Today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus let the apostles struggle for many hours in a violent storm before going to them. Why did He wait so long?
Gospel (Read Mt 14:22-33)
After the miraculous feeding of the five thousand (last Sunday’s Gospel), Jesus sent both His disciples and the vast crowd away. The disciples took a boat to the other side of the lake; Jesus would eventually join them there. In the meantime, He “went up on the mountain by himself to pray.” Whenever we see Jesus retreating to solitude for prayer this way, it reminds us that He was a sojourner here. His original and permanent life is in Heaven, in communion with His Father. Like Him, we are also sojourners here. Like Him, we also need solitary times with our Father.
Meanwhile, the apostles encounter a horrific storm at sea. The Greek word describing this storm, which is translated as “tossed about by the waves” in English, literally means “harassed, tortured.” Even for seasoned fishermen, this was quite a storm. Jesus goes to them in “the fourth watch of the night,” or between 3:00 and 6:00 am. The apostles had quite likely been battling this storm most of the night. Why did Jesus wait so long to go to them? Was He so absorbed in prayer that He was unaware of their plight? As the episode unfolds, we increasingly feel that there was a point Jesus wanted to make, a lesson He wanted to teach His friends. If so, this reminds us of Jesus’ purposeful delay in going to his dying friend, Lazarus. In that case, Jesus chose a raising from the dead as a more powerful testimony to Himself than a simple cured illness would have been. Was that same dynamic at work here?
Ironically, when Jesus approaches the disciples “walking on the sea,” they are terrified, not relieved. They do not recognize Him. They think He is a “ghost.” Why did they have that reaction? Certainly they didn’t expect to see Jesus (or any human being) walking on water. They had struggled so long against this frightening storm that, in their exhaustion, they had only fear and dread of this appearance. If they were thinking of Jesus at all, maybe they wondered if He would be waiting on the other side for them, if they made it there. Perhaps they were disappointed He hadn’t made the trip with them in the boat. Then, as He had done once before (see Mt 8:23-27), He could have calmed the sea with a command. Here in the tempest, where the sea seemed to be winning its battle against them, the sight of a man walking on water was too strange and ominous for them. They, literally, “screamed” with fear. They did not feel the nearness of Jesus; on the contrary, they felt completely abandoned.
As their fear reached its height, Jesus “immediately” speaks to them: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The sound of Jesus’ voice assures them this is no ghost. No matter what their eyes told them, or what their imaginations conjured up, it was the Word Jesus spoke that calmed their fears. Translated literally, Jesus says, “Take heart; I am.” For these Jewish apostles, this self-identification had enormous significance. God, through the prophet, Isaiah, had once said about Himself: “’I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.’ Thus says the LORD, Who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters’” (Isa 43:15-16). God’s covenant name in Israel was “I am.”
We might wonder why Jesus didn’t calm the sea at this point, as He had done previously in a similar situation. There, He had been in the boat, asleep, when the frightened apostles woke Him up to save them. He stilled the waters with a command, and the apostles marveled, asking, “Who is this?” Why did Jesus let the storm waters continue to rage this time? The wonderful Scripture commentator, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, has a brilliant comment on this:
“It is crucial that [the disciples] now derive trust and strength from the very place…that a moment ago was to them a source of keenest fear. For this is the chief feature of the Paschal Mystery, that new life should emanate from the place of death…[Jesus] comes to comfort them out of the heart of the storm, where He Himself has been a major cause of their agony. In a pattern that would repeat itself at Calvary, they do not want to look for their Lord in the place of fear. Thus, Jesus must shatter the submarine monster of fear from within, once and for all.” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, II, pg 377)
When we understand this, we understand the next part of the story, too. Peter longs to join Jesus on the water. Was that out of love for Him, or out of curiosity about a spectacular phenomenon? When Peter goes onto the water, does he expect Jesus would then silence the storm? When the wind and the waves continue, Peter loses his focus. They become more real to him than Jesus. Feeling himself begin to sink, he cries out, “Lord, save me!” He must have been physically quite close to Jesus—just one grasp away—but his fear of the storm got the better of him. His descent into the dark, watery abyss (what Leiva-Merikakis calls “the awful gravity of fear”) restores Peter’s vision. He knows himself to be a weak man, no match for the storm. His only hope is Jesus. One cry for help was all it took. Jesus’ strong hand catches and saves him. With it comes a penetrating question, “Why did you doubt?”
