By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
How good are you at keeping a secret? As Peter, James and John came down the mountain with Jesus after witnessing his transfiguration in this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Given what the Gospels say about these three Galilean fisherfolk, I have my doubts. Consider Simon Peter. Six days earlier, he was the one who — by divine revelation — correctly identified Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Yet when Jesus explained that the Messiah was to suffer death, the “rock” wouldn’t hear of it. He insisted “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you,” words that earned him a stern rebuke. It was this “rock” who denied his Lord three times, just as Jesus predicted, despite Peter’s protests to the contrary.
As for James and John, Mark 3:17 tells us that Jesus dubbed them “Sons of Thunder,” a moniker that says something — probably unflattering — about the temperament of these sons of Zebedee.
As Matthew’s Gospel continues, we learn how this pair lived up (or down) to their nickname. Just before Jesus entered Jerusalem, they approached Jesus together with their mother, who audaciously asked on their behalf, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” To this Jesus replied, “You do not know what you are asking!”
When we compare Matthew’s version of this episode with Mark’s Gospel, which scholars recognize as a key source on which both Matthew and Luke depended, it was the “sons of thunder” themselves who made this ambitious request. By bringing their mother onto the scene as their spokesperson, Matthew sought to take the heat off these members of Jesus’ innermost circle.
Given all that, is it conceivable that the likes of these three apostles — the only ones among the twelve who received nicknames from Jesus — might have kept to themselves the wonders they witnessed on the mountaintop? Could they even have kept word of this vision from the other nine apostles? What did they think as they saw Jesus transfigured before them, his face like the sun and his clothes white as light?
Perhaps they recalled that day when, without hesitation, they left nets and boats behind and followed the One who promised them they would be catching people and not fish. What crossed their minds when they saw Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah? Perhaps they recalled Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
When they heard the voice from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him,” they fell prostrate with fear. When they dared to raise their eyes and saw only Jesus, what must they have thought? For this blessed trio, nothing would ever be the same.
So why did Jesus order them to hold their tongues “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”? It’s because they hadn’t yet experienced the big picture. As wondrous as this glimpse of Jesus’ glory may have been, it was nothing compared with what they would experience in the awesome days that were to come. It was these three — Peter, James and John — whom Jesus chose to accompany him in the sorrow and distress of Gethsemane. It was these three who witnessed Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, one of the chosen 12. These three were among those who fled in fear, with Peter then denying ever having known Jesus. Peter did so in the courtyard of the house where the One he confessed as the Messiah was being interrogated and humiliated.
Yet after Calvary’s sadness, Peter and James and John were also among the 11 whom the risen and glorified Jesus summoned to the Galilean mountaintop, where he commissioned them to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Since that day, the apostles and their successors have never stopped talking about what they saw and what they heard, the Good News of Jesus.
Jesus knew what he was doing when he chose them as he walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He knew all their strengths, and he knew each of their shortcomings — Simon the Rock, James and John the “Sons of Thunder,” and all the rest. It is through their testimony, as John’s Gospel tells us, that we come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and so we receive the gift of life in His name.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12: 1-4a
Psalm 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
2 Timothy 1: 8b-10
Matthew 17: 1-9
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica