Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Translation: "And immediately, he compeled the disciples to cast into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side while he dismissed the crowds. Dismissing the crowds, he went up into the mountain and by himself to pray. When evening happened, he was alone there. But now, the boat was many stadia away from the land, tortured by the waves, for they were against the wind. But at the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking on the sea. But the disciples, seeing him walking on the sea, were troubled, saying, 'It is a ghost!' and they cried out from fear. But immediately, Jesus spoke to them, saying, 'Take heart, I am. Do not be afraid.'"
Background and situation: We are in "book four" of Matthew's gospel, a section which is concerned with church and controversy. (The book of Matthew has five sections, modeled on the five books of Torah. Throughout Matthew, Jesus is presented as the "new Moses," an authoritative teacher.)
Book four began with the death of John the Baptist (14:1-13), which was followed by the first feeding story in Matthew (14:14-21). Our lection follows. Mark is the source for Matthew 14: 22-27--the parallel is Mark 6: 45-50. The remainder of the passage is Special Matthew.
Several Peter stories, which appear nowhere else in the four gospels, are contained in this section. This seems curious: In Mark's gospel, the disciples, and especially Peter, never do anything right. In Matthew's gospel, which generally follows Mark quite closely, Peter looks a lot better.
In fact, it is in "book four" of Matthew that Peter is acclaimed the "rock" and given "the keys to the kingdom." In the leadership struggles of the early church, it appears that Matthew has done an about-face from his primary source, Mark, and is promoting a pro-Petrine point of view.
This would make sense for Matthew's agenda. Matthew is writing from a Jewish Christian point of view, a view that, by AD 80, was becoming increasingly endangered. (Indeed, Jewish Christianity would eventually die out.) Peter is both Jewish and the leader of Jesus' disciples, which makes him a good candidate to represent Matthew's Jewish-Christian perspective.
How Jesus responds to the death of John the Baptist in Matthew: Note the stunning turn of events that has taken place in only 21 verses: John the Baptist has been killed. His head winds up on a silver platter at an extravagant banquet held by Herod Antipas.
The people turn to Jesus for leadership (14: 13-21). Jesus likewise hosts an extravagant banquet, though a much different one that that provided by Herod--his for the many, Herod's for the few, his of love, Herod's of violence.
The feeding of the many is a paradigm for the new life offered by Jesus, one that is in marked contrast with the old ways of Herod. The feeding also helps to establish Jesus' authority in the wake of John's death.
In this week's lection, Jesus compels the disciples to get into the boat and go ahead to "the other side." Jesus then goes to a mountain, by himself, to pray. Jesus apparently stayed on the mountain through the night and into the early morning.
Keeping that context in mind, note that three things are mentioned twice in our short lection of 11 verses: (1) dismissing the crowds, (2) praying on the mountain, and (3) walking on the sea.
Dismissing the crowds is an act of authority. Not just anybody had standing to do so. That the dismissal of the crowds is mentioned twice is a way of underlining the authority of Jesus. He tells them what to do, and they do as he says.
Mountains are a place of special revelation in Matthew's gospel. That Jesus is said to be there twice adds to his mystique as a spiritual leader--he is close to God. The mention of mountains also accentuates the particular difficulty of operating in the wake of the death of the Baptist. Jesus needed time away, time to think and pray. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus is said to be in prayer only here and at Gethsemene (26 : 36-44), occasions both fraught with special dangers.
Likewise, the phrase "walking on the sea" is mentioned twice. This recalls Psalm 77: 19: "Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen." Jesus appears "lordly" and in charge. Indeed, in the verses immediately following our lection, one could be healed merely by touching the fringe of his coat (14:36).
Allegory of the church: In this highly symbolic story, the disciples are out in the boat when a storm comes up, and they are "tortured"--basanizominon--by the waves.
The boat is a symbol of the church. Navis is where we get our word for both "nave"--the sanctuary of a church--and "navy." To this day, many church sanctuaries are built in the shape of upside-down boats, particularly in traditions where seafaring has been a prominent feature of life.
The boat of the church faces difficulty from evil, which is represented by the tormented sea in the middle of the night. The church was "sailing against the wind."
