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Encountering the Lord in the Midst of Life’s Upheavals

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The following is John Chrysostom’s explanation of Matthew 14:22-33. In Matthew’s narrative, vv. 22-23 sets the stage for the situation of the disciples alone in the midst of a tempestuous sea and prepares for the appearance of the Lord walking on the waters (v. 25). The terror that this sight gives the disciples (v. 26) is quelled by the reassuring words of the Lord (v.27) At this point, Matthew rewrites Mark, adding a scene involving Peter who asks that he too walk on the waters (v.28) Jesus bids him to do so (v.29), but the wind inspires a fear in Peter that is greater than his confidence in the presence of the Lord (v.30). Peter begins to sink but is saved in time by the Lord who rebukes him for his lack of faith (v. 31). The story concludes with Jesus and Peter in the boat and the disciples acknowledging Jesus as “Son of God” (v. 32-33)

Interesting in John Chrysostom’s explanation is the way he draws the moral sense of the passage not only from the introductory section of the narrative (vv. 22-23) but also from the incident of the disciples being afraid of Jesus walking on the waters. This latter in fact, becomes the basis for an observation he makes about God’s manner of proving the just, a true “anagogical sense” that leads him to see this detail within a wider collection of texts from salvation history bearing on the trials of the just.

Interesting too is the way he presents Peter as the one who loved the Lord more than the others, an obvious allussion to the three-fold proclamation of love in John. Here, however, it is an imperfect kind of love — the desire to be with the beloved — that falters because of a lack of faith. “There is no benefit in being near the Lord”, says the Golden-Tongued, “if we are not near him in faith.” Benedict XVI echoes this idea in “Deus caritas est” when he explains that erotic love has to be transformed into charity; but this is possible only in an authentic faith-relationship with the Lord.

He prevails upon the disciples to get into the boat. (A)fter completing great miracles, (Jesus) ordinarily dismisses the crowd and the disciples so as to teach us not to seek in any way the glory of men and not allow oneself to be dragged by the crowd. The word that the evangelist uses — “he obliged (them)/prevailed upon (them)” hnagkasen — indicates the great desire that the disciples had to stay in the company of Jesus. Jesus, therefore, sends them away with the pretext that he had to dismiss the multitudes, but in reality, it is because wanted to be alone on the mountain. The Lord acts this way so as to give us a new lesson: that is, we don’t have to stay continually in the midst of the crowd, nor ought we to always escape from the multitudes. We ought instead to do both profitably, alternating one with the other, according to necessity and opportunity.

… he went up to mountain alone to pray. Why did Jesus go up the mountain? So as to teach us that the desert and the solitude are profitable for supplication God. For this reason, in fact, he often retires to solitary places and would there pass the night in prayer, showing us that even we should seek the time and the place that is more peaceful for our prayers. Solitude is the mother of all peace; it is the tranquil port that protects us from all disturbances. That is why Jesus went up the mountain.

The boat and the waves. His disciples instead are once more troubled by the waves and had to endure a violent tempest as in the preceding. That time, however, the Lord was with them in the boat; this time, they are alone, far from the Master. He in fact wishes to lead them gently and help them progress slowly towards a greater experience. In particular, he desires that they courageously bear all that happens to them. When they were about to meet the first danger, he was with them although he was sleeping, and was able to give them immediate comfort and help. Now, however, so as to train them for greater patience, he does not stay with them; rather he distances himself allowing a great tempest to be let loose in the midst of the sea, such that it seemed there was no salvation to be hoped for in any way. And he leaves them there the whole night at the mercy of the waves, desiring — I believe — to awaken their hardened hearts. This is in fact the effect of fear brought about, not only by the tempest, but also by the night and its darkness. In reality, the Lord, apart from this acute and profound fear, wishes to excite in his disciples a greater desire and a continual remembrance of him: for this reason, he did not immediately present himself to them.

The fourth watch. “At the fourth watch of the night, he came to them, walking on the sea” (Mt. 14:25) He wanted to train them not to seek immediate delivery from difficulties but to bear the events with courage.

