Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:22-33 – NRSV)
This text is replete with Old Testament references, making it impossible to be certain about what is fact and what is symbol. For example, in Psalm 107:23-32 we find a text that is echoed in the Gospel story: “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” (see also Jonah 1)
Matthew’s account is clearly drawn from Mk 6:45–52, though he adds some details of his own. We find a similar account in John 6:16-21. Each of the three accounts has Jesus going up on to “the mountain” to pray alone, the disciples were out on the lake in a boat struggling against the wind and the waves, Jesus walks on the sea towards them, the disciples are frightened/terrified and Jesus tells them not to be afraid.
Matthew is unique in the detail that has Peter attempting to walk to Jesus across the water.
The Sea of Galilee is nearly four and a half miles wide. Matthew uses the Greek word mesos meaning “in the midst”, to indicate where the boat is on the lake.
The phrase “early in the morning” (NRSV) translates the Greek phrase tetartos phulake which literally means “the fourth watch”. The fourth and last watch of the night was between 3am and 6am.
Matthew, like Mark, repeats the detail that Jesus came “walking toward them on the sea”. But Mark (6:48) adds the detail that Jesus intended to pass them by. Matthew omits this detail.
Immediately: That is, immediately after Jesus has fed the five thousand, which is immediately after he has heard the news of the beheading of John the Baptist: “Now when Jesus heard (of the beheading of John the Baptist), he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (14:13-14). There is a deep interconnection here between the events: the beheading of John, Jesus’ attempt to be alone, the feeding of the five thousand, the storm at sea and the following further attempt by Jesus to be alone. We are made aware of a great drama unfolding and Jesus is at the heart of it. Peter and the disciples are slowly being drawn into it but they do not understand what is happening yet.
he made the disciples get into the boat: The Greek verb is anankazō – translated here as “made” – means “force” or “compel”. One scholar writes: “Matthew follows Mark in developing a highly emotional mood around Jesus and the disciples, with Jesus fully in command”. (Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 223.)
he went up the mountain by himself to pray: Matthew does not speak much about Jesus at prayer compared with the other Gospel writers. “Apart from his instructions about prayer in Matt 6:5–15 this is the first reference to Jesus at prayer. Only in the Gethsemane pericope do we get a glimpse into the content of Jesus’ prayer and his relationship with the Father (see Matt 26:36–46).” (Harrington, op cit, 224.)
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”: Once again we hear the message: “Do not be afraid!” The Greek word tharseo – translated here by NRSV as “take heart” – literally means “be courageous”. The fundamental reason for trusting this message – which runs like a golden thread through the Bible – is that it comes from God. This is the message given to Moses (see Exodus 3:12) and repeated by the Prophet, “Do not be afraid for I am with you!” (Isaiah 41:10). In the middle of this statement by Jesus is the key phrase, “It is I”. The disciples thought Jesus was a “ghost” but Jesus says, “It is I”. This echoes the Prophet Isaiah, a favourite author for the Gospel writers: “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, am first, and will be with the last.” (Isaiah 41:4). And again in Isaiah 43:4: “You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.” We also find the phrase “fear not” in Isaiah 43 several times with “I am”. It may also be linked to the revelation of God as “I AM” in Exodus 3:14 (“I AM WHO AM”) and Deuteronomy 32:39 (“See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me.”) Matthew, unlike Mark where the disciples remain hard of heart, has the disciples acknowledge the divinity of Jesus: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.”
Peter answered him: For Matthew, Peter is clearly central to the relationship between Jesus and the disciples – see Matthew 15:15; 16:16; 17:4; 18:21; 19:27; 26:33 & 35. When Peter cries out, “Lord save me!”, he is repeating the cry of the disciples in Matthew 8:25 when they were again in a storm at sea. But this cry also calls to mind the Psalmist: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. …. rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.” (69:1-2 & 14-15) Jesus’ statement, “You of little faith”, is said more than once by Jesus to the disciples in Matthew – 6:30; 8:26; 16:8; 17:20.
The Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. In his speech of acceptance he spoke “of a line I wrote fairly recently instructing myself (and whoever else might be listening) to ‘walk on air against your better judgement’”.
What do you think the poet might have meant? Be silly? Ignore common sense?
The drama described in today’s Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) raises similar questions. Jesus walks on water. Peter tries to walk on water . . .
All the action in this drama happens around Jesus. He is the central figure, the driving force and reason for the unfolding drama, the one who makes the story worth telling. Everything that happens brings Jesus into greater relief. Is this not a pattern for the drama of each of our lives as “Christians”? Paradoxically, the central figure of the drama of our lives is not us.
We choose to be participants in a drama being played out through Him, with Him and in Him? We do not know the exact script ahead of time. Nor do we know our part ahead of time. Slowly our part is revealed to us on a need-to-know basis. Often enough we find out after the fact. The waiting and discovering, the not knowing and the being surprised, will never cease until the day we die. And so we become disciples, day by day. Or we do not.
We will always be tempted to write the script, tempted to assume we know what our part is in the drama and – wittingly or unwittingly – replace our own self-centred drama for the Christ-centred one. We must resist those temptations. Our part is to turn up each day, ready and willing. Mary’s response to the Angel exemplifies the right attitude: “You see before you the Lord’s servant. Let it happen according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Mary would have understood Seamus Heaney’s instruction: ‘walk on air against your better judgement’. I suppose Peter would have too – eventually. After he had seen the empty tomb and encountered the risen Lord. But maybe that is the hard reality. We do not step into this way of being as we might step out of a boat. We do not become utterly willing and able participants in the Jesus-drama, simply because we will it.
Peter needed that experience of sinking, the sudden terror that he was not capable of walking on air or water. And his inability, his failure, was not what the drama was about. He needed to discover the way of grace. Peter needed to experience, through that horrible moment of failure, that this drama is about Jesus who is the Anointed of God, the Christ, and his relationship with him.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson we can learn from our failures, limits, inadequacies and sins, is the reality of grace. What we most need is utterly free, it comes as gift not conquest.