The lectionary Gospel for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost in Year A (Matthew 14:22-33) picks up right where the previous week’s text left off. It is a text with several fascinating moments, each worth some meditation, concluding with the seriously fascinating story of Peter walking on the water.
Last week, Jesus had taken off for a bit of solitude, but a huge crowd found him — 5000 men, plus women and children. Jesus healed their ills, then miraculously fed them with five loaves and two fish.
This week, Jesus returns to his previous goal: He’s aching for some solitude. So Jesus sends his disciples off by boat, sends the crowd home with their tummies full of bread and fish, and hikes up the mountain for some time in prayer.
This initial movement of the story is worth noting, even if it is rather obvious: Jesus puts a high priority on both solitude and on prayer.
People in ministry, despite being accused by the ignorant of working only on Sunday, tend to be obsessive about their working lives. Partly because there is rather little structure, and partly because the work is never actually done, we tend to fill the days and hours with what we see as necessary working tasks.
(Many of us also do this because we are rather weak emotionally. We fear that members of the congregation will think we are slacking if we aren’t busy, busy, busy.)
So Jesus’ choices here are significant for us all, but especially for those in ministry.
Jesus actively chose to turn aside from ministry from time to time, and pursue time alone. Even when his plan for solitude was thwarted by ministry, he didn’t give it up. He came back to it, and pursued solitude again.
I say he “actively” chose solitude, because you can see in the text that he made specific choices to bring it about.
…he withdrew from there
in a boat
to a deserted place
Matthew 14:13 NRSV
Then, after being swarmed by a crowd, and being consumed by his call to heal and feed them, he took a careful series of actions.
First he got rid of the disciples:
he made the disciples get into the boat
and go on ahead
to the other side…
Second he got rid of the crowd:
…while he dismissed the crowds.
Third, he high-tailed it to someplace nobody could find him:
And after he had dismissed the crowds,
he went up the mountain
Matthew 14:22-23 NRSV
So please, my friend, you know you need some time alone. Don’t give up just because of the nagging needs of those around you, or because being cooped up in a pandemic emphasizes those needs.
Do like Jesus: Keep seeking times of solitude. Take a walk around the block. Go in your room and close the door.
So you got interrupted? Try again. A few minutes here. A few minutes there. You need it.
Notice, also, what Jesus did with his solitude: He prayed.
“…he went up the mountain by himself
Matthew 14:23 NRSV
It doesn’t say exactly what he prayed, or how he prayed. (He was alone, after all.)
Matthew just tells us that he prayed.
So please, for the health of your soul, take some of your hard-fought solitude time and do what Jesus did: pray.
Jesus prayed and prayed. Time passed. Then, Matthew says,
When evening came…
Matthew 14:23 NRSV
The funny thing about this is that in the text it was already evening.
Back after Jesus healed all the sick people in the crowd of 5000+,
When it was evening,
the disciples came to him and said,
“This is a deserted place,
and the hour is now late;
send the crowds away
so that they may go into the villages
and buy food for themselves.”
Matthew 14:15 NRSV
So I suspect one of two things is happening.
1. Perhaps dinner was when it was just barely evening, but now it was really really evening, like the dead of night.
2. Or maybe we have another example of Matthew being far less attentive to the details than Mark was when telling the same story.
Walking on Water (1)
When Jesus as done praying, his friends were, of course, far away. They’d been sailing toward the far shore of the Sea of Galilee for a good long while.
Who knows how they thought Jesus was going to catch up with them when he insisted that they leave him behind.
But Jesus knew how he would get there.
Just as you learned in geometry, Jesus knew the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. So Jesus just took off walking straight toward his friends. Across the water.
And his friends totally freaked.
It’s an understated miracle, less expected than his healings and less dramatic than feeding a crowd. It’s also one of Scripture’s quietly funny moments.
Understated and funny as it may be, it makes an important theological point: Jesus is master of all creation. Just as he can heal with a touch or a word, and can multiply bread by breaking into smaller pieces, he’s not limited by ordinary laws like gravity.
But they don’t understand. They think Jesus is a ghost. Maybe they were fine thinking of Jesus as the Messiah. Could they imagine he was really God? With all God’s abilities? Peter won’t be ready to confess that kind of faith for two more chapters.
This scene portrays what Paul described in Colossians as Jesus’ nature and role:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
Colossians 1:15-17 NRSV
Christ is the God who made all of creation. Christ keeps it, moment by moment, from collapsing into nothing. He is above any creaturely limitations. Of course he can walk on water.
They saw Jesus walking on water. They welcomed him into the boat. The storm calmed down. All of that was what prompted their worship and confession of faith at the end of the scene.
Walking on Water (2)
Meanwhile, though, we get the grabber: Peter calls out to Jesus. Jesus tells Peter to come to him. There he goes! Peter is walking on water too — but then he sinks.
Peter’s courage is not the main point here. Yes, to walk on water we must get out of the boat. But this passage doesn’t really call all of us to walk on water. The passage focuses on what made Peter sink.
My usual assumption? Peter looked down and noticed he was standing on water. That piece of relevant information would probably cause me to lose faith.
And losing faith is what Jesus accuses Peter of doing.
You of little faith,
why did you doubt?
Matthew 14:31 NRSV
Jesus’ comments on faith — who has some, and who doesn’t — are always interesting to me. For Paul it is the primary category of Christian existence: we are justified by God’s grace through faith alone, right?
The Gospels don’t focus on faith as frequently. When they do talk about it, I perk up my ears.
Peter apparently started his journey to Jesus with faith. He focused on nothing but Jesus, and was able to do something amazing. Peter was doing fine.
But when he noticed the strong wind,
he became frightened,
and beginning to sink…
Matthew 14:30 NRSV
What was Peter’s lack of faith?
He noticed that the wind was blowing.
Peter’s attention drifted away from Jesus, and onto something completely irrelevant.
So the call is to give Jesus my full and continuous attention. If I’m looking at him, I won’t go too far wrong. Maybe I won’t be walking on water, but chances are, I’ll be doing something he invites or calls me to do.
Look at Jesus.
Keep moving toward Jesus.
Ignore the weather.
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