First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 8

William Loader

Pentecost 8: 7 August Matthew 14:22-33

High drama! Here is another highly symbolic miracle which may have been attached to the feeding of the 5000 even before it came into Mark and John. Matthew's version is almost twice the length of Mark's because he has expanded it with Peter's walk (or sink) on the water.

The story recalls images of Yahweh walking over the waters in the Psalms and Job (Ps 77:19; Job 9:8). Most of the nature miracles - and a number of others besides - have been shaped by Old Testament images. The stilling of the storm is shaped by the affirmation in the Psalms that Yahweh rebuked and calmed the seas (Ps 106:9; 65:7; 89:9; 107:25-32) and by the account of Jonah asleep in the boat in the midst of the storm. People will debate the extent to which the Old Testament passages gave rise to the stories or whether the stories were secondarily coloured by the Old Testament passages. There is evidence elsewhere of both processes being at work (for instance, in the passion narratives with Psalm 22).

In all such miracles we face the credibility issue, which we also faced last week and which is not to be ignored. See the discussion there. Unfortunately the miracle is one-off, non repeatable. Again, I wish it were not so! As a one-off miracle it can fall prey to being used only as a proof of Jesus' divinity where it must compete with similar stories in the culture of the time and join the bidding war of wonders. Most New Testament writers are unhappy with that trend. Look at what Matthew has to say about claims based on wonders (7:21-23). Still, they had no qualms in affirming them, where we pursue truth with different presuppositions.

All that should not distract us (or our hearers) from the powerful symbolism of the story. The waters and the great sea were deemed a threat; Semitic culture was not a great surf culture! Revelation offers a vision of paradise where the sea will be no more (21:1)! The sea is traditionally the source of deep and threatening powers, dragons. It is linked to the abyss: that is why Jesus' exorcism at Gerasa drove the demons/pigs back into the abyss, the sea. Jung also makes much of the sea, not as negatively. In some ways its equivalent in Australia is the great inland, the feared desert. That is the mythological background; myth is usually very true when you hear what it is saying. Israel's epics also give colour to the picture. Crossing the sea, crossing the Jordan. These are moments of great transition, of liberation.

Matthew had already made much of the stilling of the storm. In one of the earliest redactional analyses of Matthew, Bornkamm showed that Matthew so told the story, linking it with Q material on discipleship, that the buffeted boat was made by Matthew to represent the church, buffeted by adversity (8:18-27). Walking on water symbolises authority over the powers that threaten. The scene affirms that Jesus is endowed with Yahweh's power. The Philippian hymn affirms that he has been given Yahweh's name ('Lord' 2:11). It is saying the same thing, speaking from a post resurrection perspective, which also informs the story here.

What does it mean to affirm, 'Jesus is Lord'? What are the powers that destroy? There will be people in your congregation who can tell you about the deep destructive powers in their souls who are now no longer afraid of the sea. There will be others who still yearn for deliverance and others, still, whose fear has become inarticulate, silenced even to themselves, and who stay on concrete paths and never touch the sea. Our role is not to drop people into it, push them overboard into their pain in some frenzy of therapeutic manipulation for which we are probably not qualified. But it is to point to the one who walks there and with what power. With what power? Alter-ego for parent, teacher, or priest? Bigger teller-off? Rather the one whose power is compassion and healing.

So we have a role to play, an awesome role, of helping people access that kind of power. That is Matthew's point when he has Peter invited to walk on water, too. He represents the disciples. This was their commission in chapter 10. It will find its echo in Jesus' words to Peter to be a rock, to be one who withstands the powers of hell (16:16-19). The image is different, the point the same.

The powers are much more than the inner demons Freud and his schools helped us to recognise in more sophisticated ways. For Matthew and his people they also included social and political and religious powers. They would find it hard to understand the ease with which moderns retreat into individualism and personal introspection, the private journey of the soul. There is also justice and peace, the establishment of God's way in a world of oppression and inequality.

The disciples get it! They acclaim Jesus, 'Son of God' (14:33). When Peter acclaims him Messiah at Caesarea Philippi (16:16), it is no longer the climax it was in Mark. They all do it here. They understand, in contrast to what we find in Mark's account where the passage ends with a damning indictment of their failure to understand (6:52). Matthew has more confidence in ministry, or, at least, is employing a different pedagogical technique. His disciples connect with us not through failure to understand, but through their understanding and then refusal to trust. That sinking feeling!

When Jesus says, 'It's me! Don't be afraid!' (14:27), the Greek could be translated: 'I am' and evoke Yahweh's self designation (at the burning bush and in Isa 43). It certainly is a moment of revelation: of who Jesus is and his doing a Yahweh activity. But one would expect use of the designation elsewhere in Matthew, if it were so, and we do not find it. In any case the identification (which may be present in John's account, 6:20) is not a simple one ('I am God'). But Jesus certainly is God's sent one in Matthew, carrying all the authority of the shaliach and divinely created through miraculous conception for the purpose. The interest is, however, less on explaining how this can be, than the fact that it is so. For the person facing the deep, what matters is that what we affirm of Jesus is a statement about God's power, God's love and forgiveness and healing and challenge.

For an imaginative reflection on the passage see the Dolphin of Gennesareth

Epistle: Pentecost 8  7 August  Romans 10:5-15

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