August 13, 2017
The events that Matthew records leading up to this gospel text are: the death of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:3-12) and the feeding of five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21). Verses 22-23 suggest that the disciples boarded the boat, the crowds were dispersed, and Jesus then climbed further up the mountain to spend most of the night in prayer.
The text itself appears to be a fairly simple unfolding of events, but consider that there may be more here than a simple unfolding of events. Matthew records only two other occasions where Jesus goes off by himself to pray. The first is just a few verses earlier (Matthew 14:13-14), when Jesus learned of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. “When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them and he cured their sick.” (Matthew 14:13-14). The other time comes at the end of his life, when he leaves his disciples to go into the garden of Gethsemane to pray. (Matthew 26:36-46).
Each of the four situations described in today’s text is a very brief description of a much richer experience of what is taking place beneath the words. While Jesus spends most of the night alone in prayer, the disciples are out in the boat, probably fishing. The taxes for a fishing permit were high and kept the average fisherman in debt. It would be unlikely that a successful fisherman would pass up the opportunity for a night of fishing. The Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Gennesaret, is well known for its sudden and severe storms. Verse 25 says that Jesus appeared on the water during the fourth watch. The fourth watch is from 3:00 AM to 6:00 AM. When Jesus comes to them, the disciples have been out on the water fishing presumably most of the night. It is also possible that they have battling against the storm winds most of that time. First light would permit one to see objects on the sea, but not in detail. Also, in the world of the disciples, it is impossible for anyone to walk on water. So when they see Jesus coming toward them on the water, it is reasonable that they would presume that it is a ghost.
Jesus, walking on the stormy water, presents himself as one who is greater than the mighty evil forces of chaos that threatened the existence of people of the day. Water was a symbol of life because it was needed to sustain life. At the same time, it was feared because of the destruction that occurred when rivers and lakes raged out of control. By walking on the water, Jesus is demonstrating that he has the power to subdue the chaos of the water, and to subdue the fear of the disciples in the boat, who think that Jesus may be a ghost. Jesus comes to establish peace in creation, both on the stormy waters and in the hearts of those who are in the boat.
Peter may have been reassured and felt confident by the reassuring words of Jesus, or perhaps he was uncertain it was truly Jesus who approached on the water. Either way, Peter asks that Jesus order him to come to him on the water. And so it is ordered. Peter begins to walk, but when his attention shifts to how powerful the chaos seems to be about him, he begins to sink. Peter calls out for help, and immediately the hand of Jesus is extended to lift him from peril and bring him to safety and peace.
The last two verses describe the scene in the boat. Jesus and Peter join the disciples who apparently have witnessed all of this while they themselves were still being tossed about on a violent sea. After Jesus and Peter join them, the sea, the wind, and the water are calm, and the disciples pay Jesus homage by stating, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:33b)
- What is your experience of water, both as life-giving and as a force of destruction?
- Have you ever been physically exhausted and feared for your life? How did that circumstance affect your ability to act rationally?
- Have you ever felt like you need to be alone with God?
- Why would Peter want to get out of the boat and walk toward Jesus?
- Have you ever been willing to leave your present situation in order to pursue some new opportunity, relationship, or life situation?
- How does fear affect your relationships with others and with God?
- Have there been times when your relationship with God vacillated between fear and confidence? How did that shifting back and forth affect your overall relationship with God?
- Who in this gospel text do you most identify with? Can you take some time to talk to God about your relationship with God as you reflect on this text?
The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.