Whenever we look at a Bible passage, it is best to be informed by what happens before and after. That way, we place the passage in context. Heaven knows we already have enough people who quote the Bible out of context. So to understand Matthew 14:22-33, we need to know what just happened. And what just happened was the Feeding of the 5,000.
It was evening and everyone had their fill of bread and fish, the staples of a Mediterranean people. There were leftovers and people said, “No thank you. I just can’t eat anymore.” Or if you are familiar with the Monty Python movie, “The Meaning of Life,” “I can’t eat another bite.” The first word we encounter after this event is the word, immediately. What happens next is done in haste. Basically what Jesus tells his disciples is, “Quick, get in the boat and get out of here.” It is like a gang leaving a bank heist. Jesus remains.
At this point in Jesus’ ministry, he can’t go anywhere without a crowd of people crushing him. Now night is at hand and Jesus needs to convince them to go home. After they are dismissed (Matthew doesn’t say if they actually left), Jesus goes off to pray, alone, up the mountain.
Jesus often separates himself from the disciples and the crowds to go and pray alone. These are precious times for Jesus. He often never gets alone time. This time, the crowd did not follow.
Jesus originally went to the site of the Feeding of the 5,000 specifically to pray. Jesus was told that John the Baptist was executed and Jesus needed to escape the crowds and pray. So he got in a boat with his disciples and went across the lake. With good eyesight, you can see where boats are going on the Sea of Galilee. The crowd saw Jesus’ boat and they arrived at about the same time Jesus arrived on the other shore. So much for praying alone.
Instead of telling the crowd to kiss off, Jesus decided to feed them. Finally, after they are fed, Jesus has the disciples get into the boat and go back from whence they came. Jesus dismisses the crowd and finally Jesus can pray. Or, sending the disciples back across the lake was a ruse to get rid of the crowd since their behavior was one of following the boat.
What happens next is confusing, at least to me. It’s dark. Jesus is alone. The boat the disciples are in is far from shore. Yet Matthew says that boat made little headway because it was against the wind and being battered by the waves. In other words there is a storm and the boat is going against the storm. So, are they close because they made little headway or are they far away because of their early start? The Sea of Galilee is not all that big. It’s a little smaller than Lake Tahoe. It doesn’t take all that long to get from side to side. But we’ll find out what Matthew is up to.
Morning is breaking, meaning there is light. Without light what happens next would have never happened. Jesus is walking toward them on the water. The first reason for the storm: Jesus can overtake the boat merely by walking. This is the slow boat, not to China, but to the other side.
The second reason for a storm is now revealed. Fisher folk and many others are superstitious. Ancient peoples were very superstitious. They had no idea about many natural phenomena that we take for granted. There was a long tradition of storm gods and even the Jews weren’t above being afraid of supernatural evil. There are lots of demon stories in the gospels. Storms are frightening, especially if you are on a boat. Storms seem to have a mind of their own like someone or something is controlling them.
So the disciples are already frightened. Then comes along this person or something walking on the water toward them. They looked at this figure and thought it was a ghost. They went from frightened to terrified. This ghost is up to no good.
In essence Jesus tells them, “Are you blind or what? It’s me. What are you afraid of?” The literal translation of Jesus’ reply is, “I am,” the same response God tells Moses who God is.
These are Jesus’ disciples. Jesus has taught them many things. Yet in the midst of a storm they have no faith that God will help them. They have no faith that God will visit them. They have no faith that God will save them. Instead, they are consumed with fear.
Their leader, Peter, is the first to speak. “Well, if it is really you, command me to come out to you on the water.” Peter’s words hasten back to the words of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Peter challenges Jesus’ identity. Peter commands Jesus like a medium commands a ghost.
Jesus responds by saying, “Come.” Everyone on that boat is probably looking directly at Peter. I wonder if Peter really expected the figure to take him up on his challenge. Peter can’t back down without losing his position among the disciples. So Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking.
Peter may have been smiling to find out he could walk on water too. Peter had forgotten all about the wind that was impeding the boat. All of a sudden, he noticed the wind and panicked. “Lord, save me!” The one who tests now is being tested.
Jesus took Peter’s hand and rebuked Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” They got in the boat and the wind went away.
Faith can be a fleeting thing. The disciples saw what Jesus did and worshipped him. But when Jesus really needed a friend at his arrest, everyone but Peter fled. Peter hung around to tell everyone that he never knew Jesus and had nothing to do with Jesus.
Faith is fragile. The disciples were really no different than anyone else. Faith depends on trust. If a partner is found not trustworthy, faith is broken and it is difficult to repair. If Jesus was truly someone worthy of their worship, why would he be arrested? Even though Jesus told them three times in advance what would happen, they ran. Their faith was broken, because they never believed Jesus. When you don’t believe in someone to begin with, any faith you have with that person is going to be quite weak.
Faith requires repeated examination. Faith is going to be tested all the time. If we fail to examine our faith when it is tested, then we will be like the disciples when Jesus was arrested. Sometimes, we can do that examination alone, thinking through the issues which may take months. Sometimes we need to wrestle with our doubts with someone else to help guide us. In either case, it takes effort on our part to put it all together.
At Snowline Hospice, the other chaplain and I split being at IDT meetings. IDT means Inter Disciplinary Team. Medicare requires every patient be reviewed at least once every 15 days. The chaplain is responsible for a reflection or inspiration at the beginning of the meeting.
Several months ago for my inspiration, I showed clips of Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the roadrunner. There are many, many of these cartoons. No matter how many times Wily E. Coyote fails, he always comes up with another scheme. The title of the PowerPoint was “Faith.”
In some of those schemes, the road runner runs off into space because Wile has made an illusion of being on the ground. Then Wily realizes that he is running on air and stops. He turns to the camera, blinks his eyes, and falls to the ground below, much like Peter on the water.
No matter how many times he fails, the coyote never gives up. Wile E. Coyote has faith that one day he will catch the roadrunner. He may fall like Peter did in the water, but unlike Peter, he picks himself up, by himself, and thinks of another hair-brained scheme. Failure is not an option.
In my research, I found a clip of Wile E. Coyote catching the roadrunner. It’s on You Tube if you’re interested. Through some quirks of different pipe sizes the coyote and the roadrunner change sizes. At the end, the road runner is gargantuan and the coyote is a miniature. The coyote has the road runner’s toe, finally. Then he holds up a sign for the audience that says, “Now what do I do?”
Faith is about testing, trying, and doing it again. If we think we will fail, we will fail. Faith is about having faith in ourselves and faith in others. Peter had faith in himself, but was only saved when he expressed faith in Jesus. With Jesus’ help, we, too, may find ourselves capturing the roadrunner’s toe or even greater things.
Text: Matthew 14:22–33