Proper 14 • Matthew 14:22–23 • August 7, 2011
By Andrew Bartelt
Literary and Canonical Background
Our Lord’s ministry began with the notice that John the Baptist had been arrested (4:12). The words and deeds of Jesus now have been twice interrupted by the ongoing story of John, who sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was “the one to come” in 11:2ff. Jesus answered by noting what has been “seen and heard” in his messianic fulfillment of the new creation according to Isaiah 35. John’s disciples come back to Jesus in 14:12 with a different report, and so the story of John comes to a tragic conclusion. At this point, the readers of Matthew’s narrative could well wonder just how and when this new creation was going to play out.
The next two pericopes give dramatic answers, drawing on messianic expectations not from Isaiah 35, but from Exodus. From next to nothing, Jesus provides more than enough food in the wilderness (14:10–21) and then shows his power over the water, wind, and waves. This is not the first time that those of little faith, filled with fear, had encountered the one of whom “even wind and sea obey him” (14:21), recalling the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15.
But Isaiah’s words may also lie in the background as the one who “made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters” (Is 43:16) is now making a way on the sea and upon the mighty waters in the presence of a strong head wind.
Job chimes in as well in the Old Testament lesson, noting Yahweh’s command to the sea from within the storm, “This far and no further: here is where your proud waves halt” (Job 38:11, cf. also Job 9:8, Hb 3:15).
Notes and Commentary
[It is difficult to add to the translation and notes by Jeff Gibbs in his Matthew commentary (Volume 2, CPH, 2010), but we note the following highlights.]
Verse 22: The threefold use of the adverb εὐθέως in verses 22, 27, and 31 signals the focus on Jesus’s actions moving through the text. First, “immediately” after the concluding observation of verses 20–21, Jesus “compelled” (ἠνάγκασεν) the disciples to get into the boat and to “begin to go ahead” (so Gibbs on the inceptive force of the present participle in contrast to the previous aorist), “until” he dismisses the crowds.
The disciples had wanted to send the crowds away to get rid of the problem in verse 15 (ἀπολύω in both places), but Jesus had a different solution. Now he will move from public to private, and then to his disciples, on his terms.
Verse 23: Jesus takes an interlude for personal prayer, connecting as the Son of God to his Father, in between his revelation to the crowds and to his disciples.
Verse 24: While the wind was against them, Gibbs notes that “the disciples’ problem . . . is not the storm,” in contrast to 8:22ff. Nevertheless, they were “tormented” by the storm (as paralleled in Mk 6:48), a verb usually ascribed to great distress (see Mt 8:6, 24). In spite of the past experience of 8:22ff, the storm is characterized as almost “trying again” to create fear and doubt—or an opportunity for Jesus to reveal himself.
Verse 26: The disciples’ fear comes not from the storm, but from the encounter with Jesus. They are troubled (ἐνταράχθησαν), they declare him to be a ghost (φάντασμά), and they cry out “from” fear.
Verse 27: With the second use of εὐθύς, Jesus “immediately” responds: To their trouble, he says, “be courageous.” To the false identification he says, “ἐγώ εἰμι” filled with revelatory significance. To their fear, he says, “stop fearing.”
Verse 28: The motive behind Peter’s challenge is not clear. Gibbs argues convincingly that Peter doubts, twice: first in asking, “Is it really you? So then prove it!” and then when the strong wind seems stronger than Jesus, in spite of previous experiences. Gibbs summarizes, “The first time he [Peter] doubted whether it was really Jesus, and the second time he doubted whether Jesus was able to do what he said he would do for him.”
But Peter’s question may also reflect a different malady: wanting Jesus’s power for one’s personal agenda, as though Peter were saying, “Jesus, me too! I want to experience your power, especially on my terms and by my request.”
Verse 30: In either case, Peter is not an example of how to claim Jesus’s power or follow in faith when Jesus says, “Come!” He is rather an example of one who does not fully recognize or appreciate Jesus until his own personal agenda and purposes fail in fear before the wind and the wave and he is brought to say, “Save me!” (σῶσόν με).
Verse 31: The final εὐθέως reveals Jesus’s “immediate” response. He reaches out and takes hold of Peter, whom he addresses as “little faith one, why did you doubt?” recalling 8:26, even as 16:8 recalls 14:16–17. One “of little faith” describes one who does not understand Jesus as the coming of the kingdom (cf. Mt 6:30, 17:20).
Verses 32–33: The final verses summarize the real issue: it’s about Jesus, who he is (that even wind and sea obey him, 8:27) and that he has revealed himself by demonstrating the power of the creator and the salvation of the redeemer to be the great, “I am.” The final adverb is not “immediately” but “truly” (ἀληθῶς).
The result is the recognition of the very Son of God. The amazement and question of 8:27 is answered by confession and worship.
Homiletical Application: “When in Doubt, Shout Out!” or “Jesus Saves Me!”
The pericope is about Jesus and his identity, not about how we can or should step out in faith or learn to walk on water. If anything, Peter failed miserably at both.
In the wake of the death of John the Baptist, who had announced the kingdom of God but now had been martyred by the machinations of a kingdom not of God, and who himself had wondered if Jesus were truly who he seemed to be, Jesus shows himself to be the incarnation of Yahweh, who multiplies food in the wilderness and controls the wind and the sea (and the laws of physics).
Yet even a disciple as fearless as Peter returns to his doubts. So the creator responds also as the redeemer, the one whose name is Jesus, “for he will save (σώσει) his people from their sins” (1:21). Yes, when in doubt, shout! For then and there, we are ready to see Jesus for who he truly is: the one who saves. The “first article” wonder and amazement of 8:27 now becomes a “third article” confession of faith and worship. Through the crucible of fear, even in the wake of martyrdom and amongst the darkness and despair, when we cry out, “Lord save me,” he does. And we see and know Jesus for who he is and worship him.