Matthew 14:22-33 – The 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time â€“ for August 10, 2014
â€œ. . . and beginning to sink, he cried out, â€˜Lord, save me!â€™â€ (Matthew 14:30)
Jesus walked on water*.
Yes or no? Fact or fiction?
- Itâ€™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.
- The believers who wrote the Gospels wanted to demonstrate Jesusâ€™s superiority over Roman power. Therefore, his water-walk was a metaphoric response to imperial arrogance.
- People in the ancient world of Jesus experienced the world differently than we moderns. For example, a storm destroying crops could be Godâ€™s anger at a person/village. Thus, it canâ€™t be affirmed or denied that 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 Jesusâ€™s liquid stroll?
Walking on waterâ€™s not so hard during the right season. Give me a frozen stream or a snowy meadow and Iâ€™ll risk crossing to the other side. But Matthewâ€™s story of Jesusâ€™s miracle didnâ€™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 â€œonâ€ is a (says Merriam-Webster) â€œfunction word that typically combines with a noun phraseâ€ to express a â€œmodification.â€ 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 dictionaryâ€”a tome Iâ€™ve resisted opening when I stopped regularly preachingâ€”youâ€™ll find multiple meanings for the simple three-letter Greek preposition. Epi appears in sentences not only as â€œon,â€ but as â€œuponâ€ or â€œnearâ€ or â€œby.â€ Therefore my seminary professor mused, what if the sentence â€œJesus walked on waterâ€ was translated instead, Jesus walked near water? Or by water?
Do you buy that?
I didnâ€™t. And neither did the professor. His pondering demonstrated that interpretations of Jesusâ€™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 Peterâ€™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 Matthewâ€™s miracle story. If forced to choose #1, #2 or #3, Iâ€™d lean toward #2. In option #2, I intentionally used the word arrogance. Though I donâ€™t think of myself as a Biblical scholar, I believe many of the New Testament accounts were shaped to refute Romeâ€™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. Iâ€™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. Didnâ€™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 hesitationâ€”after all, who likes to be honest enough to hurt anotherâ€™s feelingsâ€”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 theyâ€™d be so much better if I joined their team.
Peter sank from doubt. I have doubt, but itâ€™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 ainâ€™t-I-great?
Jesus walked on water.
An undeniable fact?
A taunt at Rome?
A pre-scientific conundrum?
Iâ€™ll eagerly argue any choice with you. Letâ€™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.
*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 . . .