Second Sunday of Lent, Year C

By Father Donald Dilger

Sunday Scripture


Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36

In our first reading, we encounter Abraham. In this Genesis story, he is still known as Abram. The Lord greets him, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield.” Abram has a problem. “Lord, what you will give me, since I am childless, and my heir will be my manager. You have given me no offspring, so this slave born in my house will be my heir.” Abram was a very rich man. To pass on such wealth to a non-relative was inconceivable. Something like passing on one’s portfolio to your financial manager. “No way,” says the Lord, and promises that his son will be his heir. He tells Abram to count the stars, “if you can.” That is how numerous his descendants will be. That takes faith when you are childless and 99 years old, and your wife is 90. But the author writes, “Abram believed the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.” Almost two millennia later, St. Paul made that statement a foundation of his teaching of salvation by faith – rather than by doing good works. “Righteousness” is a correct relationship to God.

The Lord says to Abram, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon.” A petting zoo? No; a bloody sacrifice. Abram cut the quadrupeds, but not the birds, in halves. He laid the halves opposite each other with a path between them. He had to stand guard to keep the buzzards away. The sun goes down. The terror of darkness surrounds Abram. The author inserts more promises of the Lord not pertinent to the story. Suddenly in the darkness, a smoking fire pot and a burning torch passed between the halved animals, symbols of the presence of God. The Lord repeats the terms of this and his past covenant with Abram, the promises of descendants and land. They will possess the land between the Nile of Egypt and the Euphrates of Mesopotamia. This was about the extent of the Israelite empire that King David established 800 years after Abram. What is the meaning of the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch passing between the cut-up animals? This is how treaties or covenants were ratified (cut) in the ancient Near East. See Jeremiah 34:18. The partners to a covenant, or the major partner, walked between the animals. God was saying, by implication, “If I do not abide by this treaty, you can cut me in half.”

Psalm 27 continues the first reading’s concepts of faith and land. “I believe that I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living.” The people respond, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” The second reading is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. He begins with characteristic chutzpah (i.e. boastful confidence). Be imitators of me, and observe those who take me as their role model.” He calls his critics enemies of the cross of Christ. Why? Because “their God is their stomach. Their glory is in their shame.” What brought on this attack? Was it a concern about obesity? Paul had taught his Gentile converts that the kosher-food laws of the Old Testament do not apply to them, that male circumcision will not be required of them as it was of faithful Jews. A “truth squad” of conservatives followed Paul in his missions to “correct” what to them were his errors. As to the kosher-food laws, Paul writes, “Their God is their stomach.” Concerning the obligation of circumcision, he writes, “Their glory is in their shame.” A peculiar way to refer to a male reproductive organ! Paul proclaims his and his converts’ superiority over those whose minds are occupied with such earthly things, “but our citizenship is in heaven.”

The gospel is Luke’s version of the transfiguration of Jesus. To transfigure is to change appearance. With Jesus in this scene are Simon Peter, and the brothers James and John — The Big Three. To grasp Luke’s emphases, we can compare his version with Mark’s version, from which Luke plagiarized. The first change — prayer. The transfiguration happened “while he was praying.” Typical of Luke, Jesus prays more often in his gospel than in Mark. Luke avoided Mark’s use of the Greek term “metamorphosis, for “transfiguration” perhaps because of its use in Greek mythology to describe the heathen gods transforming themselves to walk among humans. Instead he writes, “His face changed in appearance.” Moses and Elijah appear in all three gospel versions. Luke alone introduces them with the words, “Two men were conversing with him …” and “They appeared in glory.” This may be his identification with the two men “in dazzling appearance” at the empty tomb of Jesus, and the “two men in white robes” at the ascension of Jesus in Luke’s Acts of Apostles. They converse with Jesus in all three gospel versions. Only Luke writes that “they were conversing about his Exodus which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” This is how Luke connects the transfiguration/glorification/resurrection of Jesus with his suffering and death.”

He adds a second reference to connect the glory of the transfiguration with Jesus’ suffering and death when the voice from the sky says, “This is my Son, the Chosen One.” The italicized words are added only by Luke. This title refers to the first of four “Songs of the Servant of the Lord” in Isaiah. The first of these calls the Servant of the Lord “My Chosen One.” In the other three Songs, the Servant suffers and dies for his people and is rewarded with “being lifted high.” Why were Moses and Elijah selected to appear with Jesus in glory? The two main divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament to us) are the Torah and the Prophets. The Torah was thought to have been written by Moses. Elijah was the first most notable prophet and, therefore, represents all the prophets in the second division of the Scriptures. The point: What is about to happen to Jesus in Jerusalem is in accord with the Torah and the Prophets. It was God’s plan from the beginning. Only a divine revelation, the voice from heaven, can validate what would happen to the Son of God in his Exodus – not just glory but suffering and death. If Jesus’ suffering and death were not validated by divine revelation, we would have to agree with what St. Paul writes in the First Letter to the Corinthians 1:23, “We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews, and nonsense to Gentiles.”