Studying Matthew 14 22-33

We are studying Matthew 14:22-33 for Sunday, June 27. This is the story in which Jesus walks on water. Peter manages to walk on water, too, for one verse. [Here are some questions on the text.] Here are my notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are a few chapters further on in Matthew’s gospel from last week’s text, Matthew 9:18-26, the healing of a woman with a hemorrhage and the restoration of a little girl’s life. Between that story and this one, there have been more healings, intensifying opposition from “the Pharisees,” and a collection of parables of the kingdom of heaven.

Then, Jesus hears of the death of John the Baptist at the command of Herod. He goes off to be by himself, but thousands of people assemble, and he feeds them. Our story, a second one set on the stormy surface of the Sea of Galilee, is the story of the group’s return trip from that event.

Once the group gets back, “the Pharisees’” opposition to Jesus’s ministry will continue to increase, there will be a hint that Jesus’s ministry can even benefit Gentiles, and more miraculous feeding, all leading up to Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the messiah, followed immediately by the Transfiguration. After that, it’s on to Jerusalem, with additional teachings yet to come, as well as passion, death, and resurrection.

This story also appears in Mark and John. [See Mark 6:45-52, John 6:16-21.] It is the lectionary’s gospel text for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A. The lectionary substitutes John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, along with John’s version of this story of Jesus walking on the sea, for Mark’s version in year B, 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time. (So, it will come up in a few weeks, on July 25 this year.)

The story is set, literally, during “the fourth watch of the night” (v25), translated by NRSV as “early morning.” A brief note on ancient timekeeping informs us that dividing the night into four watches, rather than three, was a Roman practice that was becoming more widespread in Jesus’s day. The morning watch would have followed the evening, midnight, and “cockcrow” watches. It would have corresponded roughly to our 3-6 a.m. [At my house, the time the cats start waking me up to be let in and let out and let in and let out and … ] Early early morning, as in, still dark, and wanting to sleep longer.

Although in the disciples’ case, they are more likely wanting to get any sleep at all, since they seem to have been dealing with a storm in the dark all night already.
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CLOSER READING: There is a lot of motion in this text! People getting into and out of boats and walking and changing position. There’s also a lot of e-motion, mainly different shades of fear. [Since we are constantly told by memes that fear is the opposite of faith, this may be significant.]

After the miraculous meal, Jesus commands the disciples to set out in a boat for the other side of the lake. He himself dismisses the crowd he’s just fed, and then goes “up the mountain by himself to pray.” Once again in Matthew’s gospel, we should probably think of Moses being alone on a mountaintop with God.

“When evening came” (v23) Jesus is on the mountain alone – so, a doubling of this information.

Then, v24 tells us, “the boat” by this time is already many stadia from land, and is literally being tormented / tortured by the waves. A “stadium” is an ancient unit of measurement, about 600 feet. “Many” stadia might be 9 or more, which would be a mile or more. One point is probably: too far to turn back.

The other point, though, is that Matthew names “the boat,” rather than the disciples. Of course, we know the disciples are in the boat. But v24 presents us with a picture of the boat on the sea (maybe symbolizing chaos or the realm of turbulence) in the impending dark (evening, first watch), facing an adverse wind, far from land. A boat, as in a symbol for “the church.”

Between verse 24 (evening) and verse 25 (early morning) is all night.

Matthew repeats “walking on the sea” in vv25 and 26. As if it is land, which might remind us of some older stories, like crossing the Red Sea in Exodus, or the Jordan River in Joshua.

The disciples first sight of this phenomenon causes them to be “terrified” (NRSV), literally agitated or stirred up – something like the turbulent sea around them. They think they are seeing a ghost – not the “spirit” kind, but a “phantasm” kind. In this context, they and Matthew’s ancient world audience would probably have assumed a restless ghost, someone who’d died and not received a proper burial. Maybe in a boating accident. The ghost reference adds another hint of danger and death to this story.

So Jesus’s reassuring words speak to the moment, and to the larger fear of death. “Take heart,” literally “courage,” is what Jesus said to the woman with the hemorrhage.

Commentators make a lot out of Jesus’s statement “it is I,” linking it to YHWH’s conversation with Moses in Exodus 3, and the image of the God of Israel as “I AM.” I get it, but it feels out of place to me in this story, so I take this with a grain of salt.

What is actually happening in v28?? I do not think Peter is actually proposing an experiment. If he is, it is a stupid experiment. Commanding Peter to do something potentially lethal would not seem to differentiate between real Jesus and ghost-or-demon Jesus. It seems more likely to be a way to get Peter out of the boat, so that he can then be brought into the boat, by Jesus, after being saved by Jesus from drowning in the deadly water. And as Thomas Foster says in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, “if she comes up, it’s baptism.”

Assuming the boat is a symbol of the church, everyone knows how a person gets into the church. Through the waters of baptism. This story makes Peter the first. The baptism reading makes some sense out of Peter’s conditional “If you are the Lord” language, too. If someone recognizes Jesus as Lord, they are commanded to come to Jesus by way of baptism. This reading recalls that Matthew’s gospel is written after there is a church, for that church, from within that church and its tradition.

In v30, NRSV translates Peter “became frightened” when he saw the strong wind. As a picky grammatical point, but one that seems significant, the verb there is passive. That is, Peter is being acted upon, not acting. “Became frightened” is technically correct, but we would probably get the passive idea better if we read “was made afraid.

[This will rankle the people who insist that we are all in charge of our own emotions, and that no one can make us feel fear without our consent, and all that. Peter had probably not had enough therapy. Matthew seems to have written that the sight of the wind – maybe meaning the sight of the wind’s effects – made Peter afraid. The therapistoi will probably be able go along with the way the text links perception and interpretation to emotion, though: what Peter sees and what [we assume] he thinks it means is what makes him feel something. If only he were seeing Jesus and thinking “that means I’m OK.” That would make him feel something different. More like faith, maybe, the opposite of fear.]

Objectively sinking, Peter cries out to Jesus “Lord, save me!” – using the salvation word. Jesus saves Peter from death. Jesus uses the “little faith” word, and asks “why did you doubt?” That doubt is literally an image of something wavering or alternating between two things.

Assuming the boat is a symbol of the church, then v33 nicely sums up the condition of being inside the church: “Those in the boat [all of whom have been saved from death, and are experiencing Jesus’s calming presence in the realm of chaos] worshiped him [Jesus], saying ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”
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Image: “St. Matthew mosaic, All Hallows, Allerton,” by Rodhullandemu [CC BY-SA] via Wikimedia Commons; “Walking on Water,” Ivan Ayvazovsky, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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