Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 Timothy a:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-9
While the first 11 chapters of Genesis may be called “pre-historical,” chapter 12 begins a closer connection to history in the story of Abram (later Abraham). The story begins with a call to Abram from the Lord God, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” This statement becomes the basis for the age-old claim that the land often referred to as Palestine is the God-given homeland of the Jews to this day. Though they lost their independence as a political entity to the Roman Empire from 63 B.C. on, they never completely regained independence until 1948. Because of the role of the then-current American president, Harry Truman, in this achievement, the president is quoted as having said, “I have done more for the Jews than anyone since Moses.”
One instructional purpose of our first reading is to present and praise Abram for his ready consent to God’s will; but in the story itself, the consent of Abram was not as immediate as many suppose. The Lord held out to him great motivation for his consent. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. By you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.” That would make it easier for a man with a family to pull up roots and migrate to something entirely new. At this point Abram consents, “Abram went as the Lord directed him.” Thus Abram becomes a model of faith and obedience, but rational faith and obedience. It should be noted that this and other stories of God’s favor toward the descendants of Abram also have a political purpose. Meaning: We are #1. Politics and religion are frequent roommates. One sees this in the promises of blessing and cursing, blessings for those who favor Abram’s descendants and curses for those who do not. Considering the centuries of anti-Semitism by prosperous countries and powerful religious establishments, one may wonder, “Where have all the blessings gone?”
The Responsorial Psalm 32 may not at first sight seem respondent to the first reading, though quite appropriate for Lent. However, the people’s response says it all, “Lord, let your mercy be upon us as we place our trust in you.” Abram placed his trust in God’s directive and the motivating promises attached to the directive. In imitation of Abram we place our trust in God, a trust that God will be merciful to us as we are called to repentance during this penitential season.
The second reading is an excerpt from the Second Letter to Timothy. Paul’s young fellow-missionary comes across in these letters as timid, insecure. Thus the reading begins, “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Immediately Paul changes the subject and adds catechetical instruction. First he recalls a common Pauline teaching, that God saves us and calls us to a holy life, not that we earned this privilege but through his own gracious will, that is, grace. This grace or favor God knew and stored up for us from eternity. It was kept a secret until God revealed it through the appearance (mission, work) of our Savior Jesus Christ. He destroyed death and gave us access to eternal life through the gospel.
On the second Sunday of Lent the gospel reading is always one of three versions of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. This year we have Matthew’s version. He generally follows the pattern of the story in the manuscript of the Gospel of Mark that he sees on his writing desk. The only significant change Matthew makes to Mark’s version is a deletion. One characteristic of Mark’s gospel is to present Jesus’ disciples as thick-headed slow learners. Neither Matthew nor Luke approves of Mark’s denigration of Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, after Peter’s speech about putting up three tents for each of the heavenly appearances, Mark writes, “He did not know what he should answer because they were frightened.” Matthew deletes this remark. Matthew also adds to Mark’s “This is my beloved Son,” a quote from Isaiah 42:1, “in whom I am well pleased.” This connects the glory of the transfiguration with the suffering of Jesus, since that quote is taken from the first of four “Servant Songs” of Isaiah — poems that speak of the suffering, death, and only then, the exaltation of the Servant of the Lord. The principle of interpretation is this: in quoting a passage of Scripture, one quotes the context in which that passage stands. Peter, James, and John are selected to accompany Jesus up the mountain of transfiguration. Why? According to Luke’s Acts of Apostles these three of the original apostles became the most active witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. James was the first of the apostles to be martyred. See Acts 12. The transfiguration is an appearance in heavenly glory. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. They represent the Torah, (thought to be written by Moses), and the Prophets — the two of three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible. Their purpose: to affirm that what was about to happen to Jesus in Jerusalem was in accord with God’s will as it had been revealed in Torah and Prophets. [That is why Luke’s version adds that they “spoke of his departure (exodus) that he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.”] The bright cloud that overshadowed the scene symbolizes God’s presence. The voice of the Father sounds from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved . . . .” This is a quote from the near sacrifice of Isaac, Genesis 22, thus a connection to the Passion. That event had come to be interpreted as a sacrifice of atonement because of the will of father and son (Abram and Isaac) to endure it. The next clause, “with whom I am well pleased.” As explained above, a connection of the transfiguration to the Passion of Jesus. The final clause of the Voice: “Listen to him.” A quote from Deut. 18:15, revealing that Jesus is the new Moses. To what must they listen? To words spoken by Jesus just before his transfiguration, that his suffering and death are the road to his glory.