The Gospels in 40 days Matthew 17

Matthew 17

The Transfiguration: “His face shone like the sun… then there appeared before him Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” Moses and Elijah are the two greatest prophets from the Old Testament. They are known as people who talked “with God as with a friend.” Moses spent such time in the presence of God that his face shone because of the encounter. He had to wear a veil back in the Israelite camp because the glow spooked the people.

Peter might think that Jesus is being honoured to stand in the presence of Moses and Elijah, but it is just the opposite. Moses and Elijah are privileged to see their God, incarnate, the one person of the Trinity that can be seen face to face. The voice of the Father confirms this – The voice from heaven doesn’t say “Behold! here’s Moses and Elijah!” but “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”

The visitation ends, and Jesus tells them to this is For Their Eyes Only” until after “The Son of Man has been raised from the dead”

The disciples try to make sense of it. They recognize that Jesus is even more than they knew. This is the fulfillment of so much prophecy, nearly the end of history. But what about the prophecy (Malachi 4:5, 6) that Elijah would come first? Elijah was the prophet that never died, but was taken up in a chariot of fire, to (literally) ‘God knows where.’ After declaring that Elijah will return as promised, Jesus obliquely explains that John the Baptist was, in effect, Elijah, coming before Jesus.

The Epileptic Boy: This story has a few mysteries in it. There is much debate about whether this boy had a demon or a disability – epilepsy. I think there is no need for debate. The terminology of those days reflected their understanding of causes. It looked like a demon, walked like a demon, hurt like a demon; therefore demon is the word they used. Is epilepsy a neurological disorder in our understanding today? Jesus ‘casts it out of the boy and he is restored to health. Everything else is moot.

When independent personalities leave ‘Legion’ and rush into a herd of pigs, we can know for sure that demon means what we expect it to mean. When someone has an ‘unclean spirit’ we might be unsure whether scripture refers to an evil spirit in them, or to disorder in their own spirit. In this case you can have your own opinion about whether a demon caused these symptoms, or whether it is just the structure of their vocabulary.

The main mystery is this: Jesus rebuked the demon – it came out of the boy and he was healed. But the disciples had not been able to. In Matthew’s account the issue is that their faith is too small. Odd that they had cast out demons and healed every kind of sickness when they were sent out before. His rebuke in the other gospels refers to prayer and fasting, and we will look at that then. I reflect on the way some people blame the sick person for having little faith if they don’t respond to healing prayer. While Jesus does praise healed people for their faith he doesn’t blame them if the healing doesn’t go as expected (think of the blind man for whom he had to pray 2 times). It’s the disciples who need to learn from this failure, not the little boy. How did their faith fail? Were they relyig on technique instead of God – doing the things they had done before thinking the power was in certain words and actions, rather than in God? May our successes never lead us to forget that we are entirely reliant on God for all things!

Temple Tax: Jesus reasons that he doesn’t have to pay the temple tax, but in order to not cause unnecessary offense, he sends Peter to get the four drachmas. I do wonder if Jesus is joking about the four drachma coin. Perhaps he’s just telling him to sell the fish for the money. To a fisherman every fish has a coin in its mouth! (Please understand: This could just as easily be another miracle, you’re just having the unfortunate experience of seeing how my mind works.)

Lord, our minds can be tormented, whether by the devil or by our own bad thoughts. Whatever the source, cast all deception, uncleanness and discouragement out of us, in Jesus’ name, Amen.