Text for the Second Sunday of Lent 2017: Matthew 17:1-13 – Jesus Transfigured
We read that “Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” (Matthew 17:1) Why only those three?
That Jesus appears to have “best” friends from among the Twelve seems hard to discount. But should Jesus, the God-Man, have best friends? Should Jesus be revealing His preference for a few over the rest? Any wise parent knows the danger of preferring one of his or her children more than the others, not because his or her love prefers (who can help that?), but because those who discover themselves not as preferred may end up despising those who are. Recall how lethal it was for Joseph to have the preferential notice of his father Jacob/Israel?
Genesis 37 [NABRE] – 3 Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
We have seen Jesus in other places singling out Peter, James and John because, we assume, He felt closer to them personally than to the others. And evidence suggests that He was especially close to Mary and Martha and Lazarus, who lived in Bethany. Remember that He sought to be with the latter three (more than with anyone else?) during His last days before he went into Jerusalem to die. Do we explain this preferring by finding its reason in Jesus as human, saying to ourselves, “We all have best friends. Everyone knows and accepts that. Why shouldn’t Jesus?”
But then we remember a profound teaching from God that St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) received. God told her that she must learn to love equally everyone, not giving more fully her love to those to whom she preferred to give it, while measuring out a smaller portion of her love to those she preferred less … or not at all. In one place, she writes out what she heard God tell her:
“Therefore, to Me, in person, you cannot repay the love which I require of you, and I have placed you in the midst of your fellows, that you may do to them that which you cannot do to Me, that is to say, that you may love your neighbor of free grace [i.e., to love each neighbor equally], without expecting any return from him or her, and what you do to him or her, I count as done to Me…. 
What do we think about God having “best friends” when it seems clear to us that we are not in that circle? Recall the unsettled consciousness of Jesus’ inner circle arguing among themselves about who of them was greatest in the Kingdom of God – closest to Jesus. (We wonder what they concluded about that!) Is being just a friend of God good enough? Or, what if we worked hard, doing every special kind of thing religious and spiritual, or putting ourselves under the power of those who suggest they can give us a path to becoming an extra-special friend of God, then could we finally win access into God’s inner circle of special friends? (I have seen this way of thinking in many people, expressing itself in many different forms.)
When we think of Jesus as God, we expect Him not to play favorites as it appears that He is doing in this scene written by Matthew. God, we surmise, must be better than cliquish. Should He not have chosen all Twelve to climb the mountain that night, so that all could have experienced the profound revelation which, as we know from the story, only three got to experience?
But then we find ourselves wondering about the Saints, those magnificently and especially gifted human beings given us right now, in our midst, and in our past, to inspire and teach us … and who are destined to suffer intensely at the hands of the many who resent that such people “get” to be so blessed. Are not the Saints “special” and “preferred,”; i.e., God’s “best friends”? Is it fair that they are?
But then we remember a woman who was, we assume, among the most special of souls, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), who suffered profoundly once she really gave her life to God. She had a surprising revelation to share with us about the “specialness” of being a best friend of God.
One time Teresa was on a journey and her saddle slipped, and she upon it. She found herself hanging upside down under the belly of her donkey as they crossed a stream. Complaining to the Lord of her treatment, she heard him reply, “Teresa, whom the Lord loves, he chastises. This is how I treat all my friends.” She replied tartly, “No wonder you have so few!”
Perhaps we judge it odd that this Meditation should wander into an exploration of God’s apparently preferential love for only a few of us, when we should be exploring the sheer splendor of the Transfiguration! Yet repeatedly in the history of the interpretation of this scene commentators notice, and then feel the need to explain, why Jesus selected just those three Apostles to be with him that night on the mountain. Those same commentators, by the way, miss Jesus’ sensitivity to these three in relation to the rest of the Twelve when He, wanting to protect them from being envied by the others, commanded the three after all was back to normal: “Do not tell the vision to anyone….”
What if in fact God does love equally, suffering no requirement in His personality that He have “best friends”? What if Jesus’ choice of these three disciples that night had little to do with Him preferring their company over the others? What if His selecting them had everything to do with His discerning insight that these three needed to see what He would reveal to them of Himself on the mountain? What if these three particularly struggled to accept that Jesus of Nazareth was very special of God, or the Messiah, or God Himself – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”? What if the other disciples more easily accepted this fact about Jesus, while Peter and James and John could not, needing more to win their assent?
You see? We may too quickly assume that God is playing favorites, when in fact God is playing skillful. As is true of any great Teacher, which “greatness” always means that he or she loves his or her students, so God, and so Jesus, knows what each person needs, where each is stuck and unable to understand … and gives what each needs when it is time to do so.
What if Jesus sensed that Peter would eventually betray Him, because he could not sense the “more” in Jesus as sturdily as the others? Perhaps Peter was Jewish enough to feel the offense of a man like Him appearing to be more than a man. Or what if Jesus wanted to sear into Peter’s memory that night an image so powerful of the transcendent identity “hidden” in Jesus that Peter would unfailingly remember it later, on the night when he would betray Him? As the poet, Theodore Roethke, wrote in a poem: “In a dark time / the eye begins to see.”
It has often been noticed how “high” is the Christology of John’s Gospel, by which is meant that the Christ we meet in that Gospel has so much depth, divine serenity, and mastery. What if the reason John ended up portraying Jesus this way was that earlier on he was the one least able to sense Jesus’ divinity? What if the transfiguration hit John exactly at the point of greatest challenge for him in relation to Jesus – that something “more” about Jesus? What if John emphasized the divine aspect of the Incarnate Son because he among all the disciples felt that he had the farthest to travel intellectually, affectively, spiritually to get to this aspect of the Christ? People tend to write about what they found hardest to learn.
What if Jesus recognized the closeness of the two brothers, James and John? What then if he guessed that unless James experienced on the mountain what his brother experienced, then the likelihood of John staying faithful to that transfiguration-grace would be far less. John’s hard-won insights shared with us in his Gospel and in his three Letters asked an enormous amount of that man. Such depth of insight is very, very difficult to gain … and to hold. Jesus knew that John would need his brother James to have his back, remembering that night – each remembering different things about it – keeping the vision real. And so, Jesus invited James to come too.
Let us live mindfully, and with confidence and energy, this second week of Lent that is before us to live.
Ganz #2 – Meditation – Revealed (Week 2)
 This is not the best of quotes from St. Catherine on this topic, but the best I could find at hand. But it was from St. Catherine of Siena that I myself first felt the considerable challenge of this command to love equally. For years I simply did not grasp what God meant by this, and perhaps for exactly the reasons this Lenten Meditation is exploring. Jesus does not appear to love equally. It took years before I began to catch on to the depth and significance of this divine teaching. I have still much to learn.