19th Sunday Ord. Time – 9th August 2020 — Gospel: Mt 14,22-33
Disciples’ crescendo in faith
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat, but was not with them. He is on the mountain praying. In the darkness of the fourth watch (3 to 6 am), when he walks on the sea, the disciples think they see a ghost and panic. This is the definition of little faith: a faith that is still afraid. From this zero level, it is interesting to note, the disciples of Jesus make progress in their faith. Today’s episode presents the contrast between Peter’s and the disciples’ expression of faith. Peter, the first of the apostles (10,2), addresses Jesus as “Lord”. It is a recognition that Jesus manifests and participates in Yahweh’s rule over all creation. His address is submissive yet daring. Peter asks Jesus’ permission to share in his miraculous power to walk on the water (10,24-25). The phrase “if it is you” expresses some doubt but more confidence and trust in Jesus’ powerful presence. Nevertheless, when Peter was frightened by the power of nature, he began to doubt the power of Jesus and so he sinks into death. With the faith that he has been left with, he renews his cry unto the Lord. His cry recalls the words of the Psalmist in 69,1.3 & 14-16. The disciples used these same words in pluralistic form (Mt 8,25). But Jesus rebukes Peter for his little faith (a faith which panics when faced with crisis) and his doubt (practical hesitation rather than theoretical difficulties with doctrine). Paradoxically, Peter exhibits faith and a lack of faith.
The disciples, gripped by fear and doubt (only here and in 28,17), experience how poor is their faith (6,30; 8,26). That a disciple can do what Jesus did because of Jesus’ continued presence in the Christian community is brought out in the scene with Peter. They have discerned in Jesus’ five actions: of walking on the water, of speaking God’s words, of stretching out his hand, of rescuing Peter, and of calming the storm actions that God performs, that they, too, can cross to freedom, provided they put their faith in him. Therefore at the end of their experience ‘those in the boat’ worshipped Jesus (only here and in 28,17) and confessed him to be the ‘Son of God’. The wording is very close to that of the profession of the Centurion and his soldiers (the Gentile Church) at the cross (27,54) and partially anticipates Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi.
The disciples’ response is typical of responses to other epiphanies and rescues from the sea (Ex 14,31; Ps 107,31-32; Jonah 1,16). To name him “Son of God” is to recognize Jesus as the agent God has commissioned to reveal God’s saving presence and kingdom. That Jesus is “God’s Son” has already been declared in Matthew’s gospel (2,15; 3,17; 4,3.6; 8,29). It refers to Jesus, who enjoys a special relationship with God the Father (6,8; 7,21; 10,32-33; 11,25-27; 12,50). However, this is the first time that Jesus’ disciples have explicitly acknowledged him as God’s Son. Some scholars view this as a post-Resurrection faith. In “worshipping” Jesus, they align themselves with the marginalized magi (2,2.11), the leper (8,2) and leader (9,18), directing their loyalty not to emperors and kings (4,9), not the to the devil (4,9-10), but to God’s anointed, who manifests God’s saving presence and reign.
For Matthew, the disciple in this life is always caught between faith and doubt (28,17) and so must always struggle against his little faith (8,23-27). The rebuke of Jesus extends to every disciple who at first braves difficulties and then collapses, similar to Peter’s following Jesus after his arrest, only to deny him. However, this story is meant to reveal how the disciples built up their faith from fear and doubt to witness and worship in the midst of the chaos. If Jesus had not forced the disciples to embark alone on this uncertain journey, they would have missed the opportunity to recognize and profess their faith in God, who is revealed in their midst.