If Matthew was writing AD 80-85, which is the general consensus, that may have been how Matthew saw the situation facing the church at that time. The land was trying to recover from the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In AD 80, the church was still rather small and fragile, facing threats both internal and external. Feeling adrift in the "waters of chaos" would make sense for a nascent movement in that situation.
The image of the restless sea, buffeted by winds and rain, was a rich one in ancient Israel. The Book of Genesis tells of chaos in the beginning of creation--the creation was "without form and void." Genesis describes the act of creation as God bringing order out of watery chaos.
Ancient Israel had a primordial fear of these "waters of chaos." They feared that this chaos might again engulf the world and undo the order that God had imposed upon creation. (It was important, then, to help God keep the "waters of chaos" in check, which one could do by living according to Torah.)
During the "fourth watch," which was from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.--the deepest part of the night, in other words--Jesus came walking on the sea toward the beleaguered church.
The disciples were "agitated"--etaraxthesan, or "troubled," "disturbed"--and they believe they're seeing a ghost--Fantasma estin! They "screamed because of fear." It is at this point, when fear in the face of difficulty threatens to overtake the church, that Jesus lets them know that it is him. Tharseite--"Take heart," or perhaps "Have courage," Jesus says.
Why should they "take heart"? Because, Jesus says, "Ego eimi"--"I am," which is the Greek version of the Hebrew tetragrammaton, YHWH, which is the divine name of God (Ex 3: 14). The Lord God took control of the "waters of chaos." By walking on the water, Jesus likewise demonstrates his power over the forces of nature. The power of Jesus is the same as God's power. Therefore, church: "Do not be afraid."
Peter walks on water too, sort of:
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Translation: "But Peter answered him, saying, 'Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." But he said, 'Come.' And going down from the boat, Peter walked upon the water and he came to Jesus. Seeing the mighty wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, 'Lord, save me.' And immediately, Jesus stretched forth the hand, taking hold of him, and saying to him, 'You little faith, why did you doubt?' And when they went up into the boat, the wind ceased. The ones in the boat worshipped him, saying, 'Truly, you are son of God.'"
To this point, Matthew has been following Mark (6: 45-50). Now, he switches to his own source, generally called "Special Matthew," i.e. the stories only Matthew tells.
Peter addresses Jesus as "Lord"--kyrie. Score one for Peter. He gets the title right. Peter wants to be able to do what Jesus does, and he asks to be commanded to do it. Jesus says simply, "Come." Peter climbs down out of the boat, and the text straight-forwardly says that Peter did indeed walk on the water.
Even then, however, it is not the same as what Jesus had done. Peter walks on water--udata--while Jesus walks on the sea--thalassan. Matthew is being careful to put Peter at least at one remove from what Jesus himself is capable of doing.
Then, in a poetic and insightful phrase, Peter "sees"--blepone--"the mighty wind." He didn't feel it; he saw it. "Seeing" means that he understands the situation. The church is buffeted by the mighty winds of internal and external opposition.
Peter succumbs to fear, and starts to sink. He cries out to Jesus. This has universal application. In the face of the real difficulties of following Jesus, the Christian becomes afraid, begins to be engulfed, and cries out to Jesus for help. (See also 8: 23-27, also a story of a storm on the lake, where, likewise, the disciples cry out, "Lord, save us.")
Immediately, Jesus "stretched forth the hand," which is reminiscent of YHWH in Psalm 18: 16--"He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters"--and Psalm 144: 7: "Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters."
Jesus then "takes hold" of Peter, and, while still out on the sea, calls Peter a "person of little faith," one who becomes fearful in the face of crisis. In Matthew's gospel, the disciples are referred to as being "people of little faith" five times.
Compare that with the story of the Canaanite woman in the next chapter (15: 21-28). Matthew resurrects the word "Canaanite"--the word had not been used for hundreds of years. Matthew wants to associate the foreign woman as being an ancient enemy of Israel.
Yet, by the end of the story, Jesus calls her faith "great." What a contrast between the "great" faith of the foreign woman and the "little" faith of the church!
When Jesus and Peter get back into the boat, the wind ceased. All is safe when Jesus is present with his church in times of difficulty. The disciples worshipped and said, "Truly, you are son of God."