Bible scholars show us that Matthew organized the material of his gospel into five sections. This Sunday’s passage is part of the fourth section (13:54-18:35) in which he explains the meaning of Jesus in relation to the church. This section, as well as the entire gospel, reaches its fulfillment when the Risen Lord commissions his disciples to make disciples of all nations. And with the mandate he makes a promise: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20).
In Matthew’s inspired theology, the divine presence in human history unfolds in three stages: (1) God forms the people of Israel and remains with them in good times and bad; (2) in fulfillment of divine promise through the prophets, Jesus, Messiah and incarnate Son of God, is present among his people as their savior; (3) in these last days, the Risen Lord, through his disciples, is present to extend his saving mission beyond his particular historical time and land to all nations. The primary focus of Matthew’s theology is to give us some insight into the meaning of the presence of the Risen Lord in the church by examining the meaning of the divine presence in the prior stages of our sacred history.
In today’s gospel passage, while his disciples depart in a boat, Jesus goes up on a mountain by himself to pray. When a storm arises during the night, Jesus comes toward the boat walking on the water. The disciples are terrified. Jesus reassures them by his presence. Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. Soon he becomes frightened and begins to sink. Jesus saves him and says: “O you of little faith, why do you doubt?” The disciples in the boat exclaim: “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
The images Matthew uses are powerful in their direct simplicity — disciples in a boat, night, stormy waters. We can readily identify with the reality to which these images point both as church and as individuals. The church in every age is threatened by the chaos of evil (the night) and the powers of death (the stormy waters). Matthew assures us with the good news that the Risen Lord with “all power in heaven and on earth” is present to save, just as Yahweh, with mastery over all the forces of nature, saved a slave-people from the powers of death in Egypt. Jesus’ self-identification (“It is I”) of Matthew 14:27, just as the “I am” of Exodus 3:14, means “I am here to save you. Do not be afraid.”
The one constant in the drama of the divine presence in history is the necessity of human response to the saving presence with total trust. The disciples are like most of us — we believe that the Lord is with us, but our trust is quite conditional. We tend to panic when a sudden storm arises in the middle of the night, and things get out of control. Like Peter we may start out with confidence, but soon we notice that the wind is really strong and the water is really deep. Our confidence turns to fear. Today’s gospel assures us that Jesus also stretches out his hand to save us with those words that must have been spoken with affection: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Another life implication emerges if we shift our focus from the disciples to Jesus. Matthew notes that before the episode on the stormy sea, Jesus had gone up on a mountain by himself to pray. Jesus’ humanity, through intimate communion of prayer with the Father, is completely transparent so that divine power flows through him to overcome the destructive powers of evil.
As Christians we are not meant to be helpless victims when storms threaten to destroy us. We too are called to be in close communion of prayer with the Father so that with Christ’s courage and love we can confront the powers of destruction in our world. In this regard, we might take to heart that astonishing passage in the fourth gospel: ” . . . whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12).
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.