul did not write the First Letter to Timothy, nor the Second Letter to Timothy, nor the Letter to Titus, there can be no doubt that they are Pauline. By that I mean that they were written by disciples of the great apostle. That is, they were written by people who were close to Paul and determined to reflect Paul’s teaching but in response to rapid development of Christian teaching and the emergence of oversight of Christian communities.

It is clear from the authentic letters of St. Paul that he was the authority over the communities he founded. It is equally clear that in the generations immediately following the apostle’s death (in Rome around 64 A.D.) these letters were composed and issued by people devoted to Paul’s teaching and yet aware of necessary developments in the face of new understanding and new circumstances. Composing letters as if they came from the hand of Paul may appear a deception. But we should be more concerned with content rather than with authorship (important that that may be).

First, the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are anonymous. The Gospels themselves to not name their authors and names were not attached to them until late in the second century. The Acts of the Apostles is anonymous. So is the Letter to Hebrew Christians, and others besides. Truth to tell, we know very little about almost all the people whose names are attached to what we proclaim to be the word of the Lord.

What the so-called Pauline letters claim is not that their authors wished to pretend that the letters came from the hand of Paul but that they represented the authentic teaching of the apostle. These authors were convinced that their interpretation of Paul’s teaching was true to Paul and, as it were, made Paul present to generations after his death.

What is important, it seems to me, is not endless argument as to who wrote these letters. The more sensible questions are whether the letters truly represent Pauline understanding of the Lord Jesus and whether their application of that teaching to subsequent generations after his death is consonant with the faith evident in the passionate authentic writings of the great man, our greatest pastor and theologian (in that order). I do not think that the earliest readers and hearers of these letters would have been deceived. Rather they would have treasured the letters as somehow making Paul more present to them and to cherish an application of his teaching to new times and new places. I believe that II Timothy was written by someone close to Paul and that it comes in the wake of Paul’s recent death. Clearly, its author knew Paul well in the last days of the apostle’s imprisonment, and was deeply grateful to have known and loved his father in Christ.


The Gospel of Life

This letter reflects the last days of Paul’s imprisonment, a time of suffering and loneliness. In the darkness of prison Paul is allowed to speak in his own voice, given to us in the memory of a dear friend. As usual the opening greeting records Paul’s utter commitment as an apostle of Christ Jesus. It is worth attending to these opening words:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God
according to the promise
of the life that is in Christ Jesus;
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father
and Christ Jesus our Lord.

Notice the faith of the man. He knows his vocation is to be an apostle called to proclaim Christ Jesus to the world. He knows, too, that that vocation is God-given. He proclaims that what we receive from God through Jesus is “the promise of life”, not an extension of human existence, but a participation in the very life of Jesus in God. Therefore Paul can greet his “beloved child, Timothy” naming what God has given to him, and, thereby naming us as recipients of the same gifts:

Grace, mercy, and peace,
from God the Father and Christ Jesus,
our Lord.

There is, then, no cause to be ashamed of the witness of Paul to what Timothy has heard, knows and believes about the Lord. (The Greek word for “witness” used in this verse is marturion and you can see that it hints at the witness a martyr gives to faith.) The gospel is a light, a witness to God’s victory won through the life and death of Jesus. In his dying our dying has been transformed into life, into immortality. For this Christ Jesus is our Saviour. The gospel is not just a collection of words. It is an effective declaration of God’s intent to see us safely home. God’s gracious intent, his love, and mercy take us to a place of peace, even while we are immersed in the pain of the world.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 17:1-9

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

The Gospel of the Lord.

[A note: Our Lectionary often omits the first words of a reading in order to make sense of an opening sentence. The opening sentence of today’s reading begins And after six days . This, our Lectionary compilers decided, confuses matters. Six days after what? So it leaves out the introductory words. Unfortunately this seriously diminishes the impact of the reading.


Transfigured before them

Both Mark, Matthew, and Luke include the Transfiguration story in their Gospels. Each begins with an indication of time:

And after six days …

Mark 9:2

And after six days …


Matthew 17:1

Now about eight days after these things …

Luke 9:28

Why were these Gospel writers intent on beginning the story with a reference to the days that preceded the event? And we must notice that these three writers were not given to giving their readers and hearers chronological information. There are very few such informative notices even in the telling of the story of the passion and death of Jesus. So why here?

There is a reason, one that will spring only to minds that know their Bible and we can be certain that these three Gospel-makers were more than casually acquainted with the Holy Scriptures. The relevant quotation is this:

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.

Exodus 24:15-16

It is Matthew’s intention to incite his readers and hearers to interpret his account of the Transfiguration through the lens of what the Hebrew Bible records of Moses meeting with God on the mountain. God spoke to Moses out of the cloud and Matthew’s account is careful to tell his readers and hearers that the voice spoke to Peter, James and John out of the bright cloud that overshadowed them. What Matthew is careful to do here is what he does throughout his Gospel. He reminds the Jewish Christians in Antioch of their glorious heritage as God’s holy people, while at the same time encouraging those pagans who have become Christians of the wonder of the God who has embraced them with God’s steadfast love. The Gospel of Matthew is radiated with the light of the Pentateuch, the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

While some of the men Jesus first called are the very men who graduated to become the Twelve, we know little if anything about most of them. Though Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Acts list the Twelve, they do not agree on their names. We know much about about Judas; we have considerable information about Peter, not only from the Gospels but from the Acts of the Apostles and the writings of St Paul (especially Galatians). We are sketchily informed about John, the more so if he is the one who wrote the Gospel of John and who appears as “the beloved disciple” (both of which I doubt profoundly). Of the other eight we have a mixture of names and nothing else. What part they played in the earliest proclamation of the gospel of God we have not the slightest idea.


