On, By, Near, or Upon

Matthew 14:22-33 – The 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 10, 2014

“. . . and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (Matthew 14:30)

Jesus walked on water*.

Yes or no? Fact or fiction?

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

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

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’s miracle didn’t occur in a Wisconsin winter.

I recall a seminary professor who offhandedly pondered 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 was epi. (Epi begins the word epidermis, or on the skin.) 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 seminary professor mused, what if the sentence “Jesus walked on water” was translated instead, Jesus walked near water? Or by water?

Do you buy that?

I didn’t. And neither did the professor. His pondering demonstrated that interpretations of Jesus’s walk across the Galilee to help the disciples have been varied, debated and divisive since the Gospel’s earliest readers. Language, like water, is fluid. (Unless it’s a solid or vapor or . . .)

Matthew, of course, carried the miracle story a step further. Only Matthew included Peter’s response. The disciple nicknamed Rock left the boat. He stood on the water. He walked on the water.

Doubt sank him. (What can you expect from a rock?)

A few paragraphs above I suggested three ways to understand Matthew’s miracle story. If forced to choose #1, #2 or #3, I’d lean toward #2. In option #2, I intentionally used the word arrogance. Though I don’t think of myself as 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 that felt 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 Lake Interview.

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

Arrogance. Several weeks 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 hurt another’s feelings—she told me I seemed arrogant in the interview. I acted 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.

From Gustave Dore's Bible Illustrations.
From Gustave Dore’s Bible Illustrations.

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?

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 and wondering why, like the Rock, I can be so afraid even as the Holy invites me forward.


(Image of snow from here; Gustave Dore image from here.)

*Forgive me, but this is an ever-so-slightly revised version of an essay I posted July, 2011. Between work on my novel and doing guest preaching at a local church, I experienced the dreaded Time Crunch. Thus, with humility and a few tweaks to some “old” sentences, I repeat myself . . .


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