1 KINGS 19:9A, 11-13A | ROMANS 9:1-5 | MATTHEW 14:22-33
The fourteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which we conclude today, is perhaps the most emotionally charged chapter outside of the Passion Narrative. Let me recap the progression of events beginning with the conclusion of chapter thirteen that ends with a sad and disturbing scene. Jesus is rejected by the people of his home town, Nazareth. They see his healings. They listen to his preaching. But because of their familiarity with Jesus and his family, they were strangely put off by him. They asked, “where did this man get all this?” In fact, their lack of faith in him was so deep that “he did not work mighty deeds there.”
Chapter fourteen immediately picks up and intensifies the darkness. It begins with Herod’s “profession of faith” in Jesus. This may seem like a contradiction, but think of the times demons address Jesus as the Son of God. It often seems that the powers of darkness acknowledge Jesus before the people he’s teaching and even before his disciples. Herod had been hearing of the mighty powers that were at work in Jesus. He came to the conclusion that Jesus must be John the Baptist risen from the dead.
Matthew immediately reminds us of the events of John’s death. We all know the story. Herodias, Herod’s present wife and ex-wife of his brother Philip, had been plotting to murder John because he publically condemned her and her marriage to Herod. She had already managed to get him arrested and imprisoned. But her real opportunity for revenge came at a banquet celebrating Herod’s birthday. Everybody was there, his military leaders and members of his political inner circle. We could easily conclude that Herod and his guests were drunk by the time Salome, Herodias’ daughter, performed a dance for the guests. She “delighted Herod so much that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for.” Herodias took advantage of the situation and prompted her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Fearing political embarrassment Herod granted her request. After the banquet John’s disciples asked for his body so that they might give him a proper burial. They then went and informed Jesus of his execution. “When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
It is no accident that Matthew places the account of John’s death in the very same chapter in which he gives the account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. He’s clearly contrasting the love celebrated in the Eucharistic banquet of the kingdom of God with the depraved banquet in Herod’s earthly kingdom. The account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish implies that the disciples have the same power to feed the multitude. By his command, “Give them some food yourselves,” he’s reminding them that he came to serve and not to be served. To be his disciples and to celebrate the Eucharistic meal they need to follow his example of self-giving.
After the crowd of five thousand had eaten their fill Jesus sent his disciples off in a boat to the other side of the lake. He retreated into solitude again. Meanwhile, a storm blew up catching the disciples a few miles off shore. Their boat was being tossed about by strong winds. The disciples feared for their lives. It was the fourth watch of the night, between 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM. According to folk lore, it was the time when spirits and phantoms were returning to their graves after a night of wandering. Suddenly, they saw a figure walking on the water. They began to scream in horror – it was a dybbuk, a ghost!
A voice broke through the howling wind. “Take courage; it is I; do not be afraid.” Could
it be Jesus? Peter challenged the spirit. “Lord, if it is your command me to come to you on the water.” Peter stepped out of the boat and miraculously stood on the water, but he gave into his fear and began to sink screaming out, “Lord, save me!” Without any hesitation Jesus reached out to him. The two of them stepped into the boat. The wind subsided. The storm passed. Everyone was safe.
Jesus’ comment to them was part admonition, part disappointment. He had entered the storm with them. He responded immediately to Peter’s plea for help. Yet, they still didn’t grasp who he was. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” There’s sadness in his question. The people of Nazareth had outright rejected him. In spite of the miracle of the loaves and fish the disciples had still not put their faith in him.
They continued crossing the lake and came to Gennesaret, a predominately Gentile area. Word got out that Jesus was there. People brought their sick to him to be healed. Their faith was great. They believed that if they merely touched the tassels on his cloak they would be healed. Matthew concludes the chapter by testifying that whoever did touch him was cured.
As I said in the introduction to this reflection there’s a great deal of sadness surrounding Jesus. He’s rejected by friends and family in Nazareth. He’s mourning the death of John the Baptist. He feels pity for the crowds when they come to him for healing. He’s saddened by the disciples’ lack of faith.
The chapter also presents contrasts. Herod’s diabolical banquet is set against the scene of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, an icon of the Eucharistic meal in the kingdom of God. The rejection Jesus experienced from the people of Nazareth is contrasted with the deep faith of the Gentiles in Gennesaret.
The storm at sea focuses this chapter. Jesus suffered in this life not only on the cross, but through the rejection of friends, relatives, political and religious figures and even his disciples. His suffering, rather than separating him from the world, created a bond with the suffering human family. There will be ups and downs. There will be storms, sometimes terrifying storms, but he will walk with us. He’ll reach out his hand to each of us. We should never be afraid to cry out in faith, “Save me, Lord!” Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to walk on the water with him.