But when it seemed that they were outside danger, the disciples were once more taken up by a new kind of fear. “And the disciples, seeing him walk on the sea, were frightened, thinking him to be a ghost. And because of fear, they cried out.”(Mt. 14:26). God always acts this way: when he is about to liberate from terrible tests, he raises others that are graver and more frightening. And so it happens this time. Together with the tempest, the appearance of the Master troubles the disciples even more. But Jesus does not even this time dissipate the darkness, nor does he reveal himself immediately because he wants to prepare them with this series of tests so that they can sustain other struggles and induce them to be patient and constant.

Here the Golden-Tongued illustrates the previous idea using lessons drawn from the stories of Job, Jacob and Abraham. God tests the just in a series of trials so that they can derive profit from it. In the case of the disciples, the tempest is followed by the sight of the Lord whom they thought was a ghost: fear of the storm is followed by the terror of a ghostly appearance in the darkness.

The peace that Jesus brings.. “But Jesus immediately spoke to them and said: Have courage, It is I. Do not be afraid. (Mt. 14:27)”. These words dissipate their fear and restores them confidence. Since they — on account of this his extraordinary manner of walking over the waves and because of the darkness of the night — cannot recognize him with the eyes, He makes himself known with the voice.

Peter’s test. But what does Peter do now, he who is always eager and goes ahead of the others? Peter says to him: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you over the waters (Mt. 14:28)”. He does not say: Please, or I beg you; he says “Command me”. See what fervour? What faith! Certainly, many times has he exposed himself to danger, because he goes beyond the measure; in fact even now he asks a very great thing: he wants it not for any vain sentiments, but only for love. This is why he does not simply say: command me to walk over the waters, but “command me … to come to you.” No one has loved the Lord as much as he. The same thing he will do after the resurrection of the Lord. Then, he would not go with the others to the tomb; he will precede them there. In this circumstance, he demonstrates not only his love but also his face. Peter not only believes that Jesus can walk on the waters, but that he also can make others walk on it. For this reason he immediately wanted to be close to him.

“He responded: ‘Come’. And Peter having gone down from the boat, walked over the waters and was close to Jesus when, seeing the high winds, he became afraid. And as he was sinking, he cried out: Lord, save me! And immediately, Jesus extended his hand, took him and said: Man of little faith, why did you doubt? ”

This miracle is more extraordinary than the pacified storm and so the Lord accomplishes it after that one. He had shown in that first miracle that he commands the sea; here he accomplishes a prodigy that is more surprising. That time, he made the winds obey him; now, he walks on the waters and grants somebody else to do the same thing. If at the time of the first miracle he had ordered Peter to walk on the waters, the apostle would not have proven himself equally ready and decided, because he didn’t have enough faith then.

But why did Jesus allow the request of Peter? Because if he had replied “No, you may not” the apostle being so eager would have insisted. Jesus then persuades him through the facts themselves, so that in the future, he would be more moderate. But neither in this would Peter be contented. Jumping out of the boat, he began to be overcome by the waves since he began to be afraid.

Jumping out of the boat, Peter walked towards Jesus, happy not because he was walking over the waters, but because he was walking towards him. But after having performed what was more difficult, the apostle was overcome by a minor danger: the force of the winds, not by the violence of the sea. Thus is the nature of man. Often, after triumphing over great difficulties, he falls because of smaller ones. When he was still struck by the terror of the storm, he had the courage of jumping into the waters; immediately after, he was unable to resist the assault of the wind despite being near Jesus. There is no benefit in being near the Lord, if we are not near to him with faith.

But why is it that in this case the Lord does not command the wind to stop blowing and instead he extends his hand to grasp and sustain Peter? Because his faith needed it. When we stop doing our part, even God stops to help us. To help his apostle understand that it is not the force of the wind but the weakness of his faith which has made him sink, Jesus asked “Man of little faith, why did you doubt?” If his faith were not weakened, he could have easily endured the wind. And the test was in the fact that the Lord, even after taking Peter’s hand, allows the wind to continue blowing with its strength, to show that it cannot absolutely hurt him if his faith had been firm. And like a mother who sustains with her wings and brings to the nest the birdling that has ventured outside of it and was falling to the ground, so Christ was to Peter.

Conclusion: The Adoration of the Disciples. “And having entered the boat, the wind stopped (Mt. 14:32)” When peace returned after the first storm, the apostles asked “And who is this whom even the winds and the sea obey?” (Mt. 8:27). Now, however they no longer ask this question. “So those who were in the boat reverenced him saying: ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.'” (Mt. 14:33)

Originally posted 2008-07-25 17:50:36. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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