Wednesday, August 3, 2011

SUNDAY 19: Trusting Jesus, Walking on Water

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year "A") - August 7, 2011 - JESUS RESCUES HIS STORM-TOSSED CHURCH - [Texts: 1 Kings 19:9a,11-13a [Psalm 85]; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33]

Matthew's treatment of the gospel tradition features two stories of Jesus' disciples caught in storms while crossing the Sea of Galilee (8.23-27; 14.22-33).

In the first story, a great earthquake convulses the boat as Jesus sleeps peacefully.  Awakened by the cry of His disciples—“Lord, save [us]!  We are perishing!”—Jesus stills the storm. 

The “dead calm” following the windstorm evoked in the disciples wonderment about the one whom “even the winds and the sea obey”.

Matthew prefaced that storm narrative with several sayings about what it costs to be a follower of Jesus, so that the whole unit (8.18-27) becomes a model of the church called to journey with Jesus into the storm toward the farther shore.  There, too, the church will proclaim the Good News of God's Kingdom.

Representations in art of this gospel scene show that artists have seen the church of their era in the boat buffeted by the waves.  One frequently reproduced painting depicts the pope, a cardinal and other church leaders with Jesus in the boat.  The message is that the church will be storm-tossed in every age, but can weather the storm because Jesus promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28.20).

The second storm narrative—today's gospel reading—shows the disciples compelled to go forth without Jesus (“He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side”).  In the earlier story, Jesus had commanded them to depart but preceded them into the boat.  The separation between Jesus and His disciples is emphasized: “Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray...he was there alone”.  Meanwhile the boat with the disciples “was far from the land” (the Greek says “many stadia away”).

The analogy between the ship and the church found in the earlier story is strengthened by Matthew's desciption of the boat as “being tortured” by the waves.  The suffering that the church undergoes in living out its mission comes to the fore.

In biblical thought the sea represents the realm of chaos that only God's hand holds at bay.  The dark powers which threaten the created order are symbolized by the wind that “was against them” in the absence of Jesus.  Though it seemed impossible that Jesus could be with them, he came “walking on the sea” during the darkest part of the night—“in the fourth watch” from 3:00-6:00 A.M.—a nuance which “early in the morning” fails to convey adequately.

Ancient literature was in agreement that no human being but only the deity could walk upon—that is, conquer—the chaotic power of the sea.  In the Bible, only God walks on the sea (cf. Job 9.8; Psalm 77.19; Isaiah 43.16).  Jesus is depicted as doing what only God can do, walk on water.  And Jesus identified himself as God had in the burning bush episode (Exodus 3.13-15), “I AM” (translated, “It is I”).  As Jesus rejoins the disciples, the church is reconstituted as the community of believers carrying out its mission of proclaiming the Kingdom with Christ present in the midst.

Matthew now includes a vignette featuring Peter as a representative of his fellow disciples in faith and fear.  Peter's actions make sense as an expression of his impulsive attachment to Jesus and of a faith that is still shot through with doubt.

Speaking for his fellow disciples, Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”.  With the right confessional formula on his lips, Peter left the boat and walked toward Jesus on the water.  But he looked away from Jesus toward the elements, and his faith wavered.

Peter's faith, though weak, rallied as he begged Jesus, “Lord, save me”.  In rescuing Peter, Jesus challenged disciples who hear the narrative with his closing question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  In reply, members of the Church follow the path of the disciples, worshipping Jesus and professing, “Truly you are the Son of God!”



  1. "I'm on a boat! I'm on a boat!"

  2. "Truly you are the Son of God!" What a great line.