Readings for August 7th. 19th Sunday, including Matthew 14:22-33.
Biblical scholars can argue about the historicity of the account of the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mt 14:22-33), where the disciples encounter Jesus “walking on water” amid the storm. We should keep in mind that there is a lot of good Christian theology in this passage, which Matthew presents to us as being historic.
The Disciples’ Fear
First, we have the very powerful contrast between Jesus, who is rarely shaken by events that take a wrong turn, and his disciples. The three Gospel accounts are fairly unanimous in that the disciples lost their nerve during the storm:
During the fourth watch of the night,
Jesus came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
The story of the multiplication of the loaves recurs six times in the four gospels. Similarly, the various accounts of Jesus and a storm on the Sea of Galilee recur six times across the four gospels. Jesus walks on water during the storm in Matthew 14, Mark 6 and John 6 and separately, Jesus calms the storm in Mark 4, Luke 8 and Matthew 8.
The theme that runs throughout the accounts, and the theme that the Sacred Authors of the Gospels wish to convey, is that a) the faith of the disciples can waiver, b) the disciples can show fear, and subsequently panic, and c) given the proximity of Jesus, the disciples’ fear is unjustified. Consider this account of Jesus calming the storm in Luke 8:22-25,
A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?”
O Ye of Little Faith
In Luke 8, Jesus says, where is your faith? In Matthew, we have the famous turn of phrase, o ye of little faith. The phrase has its root in the Greek conjunctive word oligopistos [oligo = few, pistos = faith]. It is a phrase employed by Jesus to describe the inconstancy of his disciples. I blogged on this subject last year, here. Matthew attributes this phrase to Jesus on five different occasions. Another excellent example is found in Matthew 17:19-20:
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast [the demon] out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”
Returning to the storm on the sea, and Jesus walking on water… among the four evangelists, only Matthew’s Gospel presents us with the scene of Peter leaping out of the boat in order to meet Jesus on the water. Given the high seas, Peter is overcome with fear and begins to sink or drown. Jesus extends his hand, and upbraids his first apostle, o you of little faith, why did you doubt?
In Matthew’s account of Peter leaping for the boat, we have a passage whose importance is almost entirely metaphoric. There is no pastoral or ministerial purpose served by Peter walking on water. The greater weight is placed on the consequences that happen when one’s faith in Jesus begins to fail.
The powerful symbolism of this passage has provoked a fierce debate among scholars as to whether the story actually occurred. The historicity of Peter walking towards Jesus on water is perhaps (the Passion accounts notwithstanding) the most widely debated passage in the four Gospels.
In Mark 6:45-52, we have the same account of Jesus walking on water, but without the episode of Peter leaping out of the boat. Most contemporary biblical scholars assume that Matthew added the gloss, proposing that Matthew’s community (either the church at Jerusalem or Antioch) was going through a crisis of confidence. According to these scholars, this crisis of confidence was addressed by the Matthean author, metaphorically, with the account of Peter leaping out of the boat.
Be Not Afraid
Of course, we need a dénouement for the story of Jesus walking on water, and Peter leaping out of the boat. This brings us to our last recurring theme in this section, that of the phrase, be not afraid. This phrase and its variants does not occur four or five times in the Gospels: it occurs about twenty-five times. There are so many variants (“do not fear,” “do not be afraid,” “fear not”), that I cannot provide an accurate count.
Structurally, the term “be not afraid” is not a dénouement to the six accounts of the storm on the sea/Jesus walking on water. The accounts usually end with the disciples ‘amazed’ at Jesus’ authority over the elements. Nevertheless, theologically, the phrase be not afraid summarizes a key Christian principle. That principles suggests that faith in Christ ought to trump our own fear of the unknown. Even when that fear may be rational – when we fear for our lives – as Peter did when, perhaps rashly, he lept out of the boat to encounter Jesus.
If we consider the six accounts of Jesus and the storms on Lake Galilee out of context, we can miss the broader theological importance of these stories. These stories are primarily not about Jesus’ mastery over the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is part of the actual history of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.
But the lake is, for the authors of the Gospels, also a metaphor for something – anything – that is a bit dangerous, frightening, and beyond-of-our-own control. The boat can be a figure for the church and those within it (note 1). While the storm on the Sea of Galilee can appear to threaten the boat, the unperturbed presence of Jesus on the Sea should convey to us that we should not be frightened by the challenges of ministry.
In order to bring it all home, let’s turn to Luke 5:4-10. Consider how the Gospel author once again uses the backdrop of the Sea of Galilee to tell the story:
When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them….
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
Note 1. Benedict XVI. Angelus, August 7, 2011. “The sea symbolizes this life and the instability of the visible world; the storm points to every kind of trial or difficulty that oppresses human beings. The boat, instead, represents the Church, built by Christ and steered by the Apostles.”