A Provocation: Tenth Sunday After Pentecost: August 13, 2017: Matthew 14:22-33

Matthew 14:22-33
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

14:32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

14:33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus walk on the water?
  • Why does Peter want to do that, too?
  • Are their reasons the same?

Some Longer Reflections:

There are lots of hooks in this scene, lots of hooks on which you could hang a sermon.

I will look at only one of them.

A dear friend, a gifted pastor and a strong preacher, drew my attention to this hook some years ago.  If you see Pastor Steve Martens, thank him.

Some basics:

  1. Jesus is alone.  That is a little odd.  He dismissed the crowds, and apparently the disciples took off with them.  Really?
  2. The disciples are in a boat.  They have been in a boat before: at least a few of them fished for a living.  Paul Minear, now years ago, pointed out that boats are used as symbols for the Church.  If he was correct, then this is a story for a Church that is battered by the waves.  This is not an unheard-of situation.
  3. Jesus comes to them walking on the sea.  The sea is a regular symbol for the dangerous chaos that hides under all systems of apparent order and safety.  It can break out at any time.  Jesus appears to be master of chaos, so masterful that he can stroll on its surface, easily and calmly.
  4. Peter gets out of the boat.

Here is where my friend and teacher, Steve Martens, asked a powerful question.  We were reading this scene together with other members of a text study group we belong to.  We were noticing the standard readings of the scene that give Peter credit for daring to get out of the boat, and then laugh at him (perhaps with a twinge of recognition) when he feels fear and begins to sink.  We even noted that when Jesus shifted his name from Simon to Peter he got it just right: Peter = Rock, as in “sinks like a ….”

Then Steve asked his question: Wouldn’t it have been better for Peter to stay in the boat and row?  Did Peter fail his test of faithfulness, not when he “noticed the strong wind,” but when he asked to be Master of Chaos, just like Jesus?

This is, to my ear, a great question.

Standard readings of this scene do not think so.  I was reading one just this morning, and it was stirring, inspiring, even.  The interpreter was encouraging his readers to step out of the boat and discover their inner “Wave Walker.”  This hidden inner identity was set parallel to that of Clark Kent.

Who doesn’t want to be Super(wo)man?

My friend’s question suggests a question in reply: Wouldn’t it have been better if Peter hadn’t wanted to be Superman?

Go carefully here.

Standard interpretations are attractive because they take their energy from the recognition that life batters us with chaos over and over, and sometimes we get knocked out of the boat.  When that happens, it is life-saving to discover that the God who can overcome chaos can catch us and lift us up from the waves that have overwhelmed us.  This interpretation takes seriously the impact of chaos on regular human life, and offers a picture of God as rescuer and “very present help in time of trouble.”

My friend wouldn’t quibble with any of that.

He just wants to know why Peter thought it was a good idea to get out of the boat in the first place.

It is set up as a ID check to determine whether the Wave Walker is Jesus or a ghost.  Okay.  But wouldn’t it have been better for Peter to ask for a different identifying sign?  “Lord, if it is you, bail the water out of the boat.”  “Lord, if it is you, slow this wind down a little,”  “Lord, if it is you, tell me the name of my mother-in-law.”

Instead, Peter asks to walk on the water.  Why?

Maybe he wanted to save ferry fare on the Sea of Galilee in the future (as suggested by the Arrogant Worms in their rather remarkable song, “Jesus Brother, Bob”).

Maybe he wanted to be the best water walker among the disciples.  It wouldn’t be the first or the last time that followers of Jesus argued about who was the bestest disciple.

Or maybe he wanted to have control over chaos.

This last possibility deserves careful reflection.

Human beings do not have control over chaos, though we spend a great deal of time and energy searching for such control.  And our search has yielded helpful results.  The polio vaccine, sulfa drugs, antibiotics, even aqueducts and railroads and airplanes, all give human beings stability and control over life that we did not once have.  And we are searching for cures for diseases that have hunted us and haunted our history.

So maybe Peter was asking to be the person who finds a cure for ALS.

Or, maybe he was just wanting an exemption from risk and danger.

There is a difference.

The first possibility makes Peter a pioneer.  The second shows him seeking a privileged advantage over the rest of us.

And maybe that is the real problem.

Current discussions of privilege might be exactly the right context in which to think about Peter’s request.  If this is about privilege and advantage, Peter can fulfill his responsibilities to his colleagues who are still rowing by telling them that all they have to do is get out of the boat.  Imagine the scene: Peter stands on the waves, wind whipping his hair.  He looks strong and heroic and his face is lit from above by steady lightning.  He calls back to the frightened disciples: “I got out of the boat.  You can, too.  All you have to do is take action on your own behalf.  Anyone can do it, if they just apply themselves.”  He might add, just for effect: “It’s like when I was stopped by the police for having a broken taillight.  I was respectful, and all I got was a warning.  That’s all there is to it.”  He could even say: “If you were as great a businessman as I am, tremendously successful, you could have had a millionaire father, too.  Losers!”

If that was what Peter was up to, he reveals a profound misunderstanding of the world.  That is not how things really work, not in the real world.

In the real world, what we mostly need is people who keep on rowing.  Maybe that was Jesus’ point when he told Peter to get out of the boat.  Maybe Jesus knew that Peter would see the wind and sink.  At that moment, Jesus gets to decisively demonstrate his identity: “Lord, save me,” cries Peter.  And Jesus pulls him up out of the chaos.  That is his essential act, then and now.

Notice that the storm does not cease when Jesus saves Peter.  The storm ceases when Jesus gets into the boat, which seems to have been his destination in the first place.

Maybe if Peter had stayed at his oar, the storm would have stopped sooner.

3 thoughts on “A Provocation: Tenth Sunday After Pentecost: August 13, 2017: Matthew 14:22-33

  1. “Maybe if Peter had stayed at his oar, the storm would have stopped sooner.”
    A serving of Guilt, anyone?

    Maybe the reason Peter stepped out of the boat was simple … it was a response. Jesus called. Peter responded.

    When Jesus calls us, do we listen and hear, and respond or do we ignore God’s call?
    Peter listened, heard, responded.
    Had he not listened, heard, responded and stayed in the boat – what would have happened? Conjecture – only conjecture.

    Like

      1. 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

        I appreciate your “take” on it, Richard, but I don’t read it the way you do. I read it more as the way people ask for proof of God’s existence … “God, if you’re real, do XYZ … tell me to do XYZ.” Interpretation. 🙂

        For me, Peter is asking for proof that Jesus is real and says “if it’s you … tell me to come to you on the water.” And when Jesus called, Peter responded.

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