February 11, 2024
I can still remember where I was when I heard the news. I was driving on Loiza Street in Santurce, Puerto Rico. This was in the year 2000, and I was listening to WOSO, San Juan’s English-speaking radio station. And here’s the news that I heard. The Food and Drug Administration had just given permission to the California Prune Board to market their product not as prunes, but as dried plums. Effective immediately, visitors to californiaprunes.org were being redirected to californiadriedplums.org.*
The reasoning behind this decision is pretty obvious. Prunes had a marketing problem. Prunes were too old-fashioned. They were for old people. Young people were not interested in prunes, and it was clearly the younger demographic that the California Prune Board was going after. People who ate prunes were concerned with being regular. But dried plums would appeal to the elite, people who were influencers.
This image problem is nothing new. It didn’t start with prunes. It’s been around for quite some time. In fact, Jesus himself had an image problem. If you read the gospels, one of the thing that stands out is that Jesus was not impressing the right people. He was a laborer. His disciples were okay guys, for the most part. But they weren’t the cream of the crop. And at least one of his closest followers was a despised tax collectors. And it didn’t seem to bother Jesus one bit that some of the people he was hanging out with were sinners or even prostitutes.
None of this made Jesus a bad guy. His teachings were meaningful, no matter who he had dinner with the night before. And his healings were no less miraculous just because the people at the receiving end weren’t rich and famous. But a lot of people felt that Jesus could do better.
The disciples wouldn’t have been clueless. They would have known what people were saying. And maybe they themselves were hoping for something more from Jesus—something that might have vindicated their decision to leave their old lives behind and follow him.
And maybe that’s what the three who went with Jesus up on the mountain to pray that day were thinking. The Bible doesn’t say, but tradition tells us that this mountain was Mount Tabor. It certainly fits the bill. Our translation of the Bible tells us that he wanted them to be alone with them on the mountain. But the original Greek either stresses that they were alone by themselves, or that both they and the mountain were alone.
And this describes Mount Tabor. It stands alone on a plain southwest of the Sea of Galilee. And so Jesus took Peter, James, and John to be alone on a lonely mountain… or a mountain set apart from other mountains. And there, Mark tells us, he was transfigured, or transformed. Mark isn’t alone in telling us this. Matthew and Luke tell us the exact same story. He became dazzlingly bright—whiter than any earthly object could possibly be.
The Bible doesn’t give all the details, but I picture the disciples in prayer, sensing that something around them had changed. And when they look up, they have to shield their eyes because Jesus is shining so brightly. And suddenly they notice that it’s no longer just Jesus, but that he’s talking to two other figures.
It turns out that these figures are Moses and Elijah—figures who represent two important aspects of Judaism: Law and Prophecy. And somehow, in the midst of all this amazement and (quite frankly) terror, Peter’s mind turned not to praise, but to marketing. “Teacher,” he said, “how lucky it is that we’re here for this! Let’s make three display booths: One to contain you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”
It seems like a very strange thing to say, until you put it in the context of marketing. These four disciples—three of the first four to be called, and arguably the three who were closest to Jesus—had been with Jesus almost since the beginning. They knew him well, and they’d seen everything. They’d heard his wonderful teachings, they’d witnessed his miracles, and they’d seen all the times he’d healed people. They knew better than anybody who he was.
The problem was that all those other people out there—the thousands of people who had heard of Jesus, who maybe had even listened to one of his sermons, or had been present when he’d touched someone or maybe even eaten some of the bread and fish when he fed the multitude—they knew Jesus was special, but they didn’t know exactly how special he was.
And here he was, literally in all his glory, shining like the sun and being endorsed by Moses and Elijah—basically the fulfillment of Jewish law and prophecy. Peter and the others wanted everybody to see what they were seeing. They knew that nobody could deny that Jesus was the One they’d all been waiting for, if only they had the same confirmation that they were now witnessing.
And here we’re finally getting to the root of the problem. Jesus was Messiah. But most of the time, Jesus was very un-Messiah-like. He was a carpenter’s son. His clothes were probably threadbare. His hands were probably rough. His hair was probably unkempt. His friends were common people. His audience was common people. And most of the miracles he performed were for the kind of people that others didn’t pay attention to… and by others, I’m talking about the important people.
The Messiah that people envisioned was important. He would associate with the most important, the most powerful people. He was going to be a great king who would Make Israel Great Again. And though the disciples were starting to believe that this was who Jesus was, they realized that he was off to a very slow start. Jesus was a prune who attracted all the wrong people, when what they needed was a dried plum who appealed to the influencers.
But Peter’s idea was nipped in the bud as soon as it left his mouth. For all of them—Jesus, the three disciples, Elijah and Moses—were all suddenly enveloped in a cloud. And a voice came from out the cloud—a voice that came from nobody that had been present on the mountain—and it said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love: Listen to him!”
And the cloud was swept away and Moses and Elijah were gone; only Jesus remained. They descended the mountain in silence, until Jesus told the three, “Don’t tell anybody what you just saw until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
I feel like I need to mention here that, in the end, the attempt to rebrand the lowly prune so that people would think of them as plums failed. Within twenty years, the California Dried Plum Board was back to being the California Prune Board. Just like the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration: Their chance to market Jesus as the Messiah—their chance to show him off in all his glory—disappeared. The plum was back to being a prune. A teacher and healer, sure. But still just a Carpenter from Nazareth.
You see, my interpretation of this is that Jesus did not want to be known only as a glorious, supernatural being. His earthly life had meaning. His travels, his friends, his teachings all meant something. His healings meant something, too—but so did the people he healed, the people for whom he performed miracles: The simple people, the outcasts, and even sometimes the people outside his tradition. What was coming would mean something, too: His arrest, his trial, his humiliation, and death on the cross. He did not want people knowing him—worshiping him—apart from everything else.
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians [4:6], the Apostle Paul reminded us that the same God who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. The light that shone in the face of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration was the light of the Law and the Prophets. It was the light of creation. It was the light of God. And when we talk about it, it usually seems like it’s otherworldly, that it shines “out there” somewhere—or at least outside of us.
But it doesn’t really. At least it’s not only “out there” or outside of us. For to believe in God, and to believe that Jesus came to show us who God really is, is to have his light shining within us, in our hearts. Yes, it’s the glory of creation and the Law and the Prophets. But it’s also the glory of the simple Carpenter from Nazareth—the One who walked from place to place teaching people to look within themselves for the Kingdom of God; the One who healed the rich and famous, but who also healed the forgotten and the despised; the One who ministered to faithful Jews, but also to outsiders who belonged to a different religion.
The light of Christ that shines within us isn’t just the glory of a great God. It’s the light of a pilgrim, the light of the persecuted, the light of a dying man, the light that triumphed over the darkness that surrounds us when it seems that all is lost, the light that cannot be overcome by the darkness of death.
So if your perception of who Jesus is is limited to the glorious mountaintop Messiah, so bright it hurts to look at him; if you think of Jesus as the Christ who’s too great and too perfect to have anything to do with the likes of you, then please remember that that was never his will. He didn’t want us to understand his divinity or his true greatness unless we first knew him as the One who walks beside us on the road, who forgives those who think their sin is unforgivable, who holds the hand of the untouchable, and who teaches all of us that our closeness to God comes from within us, not from the rules of people who don’t know us or don’t care about us.
To get to know this Jesus is to understand who God is. And to know this is to finally accept that, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you, too, are a child of God.
—©2024 Sam Greening
*This redirect has been reversed, and now californiadriedplums.org redirects to californiaprunes.org.