The Perfect storm – Tuesday, 18th Week in ordinary time – Mt 14:22-36
One of the earliest symbols of Christianity was the boat. This symbol stood for the Church tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness and persecution, but finally reaching safe harbour with its cargo of human souls.
This symbol had its origins in narratives such as the Gospel of today. Having fishermen as disciples, familiar with the sea, made it easier for Jesus to gain access to one of these many boats. It is these boats that He used as a pulpit as He spoke to the crowds on the beach, or as He crisscrossed the Galilean Sea.
Make no mistake; the Galilean Sea for all its idyllic beauty had the potential to become a fisherman’s nightmare, enough to wreck the nerves of experienced fishermen such as Jesus’ disciples. The Gospel records the condition of the sea on this occasion as ‘basanizo’, translated as ‘tortured or harassed’. Matthew narrates two such tempestuous incidents; in Chapter 8:23-27 and here in 14:22-36.
There is a marked difference in the two texts. In the former text, Jesus is in the boat; here He is not; He comes walking to them. In the first there is a storm, here the wind and waves were against them. In the first they feared for their lives; here they are terrified because they think they see a ghost. It is the ‘little faith’ of the disciples that is in question in the first incident; now it is Peter’s little faith that is under the scanner.
This information overload needs no interpretation for Matthew’s community. They lived in the throes of persecution from within and everywhere, and the meaning was quite clear. At stake was the question of Jesus’ claim that He was the ‘Son of God’ ( verse 33), a claim rejected by the Jews both at Jesus’ time and during the time Matthew wrote the Gospel. Then there was also the reality of their ‘little faith’ that was tossed about as a consequence of their isolation from the Jewish community into no man’s land.
The message to Matthew’s community is clear; hang in there and take heart. The community of Matthew must battle the storm as the disciples did, through a long dark night, knowing that just as for the disciples, so also for Matthew’s community, the Lord will come at the break of dawn.
It is the assuring voice of Jesus, that Matthew’s persecuted community hears; “Take heart, It is I, do not be afraid.” Jesus reveals Himself as the great “I am”. The narrative of Peter ‘walking on the water’ distracts the modern reader who is enamoured by the spectacular walk of Peter, albeit for a few seconds.
The meaning of the narrative unfolds when the Lord grabs hold of Peter. Jesus steps on to the boat with Peter to a public acknowledgment of the disciples. For the first time in Matthew’s Gospel, they see Him, all twelve of them, as the ‘Son of God’ and they worship Him. Matthew’s community stands consoled.
Fr Warner D’ Souza
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