Identifying Jesus

The readings for Sunday, August 13, Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:22-33.

The context of this gospel selection is the feeding of “five thousand men, besides women and children” in the wilderness with five loaves of bread and two fish.” Matthew’s catechesis in that story could have been a proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. Why? Because there was a  popular belief that when God’s anointed, the Messiah (Christ), came to his people, the manna would be renewed in the wilderness. But was Matthew teaching that Jesus was only the Messiah and nothing more. The story of today’s Gospel identifies Jesus as more than the Messiah (Christ).

After the people had eaten and their appetite satisfied, “Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.” Leaving Jesus on shore sets up the catechesis of Jesus’ identity about to be revealed. The scene switches to the disciples out on the sea. They were making little headway because the wind came from the direction in which they were going. “During the fourth watch of the night,” between 3 and 6 a.m., Jesus came toward them walking on the water.

There is more here than meets the eye. The instruction or catechesis relies on passages from the Old Testament. These indicate that only God can walk on water. For example, Psalm 77:19, speaking of the Lord God, “Thy path was through the sea, thy way through the great waters, yet thy footprints were unseen.” The conclusion of this catechesis: Jesus is God. In case Matthew’s hearers or readers did not grasp this lesson, he has a backup plan. The disciples see Jesus walking on the waves and against the wind. Not an easy achievement! In fright they screamed, “It is a ghost.” Jesus responds, “Take courage. I AM! Do not be afraid.” There it is. Jesus claims the name by which God revealed himself to Moses. The conclusion of the lesson: Jesus is God.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Simon Peter gets special attention in three stories unknown in the other three canonical Gospels. Peter’s connection with the Church of Antioch in Syria is well known from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Antioch is the best choice for the church of origin of the Gospel of Matthew. The fact that Matthew includes three traditions about Simon Peter that do not appear in the other Gospels is an argument in favor of this Gospel originating in and from the Christian Community of Antioch. The first of these three traditions is the last part of this Sunday’s Gospel — Peter’s attempt to walk on water. The second tradition is the commissioning of Simon Peter with the keys of the kingdom of heaven. That story includes Peter’s rebuke of Jesus and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. The third tradition: Jesus commands Peter to go fishing. The first fish he would catch would have in its mouth the money to pay the half-shekel tax for Jesus and for Peter. This tax on every male Jew after reaching maturity was for the support of the temple. Now back to the first Petrine tradition from today’s Gospel.

After Jesus identified himself to the disciples struggling to row across the Sea of Galilee against an opposing wind, Peter becomes the chief doubter — anticipating the role of the apostle Thomas in the Gospel of John. Peter, ever impulsive, says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replied, “Just do it!” Peter stepped out of the boat and began to walk across the water toward Jesus.  A strong wind and high waves frightened him. Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out his hand and caught the sinking and doubting Simon Peter. A mild scolding, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?

Like the rest of the story, this too is a catechetical lesson for the Church of Matthew’s time — the eighties of the first century. In the Old Testament, and in the New Testament Book of Revelation, the sea is a symbol of chaos. The disciples in the boat, struggling against the wind to reach shore, represent the Church faced by troubled times. Peter’s attempt to walk on the water represents attempts to cope with great problems the Church faced — the huge influx of Gentile converts into a Church of Christian Jews; what to do about kosher food laws; persecution in the form of Christians shunned (excommunicated) from synagogues. Simon Peter’s impulsiveness, his doubt, his lack of faith prepare for the final lesson of the story, “They got into the boat. The wind became calm. Those in the boat worshipped him, and said, “It is true! You are the Son of God!” In other words, “Put your hand in the hand of the man from the Galilee!”