Reading Jesus’ walk upon the water in Matthew with Richard B. Hays

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May 7, 2013 by jmar198013

Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.

Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”

And Jesus said, “Come.”

Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”

Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” When they got into the boat, the wind settled down.

Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!” (Matt. 14.22-33 CEB)

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Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on the water, and Peter’s botched attempt at doing so himself, is the stuff of church lore. It’s one of those stories that you hear in Sunday school, and that a preacher boy can go to when he needs a sermon in a pinch. Usually, the story is pressed into service as a device to talk about the power of individual faith, or to chide faithlessness. Peter’s sinking can be used as a moral object lesson–you get into trouble when you stop focusing on Jesus and start focusing on the scary stuff around you. Or the same interpretation can be spun in a positive direction, as with a popular CCM song of a decade or two ago: “if I keep my eyes on Jesus, I can walk on water.” Then again, there is the interpretive strategy of cutting Peter a break and holding him up as an exemplar of faith-in-action: after all, Peter was the only one who bothered to get out of the boat and try it. I wouldn’t suggest that any of these ways of using the story is inherently bad, only that they are missing the church-focused (as opposed to individual-focused) emphasis that is the hallmark of Matthew’s Gospel. Specifically, Matthew is a Gospel that begins, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us” (Matt. 1.23 NRSV); and ends with Jesus’ word, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28.28 NRSV). Matthew’s main idea is Jesus’ abiding presence with his people, the church; and his continued presence in the world through the church’s life together. Matthew’s version of Peter’s jaunt across the waves should be read to serve that purpose, and Richard B. Hays has done a masterful job of so doing. He writes:

One factor that allows Matthew to settle more patiently into the present age is his conviction that the risen Lord is present in and with his church … Matthew assures his readers in numerous ways of the powerful and abiding presence of Jesus with his people … The narrative is to be read not merely as an account of historically past events but as a figurative portrayal of Jesus’ ongoing presence and activity in the church … Matthew’s adaptation of the Markan story of Jesus walking on the sea (Mark 6:45-52, Matt. 14:22-33) exemplifies his reading of the miracle traditions as allegories of Jesus’ presence … The story cries out to be read allegorically. The boat (read: church) is battered by waves and wind (read: persecution and adversity); Jesus comes mysteriously to rescue them. Peter, the leader and symbol of the disciples, ventures to emulate Jesus’ miraculous actions but starts to sink and has to be saved by Jesus. Peter, still the symbolic figure, is rebuked by Jesus for his little faith. When they get back in the boat and the wind ceases, the disciples worship Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” … The disciples in the boat worshiping Jesus as Son of God are manifestly a figure for the church in Matthew’s own time–or any future time–which may also pray for and expect Jesus to rescue them from trials and tribulations. The meaning of the story for Matthew can be grasped only when it is interpreted as an allegorical promise of Jesus’ continuing presence with the church–and therefore also as an exhortation to eschew doubt. (The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 105-06.

Hays had previously contended that, “There can be no question here of a purely individualized spiritual formation. Matthew is strongly ecclesially oriented … Matthew is more concerned with community formation than with the cultivation of wisdom and virtue in the individual” (97, 99). Thus, while Matthew 14.22-33 may be interpreted to praise the virtue of faithfulness or damn the vice of doubtfulness in individual disciples, such interpretations can only be derivative, and should in no sense be given priority. For Matthew, any wisdom or virtues possessed by individual disciples are given to them as gifts through their fellowship with Jesus in his church. For Matthew, the church is the people who recognize that Jesus, abiding with and in us until the end of the aeon, is our virtue and our wisdom. When we read the story in this light, it becomes much more helpful for guiding the church’s life together. The disciples on the boat signify the church. Peter signifies the vocation of the faithful church and thus of faithful disciples in the church–to model Jesus in the midst of the violent chaos of the world, and to look to him for salvation when we are overwhelmed. The end of the story–the awed, prayerful disciples worshiping Jesus–indicates the appropriate response of the church to the saving Son of God in our midst. The point of the story is simply this: Church, keep modeling Jesus, no matter what. Look to Jesus for your salvation, and praise his saving presence among you. But no matter what, no matter how hopeless it looks, no matter if it looks like your imitation of Christ is going to get you killed, keep doing it.

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3 thoughts on “Reading Jesus’ walk upon the water in Matthew with Richard B. Hays

  1. elbonkilpatrick says:

    Also, the story of Jesus walking on water is a midrash about one greater than Moses, who parted the waters but did not walk on water. Jesus leads the universal church through the chaos of history while Moses leads only Israel from bondage to freedom. Thanks for your Stone-Campbell-Menno Simons witness!

  2. jmar198013 says:

    Thanks, cousin. I think you’re right on that account, too. Because one of Matthew’s favorite devices is telling the story of Jesus in such a way that its readers recognize his life as the fulfillment of promises God made to the world through Israel’s experience. Jesus is the one whose life fulfills or embodies Moses and the prophets (Matt. 5.17-20).

  3. […] (for more on Matthew’s emphasis on Christ’s continued presence with the church, see my Reading Jesus’ walk upon the water in Matthew with Richard B. Hays). The dialogue process for forgiveness and reconciliation described by Jesus in Matt. 18.15-20 is a […]

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