This blog is a series of reflections on Luke’s gospel. The author – let’s call him Theophilus – is not a New Testament scholar. He claims no particular authority as a commentator on Luke, except to the extent that any of his reflections may make sense to the reader.
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In the previous post we reached Herod’s question, “who is this man I hear such things about?” In Luke’s gospel, Herod’s question is followed immediately by the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. This contrasts with both Matthew and Mark, who each have a large chunk of material between Herod’s question and the feeding story (Mark 6.45-8.26; Matthew 14.22-16.12). This missing chunk of material is often called Luke’s ‘great omission’. If Mark’s gospel was the first one written then Luke’s omission is of material from Mark. If Luke knew Matthew’s gospel then it is also an omission from Matthew (or just from Matthew, if Mark wrote last of the three). Either way, for reasons I will return to, Luke has made a deliberate decision to place the Feeding of the 5000 immediately before what I am going to call the ‘Transfiguration sequence’.
Before considering the Transfiguration sequence, let’s note a few things about the Feeding of the Five Thousand. First, the feeding looks ahead to the Last Supper, Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before he is crucified. The Last Supper becomes, in the Christian tradition, the model for the Eucharist or Holy Communion; the way in which the church gathers in response to the Word to itself become the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12.27). So in fact the first Christian Eucharist is arguably not the Last Supper but the Feeding of the Five Thousand. The connection is seen clearly in the way that Jesus blesses, breaks and distributes the bread and fishes. It is also significant that, as we shall come see, only a few verses later Jesus foretells his death and resurrection.
Second, the Feeding of the Five Thousand connects with Jesus’ controversial table fellowship with sinners. Five thousand is a lot of people to invite to supper. Jesus “welcomed them” (Luke 9.11) — all of them. In doing so he must surely have been welcoming many who would not have been welcome at most people’s tables. Yet Jesus, rather than sending them away to get their own food feeds them with more than they can eat.
Third, and inseparable from the first two points, the Feeding of the Five Thousand (along with Jesus’ practice of table fellowship and the Last Supper) anticipates the heavenly banquet, a way of speaking of the fulfillment of God’s purposes that has its roots in the Old Testament. The Feeding of the Five Thousand therefore not only connects with various scriptural themes but also introduces a perspective on ‘ultimate’ things; what Christians call the final things or the ‘eschaton’.
Like the Feeding of the 5000, the Transfiguration is one of the best known gospel passages. It occurs in all three synoptic gospels, and in fact it is situated within a block of textual units whose order is the same in each of the synoptics, with the exception of one missing unit in Matthew. The first element of the Transfiguration sequence is Peter’s confession of Christ. Jesus asks the disciples “who do the people say I am?”. The effect of Luke’s great omission is that this question occurs just a few verses after Herod has asked, “who is this man I hear such things about?” Luke’s arrangement strongly suggests that he sees the question of Jesus’s identity as central to this part of the gospel narrative. The disciples report the various answers given by the people – John the Baptist, Elijah, some other prophet of old. Jesus then asks the disciples who they think he is, to which Peter replies, “The Christ of God.”
The second element of the Transfiguration sequence is that Jesus, referring to himself as the Son of Man, declares that he must suffer, be rejected and killed, and rise again. In Matthew and Mark, Peter is then harshly reprimanded by Jesus (“get behind me Satan”) for questioning Jesus’s words. Luke simply moves on from Jesus’s prediction of his passion to the third element of the transfiguration sequence, in which Jesus says to the disciples that, “If anyone would come after me he must take up his Cross and follow me.” Jesus also says that anyone who wants to save his life will lose it (and the converse), and in a verse that has given rise to much discussion, he says, “I tell you truthfully, some who are standing here will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God.”
The fourth element in the Transfiguration sequence is the Transfiguration itself. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain. While they are there, the appearance of Jesus’s face changes and his clothes become radiant white. Moses and Elijah appear, and Peter comes up with the idea of erecting Jesus and the two prophets each a tent. At that moment a cloud engulfs them all and a voice is heard saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to Him!” Then the cloud lifts and the three disciples are left alone with Jesus.
Although each of the synoptic gospels report the words from the cloud slightly differently, all three agree that the words ended with the command, “Listen to him!” Interestingly, whereas Matthew and Mark both include some ensuing dialogue between the disciples and Jesus about what has just happened, Luke quickly wraps up the account of the Transfiguration after the command, saying simply that the disciples kept all this to themselves. The effect, I suggest, is that Luke’s account gives particular prominence to the words “listen to him,” in keeping with my contention that Luke is especially concerned with listening.