Being transfigured

It is worth noting the precision of the language: he was transfigured before them. The verb is in the passive voice. Who is it that transfigured Jesus? The answer, of course, is God. It is not only that his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. These are the outer manifestations of the inner incarnate divine glory. What is concealed is revealed on the mountain. Here are a few interesting and informative sentences:

Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

II Corinthians 3:15-18

Paul understands that whenever Moses (that is, the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, the Torah) is read the glory of God does not shine through the words. For Moses himself put a veil over his face so that the people could not perceive the glory of God. For Paul, the truth of the matter was that their mjnds were hardened. God did not permit that divine glory be revealed to them. It is the Lord Jesus who removes the veil. Indeed, the comments of Paul on the veil and the unveiling may be taken as an accurate statement of Matthew’s understanding. He points his Jewish Christian Jews to Moses, the books and the person, but he stresses that for them and for Gentile converts the fullness of God’s glory is revealed in the Lord Jesus. What Paul wrote, nearly fifty years before Matthew penned his Gospel, eloquently expresses the very heart of the Gospel according to Matthew:

But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

II Corinthians 3:16-18


Moses and Elijah

Why Moses and Elijah? Many commentators suggest that Moses represents Torah, the covenant Law, that is, all the teaching that embraced Israel’s faith. Elijah, a most distinguished prophet in the Hebrew Bible, is a prophet who did not die but was taken into the heavens in a fiery chariot. It is Elijah, according to the prophet Malachi, who will usher in the great and awesome day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5). In other words, Elijah will herald the day of judgment.

I would look to another and more likely explanation. I believe that what their presence on the mountain talking to the transfigured Jesus conveys is divine presence. God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. To take one such assurance:

He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.

Numbers 12:7-9

The prophet Elijah spoke with God and experienced divine presence on Mount Sinai. After a very strenuous ministry, including his defeat of the prophets of Ba’al and his encounters with King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, what appears to be his guardian angel came and helped him on his journey to Mount Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai):

And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you. And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.

I Kings 19:7-8

God came and spoke to Elijah and you will recall it was in that conversation that that great man experienced God in the still, small voice.

Moses and Elijah are in conversation with the transfigured Jesus, a Jesus who radiates the glory of God.


Peter and the Tents

The translation of 17:4 (And Peter said to Jesus …) does not do justice to Matthew’s Greek sentence. Rather more correctly we should read:

But replying Peter said to Jesus …

In response to the transfiguration of Jesus, the dazzling clothes shining like the sun, and the appearance of Moses and Elijah in conversation with Jesus, Peter speaks into all that is occurring before his eyes and ears. This is clear from a very significant detail.

In Mark’s account of the transfiguration Peter addresses Jesus as ‘ραββí (rabbi). This downplays the revelation of the divine illumination of the person of Jesus (Mark 9:5). Luke improves somewhat: Master (epistata) it is good that we are here (9:33). Matthew seems more aware of the divine presence and has Peter address Jesus as Lord (κúριε) - a very profound detail.

Peter’s offer to make three tents does not mean that he wished to provide an earthly residence for the transfigured Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Rather, readers and hearers acquainted with accounts of divine presence will instantly recall a very particular tent. Just as the Tent of Meeting was a temporary meeting place for travelling people who were destined to have a permanent presence in Jerusalem’s Temple, so Peter, James, and John have to recognise that in Jesus they have a permanent presence of the divine:

Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.

Exodus 33:7-11
Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.

Deuteronomy 31:14-15

Known as the Tent of Meeting, this was the tent that acted as a temporary temple for the People of Israel as they journeyed from slavery in Egypt to the land of promise. It would become the model of the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where God was permanently present to all who worshipped there. The Tent of Meeting was near to Mount Sinai, a fit place for the people to worship.

Another important “tent text” emphasises divine presence and underlies its importance as a place of talking to God, of seeking divine counsel:

Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Exodus 34:34-35


A Voice from the cloud

A second Behold! warns Matthew’s hearers and readers to listen carefully. The bright cloud overshadowing the three disciples is a sure signal of God’s presence:

And the glory of the Lord went up from the cherub to the threshold of the house, and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was filled with the brightness of the glory of the Lord. And the sound of the wings of the cherubim was heard as far as the outer court, like the voice of God Almighty when he speaks.

Ezekiel 10:4-5

Here on Matthew’s high mountain we have the language of divine presence yet again. The final paragraph of the Book of the Exodus will help clarify:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.

Exodus 40:34-38

The emphasis of these last lines of one of the Bible’s most important texts is the presence of God as a caring and protective presence, a presence guiding to that place where God’s promises are kept. The voice from the cloud is the voice of heaven, a voice we have heard before:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17

But now the voice of God makes a command:

Listen to him!


That is the command laid by God on every one who has ears to hear. It is the most important of all commandments given to the People of Israel before Moses read from the tablets of stone all that the Lord commanded:

Shema, Isra'el!

Listen, Israel!


We are transfigured by listening. The fear of the Lord came upon Peter, James, and John. But Jesus, as ever, removed fear. Notice the touch of calm and assurance, the gentleness of it:

Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear”. When they lifted up there eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

That should be enough for us.

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.