Worship God’s son (Dec. 28, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Matthew 14:22-33

In the swamps of Costa Rica there is a type of lizard called the Jesus Christ lizard because it seems to be able to walk on water for a considerable distance. Many of us have no doubt heard it said of a particularly beloved person who can do no wrong, “She walks on water!” Those words (and the lizard’s name) are derived from this familiar story about Jesus that is the Scripture passage for today.

This story was deeply embedded in the oral tradition about Jesus’ miraculous deeds and is now preserved in three accounts. In addition to our passage from Matthew there is Mark’s account (Mark 6:45- 52, which Matthew followed quite closely) and John’s slightly differing version (John 6:16-21).

Matthew 14:22-23 — Jesus prays alone
All three versions of this story place it shortly after the beheading of John the Baptist and the feeding of the 5,000 during Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Jesus has begun to attract large crowds that follow him from village to village along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew tells us that Jesus sent the crowds away so that he could pray alone.

Jesus, like many of us, felt a need to find a place where he could have some peace and quiet. Retreating to a secluded place on a nearby mountain (or at least a good-sized hill) provided him a needed escape.

It is clear that Jesus was a person of prayer. When he taught his disciples what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, when he shared his last supper with his disciples, and finally in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed.

Matthew 14:24-27 — Jesus walks on water
Sudden storms could turn a calm Sea of Galilee into a turbulent and dangerous body of water. Although the disciples were experienced fishermen and therefore accustomed to stormy seas, they had great difficulty keeping their boat on coarse toward their destination on the other side of the sea.

The NRSV translation blurs the specific detail provided by the Greek text. It was between 3 and 6 a.m. (literally, on the fourth watch) and the disciples had been struggling against a strong wind for several hours. Imagine their surprise and alarm when they saw a shadowy figure approaching them on the water. They thought they were seeing a ghost and they were afraid. Matthew does not include any explanation for their fear. He has omitted Mark’s comment that the disciples’ hearts were hardened so that they could not recognize that the divine power evident in the feeding of the 5,000 would also enable Jesus to walk on water.

Matthew 14:28-31 — Trust Jesus
The calming words of Jesus, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” settle the disciples down. The key words in Matthew’s account, “It is I,” translate the Greek words ego eimi, which are also the Greek translation of the key words in God’s self-revelation to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. Although the disciples may not have recognized this, Matthew wants his readers to be aware of the divine power of Jesus.

To illustrate this point, Matthew reports that Peter, still not completely convinced that the ghostly figure is Jesus, asks Jesus to command him to walk on the water also. When Jesus does so, Peter obediently climbs out of the boat and starts to walk toward Jesus. But when he focuses on the strong wind, Peter becomes frightened and begins to sink in the water. Jesus reaches out his hand to save Peter and asks “Why did you doubt?” Matthew’s point is unmistakable: only faith in Jesus enables the believer to survive the storms of life.

Matthew 14:32-33 — Worship Jesus, God’s Son
The miraculous encounter on the water concludes when Peter and Jesus return to the boat, the storm ends, the disciples worship Jesus and acknowledge that he is God’s Son. It is a dramatic ending to a dramatic demonstration of the divine power of Jesus. The appropriate human response to a manifestation of the divine, a theophany in theological language, is to bow down in worship like the disciples did.

For discussion
Most biblical scholars believe that the careful reader can best understand Matthew’s gospel by noticing how Matthew has edited his source, the Gospel of Mark. Why do you think Matthew omitted Mark’s description of the disciples’ hardness of heart? What are the positive and negative aspects of Peter’s behavior in this story? What should a believer do if his or her faith waivers?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.