The fifth element of the Transfiguration sequence concerns the healing of a boy who is continually being thrown into convulsions by an unclean Spirit. All three synoptic gospels report this incident immediately after the Transfiguration, though only Luke connects the two stories with the detail that the healing occurred when Jesus and the disciples “came down from the mountain.” It is surely significant that Matthew, Mark and Luke all felt it appropriate to report the healing, given that it might be taken to show neither the disciples or Jesus in a particularly good light. The healing was only necessary because, as the boy’s father complains, the disciples had previously failed to drive the demon out. And Jesus’s words, the first ones reported by Luke since the voice from the cloud had commanded, “Listen to him,” are hardly the most edifying. “O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus exclaims, “how long must I remain with you and put up with you?”
I am reminded of the moment when Gordon Brown, canvassing Rochdale in the 2010 general election campaign, got back into his car not realising that he still had a Sky TV microphone attached to his jacket. The microphone picked up his remarks about a woman he had been just been filmed speaking to, describing her, he thought privately, as a “bigoted woman” and asking why a campaign aide had thought it a good idea to introduce her to him on camera. Some commentators have suggested that that was the moment that Brown lost the election.
The story of the boy with the unclean spirit sounds a bit to me like Jesus’s Rochdale moment. After appearing as whiter than white on the mountain top, he is caught on mic bad-mouthing the very people he has come to help. It is a notable story for all three synoptic writers to concur is the appropriate one to follow the glorious revelation of Jesus’s identity in the Transfiguration.
The sixth element in the Transfiguration sequence is Jesus’s second prediction of his suffering and death. This mirrors the first one, earlier in the sequence. Luke and Mark, but not Matthew, report that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask.
The seventh and last element in the sequence is the story of an argument between the disciples about who would be the greatest. Jesus intervenes by having a small child stand beside him, and by stating that, “whoever is the least among all of you, he is the greatest.” Luke then adds a further brief story concerning a misunderstanding on the part of the disciples. They tell Jesus that they had stopped a man from driving out demons in his name, “because he does not accompany us.” Jesus responds that they should not have stopped him. Jesus’s reason for this, that, “whoever is not against you is for you,” does not seem much of an explanation. It sounds rather like the aphorism that one’s enemy’s enemy (in this case, evil being the enemy) is one’s friend. More significant, surely, is the fact that not accompanying Jesus’s main group of disciples does not, according to Jesus, invalidate the un-named healer’s ministry. People can enact the Gospel without doing things exactly as we happen to have learned to do them, and perhaps without believing exactly what we happen to have learned to believe.
What should we make, then, of what I have called the ‘Transfiguration sequence’? Recall that I have suggested that the whole of the ‘yellow’ section of Luke is effectively a response to Herod’s question, “who is this man I hear such things about?”. This, as I noted, is immediately followed in Luke by the Feeding of the Five Thousand, with its implicit references to Jesus as the focus of eschatological fulfillment, pictured in the form of a heavenly banquet. In the lead up to Herod’s question we saw, in my previous blog-post, Luke’s presentation of Jesus’s power and authority. In this overall perspective, the Transfiguration is the culmination of the theme of Jesus’ power and authority in the form of an unambiguous revelation of his glory, and this in the context of the eschatological tone just set by the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It is a dramatic and decisive culmination of the gospel narrative so far; a moment of clarity and consummation.
But neither the clarity or the anticipation of eschatological fulfillment turn out to be straightforward, at least not in terms of the disciples’ expectations. Following the Feeding of the Five Thousand Peter recognises that Jesus is the Christ. However, rather than simply accepting the adulation, Jesus introduces the new teaching that being the Christ will involve suffering and death, and then extends this with a call to all the disciples to take up their own ‘Cross’. This ‘low’ is followed by the (literal) ‘high’ of the Transfiguration. But just as everything becomes light and glory, the cloud descends and apparent understanding dissolves into mystery. Then high of the Transfiguration is followed by descent of the mountain to the low of the reality of confrontation with evil, with Jesus’s ministry caught at, according to my reading, an arguably less than whiter-than-white moment.
There seem to be multiple kinds of dialectic going on here, between everyday hunger and eschatological fulfillment (the Feeding of the Five Thousand), between glorious destiny and ignominious failure (recognition of the Christ and the prediction of his suffering), between revelation and concealment (the Transfiguration then the cloud), between divine purity and human reality (the Transfiguration being followed by Jesus’s Rochdale moment). Not surprising, perhaps, that the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask.
How do we 21st Century disciples see these various tensions? Do we think that they have all been resolved, as the tensions that build through a piece of music may be satisfyingly brought to a resolution by the final chord? Or do we think that part of the Gospel message is that to be a disciple is to live (or try to live) with these kinds of tension? I may say something about this in the next blog.