Biblical scholars often debate 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. We also encounter two recurring memes, oh ye of little faith, and be not afraid. The phrase, be not afraid is programmatic or central to the life of the Christian disciple, who is called to witness to the Good News regardless of the circumstances or social context.
Just as miracle of the loaves accounts recur six times in four Gospels, stories about Jesus on Lake Galilee recur six times in four Gospels. Christ walks on water in three accounts (Mk 6, Mt 14, Jn 6), and calms a storm in three accounts (Mk 4, Mt 8, and Lk 8).
The Disciples’ Fear
In the Gospel reading, we have a 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 a storm on Lake Galilee:
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 theme that runs throughout the accounts, and the theme that the Sacred Authors of the Gospels wish to convey, is that the faith of the disciples can waiver, the disciples can show fear, and subsequently panic, and 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 the Lucan story, Jesus says, where is your faith? In Matthew, we have the famous turn of phrase, in the King James and Douay translations, o ye of little faith. The phrase has its root in the Greek conjunctive oligopistos [oligo – few, pistos – faith]. It is a phrase employed by Jesus to describe the inconstancy of his disciples. I blogged on this subject previously, 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 our Gospel account, Matthew’s Gospel is unique in presenting us with the scene of Peter leaping out of the boat in order to meet Jesus on the water. Realizing the high seas, Peter is overcome with fear and begins to sink. Jesus extends his hand, and upbraids his first apostle: o you of little faith, why did you doubt? We have here a story whose meaning is almost entirely metaphoric. Though this account may be true, there is no pastoral or ministerial purpose served by Peter – or any ministerial leader – leaping out of a boat in the middle of a storm. But the sacred author reminds us, in addition to the fact that Peter can tend to act quickly and without thinking things through, of the consequences that occur 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.
This account also teaches the reader that during a storm, we are called to stay inside the boat – the barque of Peter – rather than presume that we can accomplish spectacular feats that are properly accomplished through faith in Christ. 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. Many 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. This theory is problematic, because it flippantly suggests Matthew adds fictional testimony to the Gospel, which is difficult to reconcile with the presumption that the Gospels are essentially accurate in recounting events, if not with chronological perfection. Secondly, the presence of fictional testimony in any of the Gospels would suggest that the Gospels are not merely theologically inconsistent, but even contradictory. As the theology of four Gospels is actually complimentary, the probability that each author reported on the same events is more likely, and the probability that the sacred authors manufactured their own testimony is less likely.
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, expressed in the statement be not afraid. This phrase and its variants does not occur four or five times in the Gospels, but rather 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.
The expression be not afraid does not feature in each of the six accounts of the storm on the sea or Jesus walking on water. The accounts usually end with the disciples being amazed at Jesus’ authority over the elements. Nevertheless, the phrase be not afraid summarizes a key Christian principle. Namely, faith in Christ ought to trump fear of the unknown. Even when that fear may be rational – when we fear for our lives – as Peter did when 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 not primarily about Jesus’ mastery over the natural elements. 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 Luke 5:4-10, consider how the Gospel author once again uses the physical surrounding of the Sea of Galilee to communicate a story to his followers. Here, Jesus does not tell Peter be not afraid. He says, put out into the deep, for you will be a fisher of men:
After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch. Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets. When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”