Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33
Trust in Times of Stress
When do you find trust in God the most difficult?
In these times, the pace of life escalates. Multiple responsibilities and conflicting schedules frazzle most of us. No wonder cell phone and pocket computer organizer sales have sky rocketed. We need any kind help to organize our increasingly fragmented lives!
Stress, stress, stress. Modern life runs thick with stress. Add just one disaster to our stressed lives and we fall apart. Imagine, then, the stress Jesus' followers endured as they sailed during an all night storm on the Sea of Galilee.
22 Immediately after he fed the people with bread and fish, Jesus made his followers get into a boat and set sail for the other side of the Sea of Galilee without him. Meanwhile, he sent the people home. 23 After that, he went up a mountain by himself to pray. During the evening, Jesus was there alone. 24 But the boat, already some distance from the shore, was tossed around by the waves, since a strong wind blew against them.
25 Before dawn the next morning, Jesus walked toward them on the water. 26 When his followers saw him walking on the water, they got very upset. "It's a ghost!" they cried out in fear.
27 Just then, Jesus told them, "Courage! I am here. Don't be afraid!"
28 Peter replied, "Lord, if it's you, command me to join you on the water."
29 "Join me!" Jesus said.
Peter got out of the boat and walked out on the water toward Jesus. 30 But, when Peter saw how strong the wind was, he panicked. As he began to sink into the water, Peter shouted, "Lord, save me!"
31 Jesus quickly reached out his hand and grabbed Peter. "Why did you doubt me? You really don't trust me." Jesus said.
32 Jesus and Peter got into the boat and the wind calmed down. Then, those in the boat worshiped Jesus. "You are truly God's Son!" they said.
The scene of Jesus walking on the water can be divided into three sections: Jesus praying alone, the appearance of Jesus on the water during the storm, and the disciples' reaction.
22 Immediately (after he fed the people, JESUS) made the disciples get into a boat and to go ahead of HIM across to the (other side of the lake), until which (time) HE could dismiss the crowd. 23 Having dismissed the crowd, HE went up to the hill (top) by HIMSELF to pray. Evening having fallen, HE was there alone.
Matthew placed the passage of Jesus walking on the water right after the multiplication of the loaves (last week's gospel). Both passages had interesting parallels. Both begin with Jesus alone (presumably in prayer). In both, Jesus challenged the faith of his followers before he performed the miracle.
The narrative began as Jesus dismissed his followers and the people. He again spent time alone, this time in prayer. He climbed one of the foothills around the Sea of Galilee, a place that symbolized the close proximity of God's presence. In Matthew, Jesus prepared for the next revelation of God's power. [14:22-23a]
Have you ever felt distant from God, only to feel his presence in a dramatic fashion later? What are the ups and downs of your prayer life?
24 But the boat was already several stadia from the shore, being beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 In the fourth watch of the night, HE came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But the disciples, having seen HIM walking about on the sea, were frightened, saying, "HE is a ghost!" and cried out in fear. 27 Immediately [JESUS] spoke to them, saying, "Take courage! I AM (here). Don't be afraid!"
14:24 "statia" A "stadion" is a Greek measure of approximately 200 yards.
14:25 "fourth watch" Interestingly enough, Matthew used the Roman division of the night (four watches), not the Greek (three watches). In the Roman sense, the night was divided into four, three hour watches: 6:00 to 9:00 P.M., 9:00 P.M. to Midnight, Midnight to 3:00 A.M., and 3:00 to 6:00 A.M. Some scholars speculate the time frame of Jesus appearance on the water paralleled that of the Resurrection.
As Jesus' followers sailed for the opposite shore, they battled a night time storm on the Sea of Galilee. [14:23b-24] Both the large boat and the nighttime storm were not unusual for the Sea. At the time of Jesus, the fishing boats on the lake had a moderate size (26 ½ ft. long, 7 ½ ft. wide, and 4 ½ ft. deep) that could carry a crew of five and ten passengers. Or, a ton of fish.
Storms that the followers endured still ravage the Sea on a regular basis. Geographically, the Sea of Galilee (really a fresh water lake) lies 700 ft. below sea level. The surrounding hills, however, climb to over 1200 feet above the lake's surface. Toward evening, the shore temperature drops quickly, while the water temperature cools slowly. Cold air rushes down through canyons that cut through the foothills toward the lake and meets warm air rising from the lake surface. The rush of air causes strong wind storms that can whip wave crests up to six feet high. The storms can last as long as it takes for the lake to cool off.
Since people at the time of Jesus lacked the scientific understanding to explain storms on the lake, they blamed it on evil spirits in the water. [14:26] Unlike our time which explains the universe through science and masters the world through technology, contemporaries of Jesus explained the cosmos through a multitude of spirits, some benevolent, some malevolent. Ancient people believed bodies of water were the home of evil. No wonder the disciples considered the sight of anything unusual in a challenging situation (like Jesus walking on water during the storm; see 14:25) as the work of evil spirits.
Unlike their first assumption, they heard the voice of Jesus cry out "I am!" [14:27] Jesus' response recalled his self proclaimed title in John's gospel. In this title, Jesus identified himself with the name God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14: YHWH. As we have studied in the past, the title YHWH was connected to the Hebrew verb "to be (doing something)." God's name denoted pure activity, not just mere existence. Under the title of YHWH, God created and saved with power. When Jesus identified himself to his followers, he also revealed his divine power. Like his Father, Jesus, too, controlled even the natural elements.
