On this the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time we are gifted with the Gospel of Matthew 14:22-33.
The painting depicting Jesus and his disciples immediately brought to mind the images, we have sadly become familiar with, of the thousands of migrants who have crossed and continue to cross the Mediterranean, in fragile, precarious vessels, seeking a better life, many losing their lives in doing so, with unimaginable trauma for those who survive. This image is also a sharp reminder of the suffering of millions of people who are crushed by the ‘storms’ of life in every corner of our world.
Inspired by Psalm 85 we pray; Lord, let them see, through us, your loving kindness and grant them your salvation. (Ps. 85:7)
The Gospel text gifted to us on this Sunday begins after the disciples witness the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes andsee the compassion of Jesus for the crowds who spent the day with him.
In verse 22, as late evening approaches, Jesus sends the people home. The disciples are sent back to their boat, to go before him to the other side of the lake. Jesus then goes alone to the mountain to pray. It is interesting that Jesus sends all back to their own familiar places, while he himself goes to the place where he will commune alone with his Father. It seemed a perfect resolution to the end of a busy day.
Matthew is very keen to show us, in the eleven verses of this Gospel text, the relationship between Jesus and his disciples, a relationship which was one of; companionship, of accompaniment, of encouragement, of challenging and of strengthening their faith. Jesus was teaching them and preparing them by word and example for the mission that was being entrusted to them.
Suddenly, in verse 24, the unexpected happened. Everything changed for the disciples, they were hit by the kind of unexpected trauma we have known at some time or other in our own lives. For the disciples it came when they were well out on the lake, some say three to four miles out. A mighty storm broke and blew them well off course. We can only imagine their paralyzing fear and their utter helplessness. They weren’t strangers to their environment, they knew the sea, they knew it in all weathers and they knew its dangers. The text tells us it was nightfall, the storm raged, Jesus was not with them. They had to cope with this alone. That, in itself, was a very hard place to be in and they were terrified.
As it came to the fourth watch of the night, which was probably between 3 and 6 am, it is easy to imagine their strength was failing, their hope of surviving diminishing, and undoubtedly they felt totally disorientated. As the deep darkness of the night was coming to an end, the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. In their distress they must have thought they were hallucinating. A ghost- like figure would certainly have added to their distress! Jesus walks towards them on the water, this is the first of the three miracles of this text, he responds to this situation exactly as he finds it. He simply spoke and said to them “Take heart, it is I: Do not be afraid.” It is I, was sufficient for them. In these words they recognised Jesus and knew they were no longer alone.
Peter, being Peter, needs to be sure it was really Jesus and he does what Peter does best. He finds his voice and speaks up . “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” This moment in the Gospel reminded me of the title of a book written by John Ortberg in 2001, If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat. Was Peter ready to do just that? Is that the risk he was willing to take? Jesus uses one word in response to Peter, “Come.” This is the moment we witness the second miracle: Peter walks on water because Jesus says, ” Come.” It is of course an echo of that first invitation of Jesus to each one of his apostles. “Come, follow me”
Now, everything seems possible as Peter takes to the water and walks towards Jesus. However, only seconds later Peter begins to feel the force of the wind and the lashing of the waves, he takes his eyes off Jesus, he doubts. He begins to sink. Peter goes beyond his paralyzing fear to somewhere deep within himself and so we hear him call out, “ Lord save me.” With this simple, yet most profound prayer of petition, we see Jesus reaching out his hand and taking hold of Peter, giving us a glimpse of the tenderness of God to all who call out to him in trust.
Jesus then says to Peter “ You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peter doesn’t answer, perhaps because he thought Jesus already knew the answer, or maybe he himself needed more time to deal with this profound question. We too, like Peter, face this question many times in our own lives and particularly in the darker moments of life. Christ’s living presence encourages us to be people of faith and of utter trust in the God who journeys with us, particularly through the challenging, difficult and devastating moments of our lives.
Jesus finally calms the raging storm and all are saved. The response from the disciples was one of worship and acknowledgement of Jesus as human and divine. “They bowed down before Jesus saying, “ Truly you are the Son of God.”
We see in this Gospel text the way in which Jesus accompanied his disciples, it was simple, he was present with them in their time of need, he saw their distress, heard their cry for help, he spoke to them, he stayed with them, shared the risks of the situation with them, challenged their unbelief and responded wholeheartedly to the reality in which they found themselves. Jesus’ way of being with his disciples in their near drowning experience must have left a deep impression on them. Their response was; one of trust, of a renewal of their relationship with Jesus the Son of God and of being missionaries ofGod’s faithful, liberating presence all in need of it.
There are many, many people who do for the migrants and refugees of our time what Jesus did for his disciples. Can there be more of us?
Caitriona Gorman OP