Tag Archives: transfiguration

Not One Letter, Not One Stroke of a Letter

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Matt. 5:17-20.

In the Gospel from today’s Daily Office, Jesus emphasizes his continuity with God’s message to His people, a message first announced in the law and the prophets.  That continuity shines forth in the story of the Transfiguration, which St. Matthew records at Matt. 17:1-9 and which the icon above depicts.  As God announces Jesus as his beloved Son, Christ appears flanked by Moses and Elijah.  We might wonder, “Why those two heroes of the Old Testament?”  Moses and Elijah, respectively, represented the Law (given by Moses) and the prophets.  Jesus comes as the full flowering, the conclusion or completion of the law and the prophets.

Rather than encouraging his disciples to abandon Scripture, he asks them to take it seriously. Like many of us today, the Pharisees and scribes had read scripture as calling us into a worthiness competition.  We find the perfect example of that view in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  (Luke 18:9-14; see here).  Jesus completes the law and the prophets by showing us that God’s love and grace has nothing to do with our worthiness.

A legalistic vision of Scripture works externally, requiring people to confirm to rules and to require such conformity from those around them.  Jesus calls us to internalize the Scripture, allowing it to transform our hearts so that we can live more deeply into it.  Legalism mistakes the packaging for the contents.  Thus, he tells his disciples that must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  The impulse to legalism always calls us into a kind of idolatry, in which we substitute performance of a given set of obligations for a relationship with the living God.

Jesus asks us to move forward from the notion of right action to the idea of a right relationship with God. We find an example of what Jesus means in Matthew 23:23.  There, He notes that the Pharisees “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  Jesus doesn’t ask us to reject the Law (the Torah), merely to examine the principles which underlie it.  When our principle objective becomes a relationship with the Almighty that pushes us toward justice and mercy and faith, we will read the Law in the right context.

Jesus brings that Law into its fullness, pointing out how narrowly the people had come to understand God’s purposes.  The problem wasn’t that the scribes and Pharisees overvalued the Law; the problem lay in their underestimation of God’s purposes.  Thus, Jesus taught that the good Samaritan actually lived into loving his neighbor, while a more legalistic or superficial view asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29.  Like many of us today, while the scribes may have known exactly what the words of the law said, they had completely missed what they meant.  They had captured the notion of compliance, but missed the blessing of God’s spirit reshaping their lives.

I pray that we find that blessing today.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

You Have Asked a Hard Thing

Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.  2 Kings 2: 1-12.

We are nearing the end of the season of Epiphany, a season when we mark the ways God reveals Himself in the world.  This season affords us a wonderful time to remember Elijah and his student Elisha.  As this passage begins, Elijah is nearing the end of his days.  At the Lord’s instruction, he has already placed his mantle (the symbol of his prophetic spirituality) on Elisha.  1 Kings 19: 19.

Elijah must travel to Bethel, and suggests that Elisha remain behind.  Some scholars have suggested that Elijah is testing Elisha’s loyalty.  I think something different is happening here.   Perhaps Elijah wants to spare Elisha the pain of this moment.  Perhaps he wants to spare himself the heartbreak of that last goodbye.  It’s no secret that Elijah’s death is near;  prophets along the way, at Bethel  and Jericho remind Elisha of this.  Elisha tells these voices to remain silent.   While Elisha remains committed to accompanying his friend and teacher towards his death, the tremendous sense of loss and mystery defy language.  Words simply fail at moments like these.

While on their journey, Elijah parts the river Jordan, revealing himself as the second Moses.  The progress of their journey–from Gilgal to Jericho to the Jordan–reminds us of the people’s journey as they enter into the promised land.

In the central passage of the story, Elijah asks what he can do for his student, his friend, before he dies.  Elisha asks for a “double share” of his spirit.  Under Deuteronomic law, the eldest son would receive a double portion of his father’s estate.  (Deut. 21:15-17).  Elijah responds that he has asked “a hard thing.”  Elijah knows that this spiritual inheritance is God’s to give, and not his own. More than just a student of the great prophet, it’s clear that Elisha considers himself the spiritual child of Elijah.  This meaning becomes clear when Elijah is taken up into the whirlwind and Elisha cries out, “Father!  Father!”

So, it seems to me that this passage, like today’s Gospel reading on the Transfiguration, centers on the notion of translation.  Jesus’ divinity is translated into a language the disciples can understand.  Elijah, the prophet who stood alone, is translated into a life with the Father.  And Elisha is translated into his new role as the spiritual heir of his teacher.  Coincidentally (and I really don’t believe in coincidences), these things all happen in the context of a journey.  I think Holy Scripture is making a very important point:  we cannot  be transfigured into God’s new creation by remaining in the same place.

I hope to see you on the road.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis