A Preposition For You

Jesus walked on water.

Yes or no? Fact or fiction?

  1. It’s in the Bible, so it must be true Jesus performed miracles and could ignore the laws of nature. Therefore, Jesus strode across the lake.
  2. The believers who wrote the Gospels wanted to demonstrate Jesus’ superiority over Roman power. Therefore, Jesus’ water walk was a metaphoric response to imperial arrogance.
  3. People in Jesus’ day experienced the world differently. For example, a storm destroying crops could be God’s anger at a person/village. Therefore, it can’t be affirmed or denied Jesus performed miracles since he lived in a superstitious, pre-scientific era.

Which would you choose? Or what fourth explanation might you add to explain your faithful response to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ liquid stroll?

The 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 7, 2011

“. . . and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’”

Walking on water’s not so hard during the right season. Give me a frozen stream or a snowy meadow and I’ll risk crossing to the other side. But Matthew’s story of Jesus’ miracle didn’t occur in a Wisconsin winter.

I recall a seminary professor who offhandedly wondered about the preposition in the sentence, “Jesus walked on water.” A preposition like “on” is a (says Merriam-Webster) “function word that typically combines with a noun phrase” to express a “modification.” Ah, a modifier! That which changes! In the original Greek, the word on in the Matthew 14:25 sentence is epi. (Epi is used in epidermis or epidemic.) And yet, if you check a Greek-English dictionary—a tome I’ve resisted opening when I stopped regularly preaching—you’ll find multiple meanings for the simple three-letter Greek preposition. Epi appears in sentences not only as “on,” but as “upon” or “near” or “by.” Therefore my long-ago seminary professor mused, what if the sentence “Jesus walked on water” was instead translated, “Jesus walked near water?” Or by water?

Do you buy that?

I didn’t. Neither did the professor. His offhand remark was meant to demonstrate the interpretations of Jesus’ walk across the Galilee have been varied, debated and divisive since the Gospels’ earliest readers.

Matthew, of course, takes the miracle story a step further. Only Matthew included Peter’s response. The disciple nicknamed Rock will leave the boat. He stands on the water. He walks on the water.

Doubt sinks him. What can you expect from a rock.

A few paragraphs above I suggested three ways to understand Matthew 14:22-33’s miracle story. If forced to choose #1, #2 or #3, I lean toward #2. In option #2, I intentionally used the word arrogance. Though I don’t think of myself as much of a Biblical scholar, I believe many of the New Testament accounts were shaped to refute Rome’s claims to authority and dominion. As a nation-state, Rome was arrogant.

Thus my word choice . . . about Rome.

And about me. I am Peter, with stones for brains sometimes, and I stand in the boat and ponder what it means to swing my leg over the side and walk on, near, by or upon a very scary lake. Where will my faith take me? Sink or swim? Drown or walk? Hesitate or leap?

A few years ago I applied for a position perfect for me: a part-time chaplain at a local hospice. I worked in a hospice before. I’m ordained. I had excellent recommendations. When called for the interview, I confidently swung my leg over the side of the boat and stepped onto the lake.

My rock sank. Didn’t get the job. Why?

Arrogance. A week or so later, still symbolically wet from my ill-fated steps, I contacted one of the members of the interview team. With a smidgen of hesitation—after all, who likes to be honest enough to potentially hurt another’s feelings—she told me I seemed arrogant in the interview. As if they owed me the job. As if it were mine already. As if they’d be so much better if I joined their team.

Peter sank from doubt. I have doubt, but it’s not always what soaks my faith. How about you? What puts you on, by, near, upon the water . . . soon with flailing arms and cries for help? For me, it can be arrogance. The stench of superiority. A dollop of ain’t-I-great?

If you’ve read my words in the past, you may have heard the “Arrogant Larry” story before. It’s a true and sad commentary on one of my struggles as a follower of Jesus. But it’s also a safe example. There are other attitudes and actions that sink me, but I prefer to share them later or not at all. Arrogance is sufficient!

Jesus walked on water. An undeniable fact? A taunt at Rome? A pre-scientific conundrum? I’ll eagerly argue any choice with you. Let’s debate the preposition! After all, if we spend time disagreeing about #1 or #2 or #3, I can put off struggling to learn how to be less arrogant as Jesus wonders why I am so afraid.

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  1. Does it matter whether or not Jesus walked on water, or beside water, or with water, or whatever? Jesus reached out to help his disciples in a storm. Isn’t that the real point to trust God in a time of strife even if you don’t think you can make it?

    Often I find that my confidence is misinterpreted as arrogance. I probably should try a little humility with my confidence – but where’s the fun in that? 😉

  2. For me, it doesn’t matter if Jesus walked on water. But, as I tried to say in the reflection, I’m awful glad Matthew added Peter’s hop, skip and dunk. Lots of self-inflicted stuff gets us soaked. Arrogance is one of ’em, but the list is long!

  3. Does it matter whether Jesus could preform as a bare-foot surfer or Not?

    What matters, for me, is that this story affirmed Jesus as a window into God’s presence, God’s love and forgiveness and healing and challenge. and that God is presence in the midst of all that life can throw at us – whether is in, or on, or with the water.

    Walking with Jesus on the water is for us recognition that we are not separated from God by earthquake and storm.
    Are we able to take faith and by holding onto one another, discover God in our midst?

    Don Prince

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