Sunday of week 19 of Ordinary Time


Commentary on 1 Kings 19:9.11-13; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33

WE HAVE TODAY in the Gospel a continuation of last week’s story about the feeding of thousands of people by Jesus in the desert. Immediately after the event, we are told that Jesus “made” the disciples get into the boat and go to the opposite shore while he himself sent the crowds away. Was there reluctance on their part to go? Certainly there is the implication that the disciples were not too willing to leave the scene. They were enjoying the reflected glory of being part of Jesus’ ‘miracle’ and the enthusiasm of the crowds for Jesus, ‘their’ Jesus. They were basking in the reputation of being partners with Jesus. Yet, it won’t be very long before they will be hiding, even denying under oath, ever having had connection with him.

Jesus himself, after having dismissed the crowds, “went up into the hills by himself to pray”. In John’s version of this story he tells us that the people, after being fed by Jesus, actually wanted to make him their king. They, like the disciples, have totally missed the meaning of what has happened.

Here indeed was a real source of temptation. Jesus could easily have convinced himself that here was a golden opportunity to get control of the crowds and ‘save’ them. They were so ready to follow him – it seemed. The world was at his feet. Is there not an echo here of one of the temptations in the desert after his baptism? “The devil took him to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them: and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’.”

Instead, Jesus flees to the shelter of the mountains not to have a panorama of the world’s kingdoms but to pray to his Father and renew his purity of heart and his commitment to the Father’s way. His power will be exerted through love and service and not through domination, control and popular appeal. Jesus’ work is not to be seen in terms of crowd-pleasing miracles or supernatural powers. It is primarily for him – as it is for us — in the quality of his relationships: with God, with people and with himself. Jesus’ mission – and ours — gets its significance in a life of service, sharing and community building, in the ‘Kingdom-ising’ of our environment. It does not consist in having power over others, in becoming an idol of the crowds.

Having a hard time

The story now switches back to the disciples. They are far out on the lake by now, battling with a heavy sea and fighting a strong headwind. It is quite clear that here we are seeing a parable of the Church itself, represented by the disciples in their fragile boat surrounded by hostile winds and waves. It was the common experience of the Church during its first centuries and, in many parts of the world today, continues to be the case. It was a situation to create, then as now, much fear and anxiety.

Then, all of a sudden, they see Jesus approaching them walking on the lake. Far from feeling reassured, they become even more terrified. “It is a ghost!” It is a measure of their superstitious natures and, as such, a measure of the long way they have to go in exorcising such superstitions and replacing them with a genuine faith in God. One still meets a great deal of such irrational fears in people, including Christians, today. For instance, how many of us here would be comfortable walking alone through a large empty cemetery on a dark, moonless night? Even though it would probably be a lot safer than walking down one of our city streets at such a time!

No need to fear

Then out of wind and wave and terror comes a comforting voice. “Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.” The disciples need courage whose source is their confidence and trust in the protection of their Lord. Through the words “It is I” (literally, ‘I am’ Greek, ego eimi,‘ego ‘eimi), Jesus identifies himself with the saving power of God himself. They are the words spoken to Moses from the burning bush. As such, there is no need for fear or anxiety in spite of the apparently threatening dangers around them.

Characteristically, Peter is the first to respond. He is the impulsive one but he is also the group’s leader. “If it is really you, Lord, tell me to come to you across the water.” “Come,” says Jesus, inviting him to leave the shelter of his boat and go to where the wind and waves are. Peter starts to make his way to the Lord, who is in the wind and the waves, but his fear is too much and he begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” is the cry, a cry echoed by Christians all down the ages who have felt that the world was ready to crush them.

There is something for us to reflect here: Jesus is not in the boat; he is in that hostile environment into which we often fear to enter and instead huddle in the security of our church. I think it is significant that Jesus is found outside the boat in the middle of the stormy sea, the world. And we have to go out there to meet him in spite of the dangers and possible setbacks. Too often we Christians spend much, if not all, of our time in the shelter of the boat, taking care of ourselves and neglecting those in the stormy sea who need to hear the words of life. “Man of little trust, why did you doubt?” How often has Jesus had to say those words to each one of us?

Peace

Jesus and Peter now step into the boat and the wind drops. There is peace and calm. In Mark’s version of this story, the disciples are simply amazed at the sudden change but do not draw the obvious conclusion. In Matthew’s version, however, they understand and believe. They even anticipate Peter’s later confession (in chap. 16), “Truly, you are the Son of God”. The conclusion, then, is that Jesus can also be found in the boat but only when we also are ready to leave the shelter of the boat to find him in the “world”, that place which is at least indifferent and at its worst very hostile to the Christian vision.

Our own situation

All in all, today’s Gospel reflects problems in the early Church, problems which are not unknown to us today. From the inside there were always problems of unity, conflicting opinions, theologies and spiritualities. From the outside, there were persecutions and misunderstandings from both the Jews and the secular powers. Paul, in the Second Reading, reflects what must have been something very painful to many Jews who had become followers of Christ, namely, the division and hostility of their fellow-Jews who had not converted. Even today, this relationship still causes pain.

Matthew also here features the special role of Peter, something he constantly stresses. Peter is the leader and so he is the one who steps out of the boat to go and meet Jesus in the midst of the storm. This surely is an image of the Church’s apostolic mission to reach out to find and make Christ present in the world, however hostile it may be. It is not the role of the Church to stay cowering in the shelter of their boat. One remembers the disciples after the death of Jesus hiding behind the locked doors. Pentecost soon changed all that and literally blew them out on a mission that would bring them and their successors to the remotest parts of the earth.

Of course, there are dangers in the world. And the Church, like Peter, is weak and vulnerable. But the Lord is there wherever we go and he will not allow his Church to sink beneath the waves. It has looked very often as if it might happen but each time the Christian community has risen from the ashes stronger than before. One has only to think of the experiences of Christians in China over the past four centuries and especially in the last 40 years or so.

Jesus our peace

One important lesson of today’s readings is that, in our turbulent world (and much of the turbulence is in our own hearts), Jesus is the source of peace. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper (John 14:27), “Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.” These words were spoken just before Jesus was to be arrested, tried and executed by his enemies. The “world” cannot provide peace in such a situation but Jesus can and does. It is for us to learn how to find the Jesus who gives peace in the ups and downs, in the storms of our own lives.

It is put beautifully in today’s First Reading where Elijah is told to “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord”. And the Lord himself passes by. But he was not in the mountain-shaking and rock-shattering wind. He was not in the earthquake. He was not in the fire. He was, however, in the sound of a gentle breeze and Elijah knew that he was in the presence of the Lord. Jesus touches our cheeks with his gentle breezes every day but we are too concerned about the buffeting winds, the earthquakes and the fires in our lives that attract both our attention and our fears.

Today’s readings, then, are saying two things to us:

a. There is never any need for fear and anxiety, for Jesus is always close to us and, no matter what may be happening in and around us, his peace is there for us to share. (As the Buddhist saying has it: “Why worry? If I worry, I die. If I don’t worry, I die. Why worry?”)

b. On the one hand, we have to reject the ambitions and dreams of the world and separate ourselves from them (as when Jesus went into the mountains to pray) but, at the same time, that world which both attracts and threatens is the arena where we are to live out our mission to build the Kingdom of God. We are called to be “not of the world”, a counter-witness to its ways, but to be “in the world”, as taste-giving salt and growth-giving leaven. To lead people to that moment when they can fall to the ground before Jesus present and active in their lives and say with full recognition, “Truly, you are the Son of God”.

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