When Jesus and Peter get into the boat, the storm stops. No command, no miracle. The storm had served its purpose. What effect did all this have on the apostles? “Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’” They are not wondering Who He is anymore. Jesus had given them a remarkable testimony to Himself. In addition, He taught them an important lesson about themselves. These men were destined to do “even greater works” than Jesus (see John 14:12), but Peter’s experience on the water showed them they wouldn’t be able to do anything withoutHim. Lastly, Jesus taught the apostles not to fear the storm, even when He doesn’t immediately still its turbulence. He surprised them by appearing in its midst; He can surprise us that way, too.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me remember that in the heart of the storms I experience, I must look for You.
First Reading (Read 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13)
These verses describe a scene in Israel’s history that followed a remarkable confrontation between the false prophets of Baal and God’s prophet, Elijah, on Mt. Carmel. The people of Israel had wantonly given themselves to the idolatrous worship of Baal. God told Elijah to call all the people together, along with the false prophets, in order to prove once and for all that there is no god in Heaven but the LORD. Elijah called down fire from Heaven in a powerful demonstration of God’s presence; all the false prophets were killed. When the queen of Israel, Jezebel, a worshipper of Baal, heard of this, she called for Elijah’s death. He had to flee for his life to the mountain of God, Horeb. This was not exactly how he thought the victory at Mt. Carmel would turn out!
Elijah wanted to talk to the LORD, and the LORD agreed, telling him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.” This is reminiscent of the time Moses wanted to see more of God’s glory on this same mountain hundreds of years earlier, and “the LORD passed by” (see Ex 34:6). It is also foreshadows the many times in the Gospels Jesus is described as “passing by” (see Mk 6:48; Mt 20:30; Lk 18:37), providing testimony to His divinity. As Elijah took his place, there were lots of fireworks as the LORD passed by (wind, earthquake, fire), but the LORD did not speak out of these. This is in contrast to the time when the LORD called Moses and all His people to meet with Him at Horeb (also called Sinai) after He delivered them from bondage in Egypt. “And Mt. Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and…the whole mountain quaked greatly…Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder” (Ex 19:18-19).
Perhaps this is what Elijah was expecting; instead, the LORD spoke in “a tiny whispering sound.” This scene is rich in prophetic meaning, as we well know. Eventually, the LORD would speak His Word in human flesh, even in the tiny, helpless sound of an Infant in a manger. Our Gospel reading helps us to see that the elements of nature, with all their great force and power to frighten us, are no match for the Lord of all creation. Jesus is God’s still, small Voice. It was the sound of Jesus’ Voice over the crashing fury of the storm that comforted the apostles: “Take heart; it is I. Have no fear.”
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me listen for Your Voice when fear fills my ears with my own.
Psalm (Read Ps 85:9-14)
The psalmist recounts the mercy of the LORD in saving him from death: “Near indeed is salvation for the loyal.” He envisions a day when those who trust in the LORD will have their steps guided by His loving hand. As he writes, “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps.” Had Peter kept his eyes on Jesus, he would have experienced this truth literally. Instead, he had to cry out for help. All who are rescued from death, against all odds (that would be us), can echo the psalmist’s refrain: Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to the other lectionary readings. Read it again to prayerfully make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Rom 9:1-5)
Here St. Paul expresses his great agony over the rejection of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah by most of his contemporaries in Judah. He says, by way of emphasis, that he himself would be willing to be cut off from Christ if that could make a difference for his kinsmen. In this, he follows the example of Moses, who was also willing to be “blotted out” (see Ex 32:32) for the apostasy of God’s people in the wilderness. What makes Israel’s rejection of Jesus so bitter for St. Paul is that their entire history, as God’s chosen people, prepared them to receive, not reject, Jesus. Even in our discussion of today’s readings, we can see how thoroughly Jesus lived His life in fulfillment of the Old Covenant Scriptures. Jews listened to these Scriptures over and over in their synagogue services and Temple liturgies. The psalms, especially, were a constant part of their Jewish life, because they were the prayers of God’s people.
For example, we have to wonder if Peter, as he started to sink into the waves, had this psalm running through his head: “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. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God” (Ps 69:1-3).
God showed up in Egypt to save His people from slavery; He showed up in the manger to save His people from sin and death; He showed up on the waters of the storm to save Peter. How St. Paul longed for his kinsmen to accept Christ, “the Messiah. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.”
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help us in the Church, Your covenant people today, not to be indifferent to You through self-satisfaction and empty ritual. Help us not to miss You as you constantly show up in the center of all we do.
image: Lorenzo Veneziano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons