Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
Sundays after Trinity (8)
Matthew 14. 22-33 :
“Walking on the Edge of Chaos”
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
You might like to have a dramatic reading of the text by assigning the various roles to group members.
What is familiar about the experiences reflected in this story? What is strange? What connections and gaps between the world of the first century and ours do you discern?
Reflection on the text
In this story, we have the image of the small Christian community as a fragile vessel blown about and battered by wind and wave on the sea of Empire in the dark of night.
There are two important features to hold onto at the beginning of this account: the state of the disciple community in the boat on the sea (v22) and Jesus praying alone on the mountain (v23).
In the biblical imagination, the sea was often thought of as the habitation of the great sea monster, Leviathan (Psalm 74:13-14): a place of chaos, turbulence, uncertainty, unrest, trial and tribulation, a dwelling place of evil spirits. So, to be ordered by Jesus to cross the sea by night without him present with them in the boat was a big ask, and their worst fears were soon realized when ‘far from land’ the wind got up and the waves ‘battered’ the vessel about (v24).
The figure walking on the water is not first recognized (v26). Jesus’ reply catches up one of the Old Testament names for God, ‘I am’ (v 27 - Greek: ego eimi – see more background information). This is a moment of revelation of Jesus as the Lord of Creation and Master of the sea. No wonder the incident ends in worship and an affirmation that Jesus is God’s Son (v33).
All four gospels record experiences of storms at sea but only Matthew tells of Peter’s water walking feat (v 28f), thus weaving into the miracle story some fundamentals about Christian mission and discipleship. The message is clear: God’s mission always involves risk and danger but if we stay focused on Jesus rather than on the circumstances then we, like Peter, will find ourselves ‘walking on water’. That’s what discipleship is all about, focusing on Jesus, following in his footsteps, loving, welcoming, embracing and forgiving as he did: doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God, as he did.
Matthew’s community knew what it felt like to be adrift in a storm of oppression, isolated and alone, seemingly at the mercy of overwhelming forces, suffering threats and persecution, left wondering whether God had abandoned them. At their gatherings, they came to recognize him in the ‘breaking of bread’. But they also came to recognize his presence in times of deep crisis. They could be assured that Jesus would always come to them through the storm tossed waves and that he was praying for them, interceding before the Father.
some questions for group discussion:
- Where are you in this story and with whom do you identify and why?
- What threats to your Christian community’s life, mission and security (internal and external) do you face at this time? What storms and conflicts paralyse people’s lives as followers of Jesus?
- Identify together some of the deepest felt fears of people in society today? (i.e. the forces and powers that are so strong people fear they will be overwhelmed by them). How are those fears addressed in your community? How do we go about setting our fears and doubts in the context of Jesus’ power to save and his authority over the storms of life?
- In what ways are you now experiencing fears of the unknown or are doing something (together or apart) you have never done before and are afraid of losing it?
Place a symbol in the centre of the circle (a model boat?) to represent the church. Light a candle to represent Jesus in the midst of the storm and place it beside the boat. Then using the words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘but deliver us from evil’, pray about the storms that the world, the church and your community in particular are facing at the present time (e.g. war, global food crisis, credit crunch, oil price increases, rogue regimes, etc.).
You may like to end with a song or hymn e.g. ‘Jesus calls us o’er the tumult’, ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’ or ‘We rest on Thee our shield and our defender’.
More background information
- The Greek word basaniz? is used in verse 24 to describe the impact of the waves on the boat. It is translated ‘battered’ in the NRSV, ‘buffeted’ in the NIV, but it can also be translated ‘harassed’, ‘tormented’ or ‘tortured’. This evokes images of the overwhelming forces of Empire that surrounded Matthew’s small community households.
- Walking on water was an action attributed to God who rescues the distressed. Only God can walk upon the sea (‘trampled the back of the sea dragon’ in Job 9 v 1 - 8 and 38 v 16. See also Habakkuk 3v15; Psalm 77v19; Isaiah 43v16). ‘Take heart, it is I’ (v 27) literally means ‘Take heart, it is I am’ (eg? eimi in Greek) – one of the names of God in the Hebrew scriptures – Exodus 3v14. The God of Israel is at work in this situation. Jesus’ walk on water points to his ultimate authority and Lordship over evil and death.
- Note the many Old Testament references to the sea, the home of Leviathan. For example, 2 Sam 22-5-7 where Sheol and the sea are related. Jonah stayed 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the big fish in the depths [Greek abyss] – Jonah 2 v 3-10.
- It appears that Matthew’s communities made up of Jew and Gentile were in conflict with the synagogue (chapter 23). There were major issues relating to behaviour and the need for reconciled forgiveness (chapter 18). There were false teachers and prophets (chapter 7v15−20; 24v11, 24), leadership and authority issues (chapter 23v8−10), and love had grown cold (chapter 24v12).
- Note the connections between this story and the stories recorded in Matthew 8 v 23−27 and 28 v 16−20.
- Walking on water is a symbol of conquering our fears and having power over evil. In Superman, Lois Lane's flight (walk) in space is similar to Peter's attempt to walk on water. Lois sank, like Peter. In The Truman Show, Truman takes a boat to the end of his world. He gets out and seemingly walks on water. He had overcome his fears of evil. See http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/truman.htm.