"Why Did You Doubt?"
Matthew 14: 22 — 33
The text just prior to our current reading describes the feeding of the 5000 men plus any women and children present. We are not told why, by Matthew, but as soon as the feeding of the crowd was accomplished, our Lord and his disciples left the scene.
Some Notes On the Text
Immediately after the feeding of the 5000, Jesus ordered (constrained) his disciples to get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side of the bay, while he dismissed the crowd. The disciples were not exactly enthusiastic about this, but nevertheless they complied with the Lord's very firm and determined direction.
In verse 13 of the chapter, when our Lord heard of the senseless and brutal execution of his cousin John the Baptist, he withdrew immediately to "a desert place apart": not a desert as we think of, but a place of natural solitude and peacefulness where he could be at one with nature and with God.
All that was shattered by the advance party of admirers who were desperate for his support and blessings, which they valued so much. Our Lord did not hesitate for a moment to put aside his own need so that he could serve theirs. As we know, he gave them much more than they could ever have hoped for.
With the opportunity now presenting itself again, after he had dismissed the crowd, Jesus went up into the hills by himself to pray. Always at this point, the great commentaries on the Gospels pause for a moment to acknowledge the example of our Lord retreating for prayer.
In passing, we could recall that for 2000 years the traditions of retreating to special places for more intense prayer, and the practice of praying not only during the day, but also rising during the silence of the night, have been maintained by some Christians. The challenge to us in the rapid secularisation of our culture is to restore this ancient and profoundly spiritual heritage before it collapses altogether and vanishes in a sea of moral decline.
We paused momentarily to focus on the way our Lord teaches his spiritual path, sometimes by oral instruction, sometimes by example. Now we pick up the events of this exciting account. Verse 23 merges into verse 24 as follows:
Verse 23b and 24
"When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it."
Remember, in verse 15, "when it was evening", the disciples approached Jesus out of concern for the crowd who had been so attentive they forgot to make provision for evening meals. That "evening" was in Jewish culture, the "first evening", the turn of the sun, the late afternoon, the onset of evening. In this text, the "second evening" arrives. This is the period of twilight merging into night.
Again, to acknowledge our Christian culture, it is appropriate to recall that Christians from the very first days upheld the Biblical division of time based on the first five verses of Genesis. The Church has always maintained the practice of beginning each new day from the "first evening", the onset of evening. Evening prayer (sometimes called Vespers) traditionally takes place between the onset of evening and sunset. We note that this was often as on this occasion, the time Jesus retreated for solitude and prayer.
Verses 25 and 26
During the fourth watch of the night, between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. The disciples were hardened labourers who despite the unrelenting wind, and though very tired, were quite confident about riding out the storm. But at the sight of our Lord, they actually screamed out in terror, thinking he was a ghost!
Again, aside, we note Jesus ended his night vigil during the last phase of darkness shortly before light began to appear. This has always been the traditional time for those Christians, who could, to rise and recite the morning praises of God, welcoming the true light of the world.
When Jesus saw that the disciples were very frightened at his appearance on the water, he immediately called out to them:
"Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid."
Jesus never failed to say these words if there was the slightest need among the twelve.
Peter, in a loving response to the warmth of the words of Jesus, replied:
"Come!" said Jesus.
Peter got down out of the boat, and walked on the water to Jesus.
After walking on the lake for some distance we are told that Peter, "saw the wind." The Greek construction of the sentence means Peter saw how strong the wind was, how furiously it was blowing. When he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me."
We notice that Peter did not suddenly sink when he became preoccupied with the fury of the sea. Rather he began to sink, and typically, called on the Lord for help.
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, saying:
"What little faith you have! Why did you doubt?"
Nothing more is said about the incident. They both climbed into the boat, and the wind died down.
Then those in the boat worshipped him by bowing or kneeling in front of him and declared:
"Truly, you are the Son of God."
They then carried on across the lake and Jesus, at dawn, began another day of healing and blessing people.
What are we to make of such a strange incident? Our early Christian writers saw this account as the story of each soul, as well as of the Church.
It is natural for us to discover that, deep down, we are wondering about many things:
The ancients are silent on some of these but were very vocal on others. An important part of being a Christian is to accept the fact that we are not to expect to understand every mystery which confronts us.
This incident begins and ends with worship and this is significant. That Peter walked on water at our Lord's command seems incredible but greater things are about to happen. That is not the key element. He took his eyes off Jesus and became preoccupied with the size of the waves and intensity of the wind. Now that is significant, for he begins at that point to start sinking. Demonstrating a faith hardly matched by any other human being, he calls out with complete confidence, "Lord, save me." Jesus obliges but says something to him, which Peter did not understand at the time: "What little faith you have. Why did you doubt?"
In time Peter was able to look back and be grateful for the experience. Jesus was in fact using the opportunity to challenge Peter to let his faith soar up to greater heights than any difficulty which would confront him in the future. Nothing should ever dwarf his trust in Jesus, no matter how overwhelming it might appear. There would never be any basis for letting doubt take over.
However, and this is the real point, no matter how much he might fail in the future (and he surely did), having recognised his failure and weakness, it would always be right to call out, "Lord, save me." It is all right to be human, Jesus teaches, but his disciples are to call on him so that their weaknesses do not hinder them in their ministry. The worst thing they could possibly do would be to become despondent at their own limitations, and fail to turn to him in their time of need.
The teaching of all the early Christian writers, as well as those we have quoted above, is that a constant attitude of prayerfulness and regular practice of retreating for prayer are the only assurance we have that we will in times of special need, turn to the Lord for support, rather than to human devices.
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