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Readings for 19 th Sunday in ordinary time: I KGS 19: 9A, 11-13A; PS 85: 9-14; ROM 9: 1-5; MT 14: 22-23
In today's Gospel, we hear Matthew's account of Jesus walking on water -- or rather, of Peter's refusal to follow Jesus' example of walking on the waves.
The account is relevant to the hero in the Vatican who believes he is Peter's successor. Israel's month-long siege of Gaza is an invitation to Pope Francis to "walk on water." I mean it: to follow the example of Jesus in confronting demons.
However uncharacteristic timidity has instead left the pope sinking below the waves, out of sight and ear shot, virtually silent before the demonic policies of Obama and Netanyahu.
Let me explain. First off, consider today's Gospel reading.
The story goes that following Jesus' feeding of the 5000 (last week's Gospel episode), Jesus forces the apostles to get into their boat and row to the other side. [The text says, "Jesus made (emphasis added) the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side." Perhaps these experienced fishermen (as opposed to the land lubber, Jesus) saw a storm on the horizon and were reluctant to set sail despite Jesus' urgings.]
In any case, a storm does come up and the apostles fear they are about to drown. You can imagine them in helpless tears.
Then they see a figure walking on the water in the midst of high threatening waves. At first they think it's a ghost. Then they realize that it's Jesus. He's walking on the raging waters!
Peter, the impetuous leader of the apostles, doubts what he sees. So he says, "Prove to me that it's you, Jesus; let me walk on the waves just as you're doing." Jesus says, "Join me then over here." So Peter gets out of the boat and, like Jesus actually walks on water for a few steps.
Then, despite the evidence, he begins to doubt. And as he does so, he starts sinking below the water line. "Save me, Lord," he cries out again. Jesus stretches out his hand and saves Peter. Then he asks, "Where's your faith, man? Why is it so weak? Why did you doubt?"
Of course, this whole story (like last week's "Loaves and Fishes" narrative) is one of the dramatic parables Matthew composed. If we get caught up in wondering whether we're expected to believe that someone actually walked on water, we'll miss the point of this powerful metaphor. It's about Jesus' followers doing the "impossible," unexpected and irrational in the midst of life-threatening crisis.
You see, Matthew's Jewish audience shared the belief du jour that the sea was inhabited by dangerous monsters -- Leviathan being the most fearful. And fearlessly walking on water was a poetic way of expressing what Matthew's community believed about Jesus, viz. that he embodied the courage and power to do the completely unexpected in the midst of crisis and subdue the most threatening forces imaginable -- even the most lethal of all, the Roman Empire.
Jesus' invitation to Peter communicates the truth that all of us have the power to confront monsters if we'll just find the courage to leave safety concerns behind even in the most threatening conditions, to confront life's monsters, and join Jesus in the midst of its upheavals.
Problem is we easily lose faith and courage. As a result, we're overcome by life's surging waves and by the monsters lurking underneath them.
And that brings me back to Pope Francis and his ambiguous response to the slaughter taking place in Gaza over the last month.