Year A: Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Walking on the Water

Matthew 14: 22-33

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening, he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. One would think that our cumulative experiences of God’s presence in our lives would finally cast out fear. Where do you experience moments of doubt or fear even though you’ve known God’s presence before? Explain
  2. Can you think of a time when your faith in Jesus enabled you to do something you would otherwise have been afraid to do? Tell the story.
  3. In your experience, where is God’s presence most visible to you? (Outside of the Mass)
  4. How are you doing with recognizing and accepting explicit and subtle invitations to step out of your comfort zone in faith? Can you share an example?

Biblical Context

Matthew 14: 22-33
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Doesn’t it seem a little harsh that Jesus would call Peter out as “you of little faith” when the other disciples did nothing more than hang on for dear life in their stormbattered boat? The interchange between Jesus and Peter is unique to Matthew and offers a meditation on Peter’s discipleship.

When Jesus first called Peter and his brother, he told them to follow him to become fishers of men. Now in this incident, there’s a carefully recorded dialogue. At the sound of inchoate cries from frightened fishermen, Jesus calls out, “Take courage! It is I, do not be afraid!” “Take courage” is the same thing Jesus said to the paralytic when he told him his sins were forgiven and to the woman who touched his cloak for healing (Matthew 9:2; 9-22). It really means “Rejoice.”

Why rejoice? Because Jesus says “It is I.” No student of Scripture can fail to recognize that phrase as an echo of the many “I am” statements we hear in John. (The Greek wording is exactly the same.) On one hand, Jesus is assuring them that he’s not a phantom. On another level, he is telling them that he, the Jesus they just left on shore, is the one who is there.

At an even deeper level, coming close to calling himself by the proper name of God, he declares that he is there for them.

Those layers of meaning give context to Peter’s reply, “If it is you, command me to come.” It doesn’t seem probable that Peter is saying “Prove this is no fantasy.” For that, he could have simply said, “Pinch me.” No, Peter was entering into a realm more mysterious than ghostly appearances. The simplest and most challenging interpretation is that Peter was saying, “Let me come to you and be like you.” If so, that was a moment of blinding faith. Peter understood momentarily, that discipleship means walking like the Master, no matter how impossible it seems.

What sank Peter was his doubt, although the translation “wavering” probably offers a more appropriate explanation. A rather visual definition of the Greek word for doubt, distazo, says that it means to stand in two ways. Peter got caught between noticing the strength of the wind and the power of Jesus’ invitation. The wind and waves took their toll, but only until he called out for help.

A wonderful thing about this incident is that it’s not a success story. It’s a salvation narrative. This story speaks of the courage necessary for discipleship. It’s okay to be frightened in a storm. It’s downright heroic to risk stepping out of the boat and into the raging waters. Most of all, when self-confidence has dangerously overstepped its limits, the ability to call for and receive help is the real sign of faith.

The soggy Peter who got back in the boat was both humbled and empowered. He had learned, not for the last time, the truth that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

If we use today’s readings as a guide to discernment about our times, we may decide to choose Peter as our patron of audacious attempts. Today’s tempests include the lack or loss of faith in our families and society as well as the intolerable violence and injustice that plague our world. We can hide from them or heed the voice that whispers or shouts, “Take courage! Rejoice!” Elijah allowed himself to be drawn from hiding in the cave, and Peter leapt into the depths that only Jesus could help him navigate.

The world needs witnesses willing to risk trying to walk like the Master, people whose way of living entices others to faith, people who continue in the struggle to proclaim the validity of Gospel values in spite of countervailing winds. We surely won’t triumph with every attempt, but this is about salvation, not success.

The Light that Rocks the Boat

By Doug Langner

Have you ever been to the movies during the day when, for hours, there is darkness all around you. Yet, once the movie is over and you’ve finally adjusted to the dark and the light emanating from the screen, you walk out of the theater only to be assaulted by blinding daylight. It is utterly confusing, your eyes hurt, you may want to close them or even return to the dark theater.

Today’s readings remind us that these mysteries are not meant solely to be enjoyed in the dark. Instead, the meaning behind those actions are to be brought out of the darkness and into the light so we might live more fully in the world around us.

The story of Elijah tells of the prophet’s struggle with strong winds and crushing rocks, all while trying to discern God’s still small voice. These challenging forces of nature serve as powerful metaphors for the confusion that happens in life. To really hear the voice of God, as did Elijah, one must be attuned to God and engage deeply with the suffering of others, especially the most vulnerable.

Today’s Gospel reveals a timid Peter inside a boat needing to be rescued by Jesus. In those times when we are unsure and most fragile, we all reflect a bit of Peter, reluctant to step out in the water of uncertainty, afraid to place full trust in God. Those are times when it is more comfortable to live our lives in the darkness, perhaps even within the confines of our churches. Many times, we are called to step out of our own comfort zone. In doing so, we are often led to unexpected moments of conversion.

The image of the boat which carried Peter brings to mind a modern-day gesture. With the wave of refugees coming in droves to Germany, Cardinal Rainer Woelki decided that he had to visit the beaches where people were risking their lives, encountering unpredictable seas — all with the hope they would find calmer shores and safer homes. On one of those beaches, he found a seven-meter long boat that had been used by some refugees. Deciding to bring it to the cathedral in Cologne, he celebrated the Eucharist on the front steps of that church using this boat as the altar. Though his intent was likely to offer a visual connection to the suffering refugees and the Jubilee Year of Mercy, certain segments of the political and religious world came down hard on his liturgical gesture. He was criticized for daring to bring a political issue literally into the church.

Often the walls of our churches are used as a barrier to shield ourselves from the very real atrocities around us. At other times, that shield disengages us from seeing or responding to the human dignity denied to many in our world. Consider the most foundational of faith issues, ones basic to the tenants of Christianity, such as welcoming the stranger or speaking out for those who have been marginalized. How can one reveal true discipleship when the temptation is often to stay in the dark or avoid the unknown waters of conflict?

The readings today are meant to shake us up, to generate a level of discomfort. We are always being drawn into uncharted territories, places where the still small voice can only be heard if we quiet and align our hearts to God. Like Jesus, we are all meant to work for the empowerment of the marginalized. As ministers to and with others, will we choose darkness or will we revel in the light that heals, transforms and casts out all fear?