In his brilliant and lucid book, A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. II (Doubleday, 1994), Monsignor John P. Meier, (New Testament scholar at Notre Dame) pointed to this miracle as an example of faith in the early church. According to Fr. Meier, this story predated both the version found in John (John 6:16-21) and the version found in Mark (Mark 6:45-51; Matthew used Mark for the basis of 14:22-33). The miracle which circulated in church communities before 65 A.D. compacted Old Testament imagery about YHWH. The Septuagint translation of Job 9:8b declared God the creator "walked on water," thus controlling the chaotic world of the water. YHWH contained fury of the waves (Job 38:8-11), trampled on the sea (Habakkuk 3:15), and crushed the monster of the sea (Isaiah 51:9-10). Clearly, Jesus' action (walking on water) and his words ("I am") in the midst of the watery chaos (violent wind storm on the lake) connected his power and identity with YHWH. Meier referred to this moment as an epiphany, a moment of revelation.
Jesus used two statements of encouragement like bookends that surround his title. "Courage!" and "Don't be afraid!" were meant to reassure the disciples. [14:27] Yet these bookends, according to Meier, denote the sheer immanence of God's transcendent power (Isaiah 43:1-13). In the title "I AM," God revealed himself; in the admonition "Fear not," God called his people to faith in his presence, not to despair. When Jesus used this language, he, too, revealed his divine power and called his followers to faith.
How has the Lord been close to you recently? What happened? How did God reveal "his glory" to you, even in the tough times?
28 Having answered, Peter said to him, "LORD, if you are (there), command me to come to you on the water." 29 (JESUS) said, "Come!"Having gotten out of the boat, Peter walked about on the water and came toward JESUS. 30 But, seeing the [strong] wind, he was afraid, and, beginning to sink, he shouted, saying, "LORD, save me!" 31 Immediately, JESUS, having stretched out (his hand), took him and said to him, "One lacking faith, why did you doubt?" 32 When they got into the boat, the wind died down. 32 But the (disciples) in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God!"
The disciples reacted to Jesus in two ways. First, Peter tested Jesus when he asked Jesus to help him walk on water (in order words, to share in Jesus' divine power). At first Peter could, then his doubt made him shift his focus toward the storm. He faltered. In his panic, Peter cried out to Jesus for help. [14:28-30]
When Matthew focused on Peter, did he comment on the leader of the apostles alone or all ministry leaders? In the early Church, miracles accompanied evangelization, but Church unity depended upon a leadership who spoke clearly in the name of the Lord. No matter what level, leadership (whether in the Church, on the job, or in the family) was a gift from God and part of his will. Every Christian who has ever exercised leadership does so depending upon the Lord and wondering if he or she is up to the task. (How many Christian parents have ever prayed: "These children are from you, Lord. Help me to raise them according to your will!"?)
Jesus responded quickly to Peter and pointed out the obvious. Peter faltered because he lacked faith. He didn't trust Jesus. [14:31] (Isn't it human nature to focus the most immediate and pressing concerns, and not to see the bigger picture?) Jesus picked Peter up and together they reentered the boat [14:32].
At this point, the disciples reacted to the Lord in the second way. With the power of God so close, they bowed in worship (the literal meaning of the Greek verb). [14:33] The point of focus shifted to the most powerful entity present. The power of the Lord replaced the power of the storm.
Many have commented on the symbolism of the passage. The boat has been a traditional symbol for the Church. The night storm represented persecution, when the presence of Christ seemed so distant and the presence of evil so close. In the midst of persecution, evangelists (symbolized by Peter) attempt missionary efforts, only to falter with the many pressing concerns. Then the Lord comes to comfort, to strengthen, and to be present to the congregation and its leadership. The response to the Lord was worship of the Church.
How have you responded to God's presence? What is the quality of your prayer or worship?
Catechism Themes: Only One Faith (CCC 166-175)
Matthew's passages on the disciples in the storm remind us that faith remains a relationship between God and us, his people. In spite of trouble, God will always be present. Together, we need only realize that fact and act upon it.
This insight raises three points. First, faith is a relationship between God and his people, the Church. While the faith choice has always been and always will be a personal act of the individual, the content and context of faith is mediated through people. The individual receives it from others, and has the responsibility to pass it on to others. As individuals, we cannot be evangelized and evangelize others outside the influence of God's people. The social context of this post-Christian era in America should drive that point home. No one can believe or evangelize outside what the Church teaches. Imagine the difficulty you would encounter evangelizing when culture remains ignorant of and indifferent to Christian faith.
Second, God is always present to his people. Faith gives us the means to say "YES!" to his presence. While creeds (i.e., the Apostle and Nicene) give us the content of faith, they do not replace faith. As paragraph 170 states: "We do not believe in formulas, but in the realities they express, which faith allows us to touch." Church doctrine is the means that helps facilitate the faith relationship, not the end of faith. However, since God always guides the Church and her teaching, those means are sure.
Faith comes in and through the Church. And the Church, under God's direction, provides a sure means to the divine. In light of the two previous points, our final one is clear: we only need to realize God's presence (in the Church) and act upon it.
Have you ever prayed for strength in the face of doubt or stress? How has God answered that prayer? Did God work through other Christians to help you? Explain.
Again a simple gospel passage presents us with so many levels of meaning. The boat, the storm on the lake, the power of Christ in the midst of chaos, and the response of the disciples, all make this passage so accessible, yet so deep. Accessible in the emotions of the moment: stress, fear, doubt. Deep in the mysterious yet powerful ways God responds to that moment.
Let us praise God for his love and guidance through times of stress. For, he truly controls that which we cannot, and is present to us in ways we will never understand.
Take a moment and reflect on the moments of stress you endured this week. How was God in control of the situation? How was God present to you in those moments? How did you respond to him? Thank him for the opportunity to say "yes" to him, even when the situation made him seem so distant.