Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
– Matthew 14:22-33
As Matthew tells it, the care and feeding of multitudes happens twice. Once, already in Matthew 14:13-21, and again, in Matthew 15:32-39. What takes place between the first time something happens and the second instance is key to how the instance is meant to be understood. Like explaining a magic trick or the solution to a math problem: first, I show you the trick, then I explain how the trick is done, then I show you the trick again. The object is for you to be able to do it yourself.
Between these we have three scenes:
- The crossing of the sea (in which our present story takes place)
- The events at Gennesaret. There are two of these:
- The controversy with the Pharisees and scribes (vv. 14:34 – 15:9)
- The teaching moment (vv. 15:10-20)
- The argument with the Canaanite woman (vv. 15:21-28)
Matthew is trying to teach us how the trick is done in three steps. Today the first step: you’ve got to cross the sea when the wind is against you.
It’s well established that crossing the sea is more than just crossing the sea. The sea represents the chaotic barrier between the current situation and its resolution, between where the people are and where they are “destined” to be. We have seen water used this way in countless other instances in the Bible itself:
- The river flowing out of Eden;
- The flood;
- Moses in the bulrushes;
- Crossing the Red Sea;
- Crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land;
- Elijah crossing the Jordan on the way to his ascension (2 Kings 2:6ff);
- Jonah and the whale;
- Jesus at his baptism
The list goes on, but the symbolic use of water in this way transcends Biblical literature: The Odyssey, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Moby Dick.
So the disciples crossing the stormy sea is immediately to be understood as an epic crossing. And the first step toward the ability to care for and feed the multitudes turns out to be crossing the stormy sea of doubt. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Not “Why did you fear?”
The reason Peter was sinking is that “he noticed the strong wind and became frightened.” But the reason Peter got out of the boat was that he doubted who Jesus was: “If it is you, command me to come to you.” After it is all said and done, Jesus will ask Peter (Matthew 16:13ff), “Who do you say that I am?” It is a question of identity here, and while fear is to be expected, what Jesus demands is faith.
But now, we need to get straight what that faith is. It is emphatically not the kind of checking your brain at the door in order to believe the ridiculous. Faith is not about suspending the laws of physics to do parlor tricks. Remember, the point, the trick Matthew is trying to demonstrate, is not to show the disciples how to be able to walk on water; it’s to show the disciples how to be able to care for and feed the multitudes.
The goal, the instructions Jesus gave the disciples at the outset was to “go on ahead to the other side.” The goal of step 1 is to get across with the wind against you, to proceed in spite of fear, and when you see Jesus in the middle passage, to recognize him.
In other words, the challenge of this step has to do with getting through the internal resistance that arises when you undertake Kingdom projects. In their seeing Jesus as a ghost, the disciples are dealing with their self doubts, as surely as Hamlet’s self-doubt conjures up the ghost of his father, or Scrooge conjures up Marley. The doubt that must be overcome is not doubt about Jesus, but self-doubt. Once you can say who you are, then you will be able to say who Jesus is. (And this is exactly the opposite of the usual drivel about needing to figure out who Jesus is and then Jesus will tell you the rest.) Peter figures out who he is, and only then can he confess Jesus is the Messiah. To do the really great kinds of things Jesus wants his disciples to do, you need to know the power of faith rooted in being sure of your own identity. Without that, there’s no use in going on to steps 2 (resistance from people who are supposed to be for you) and step 3 (resistance from people who are supposed to be against you).
People will try anything to avoid confronting their own self-doubt. Sometimes, convincing ourselves that we can suspend the laws of nature and calling that faith is just easier. But Jesus wants us to know that the first step toward doing great Kingdom work is to learn to have faith – in yourself.
What distracts you from overcoming your internal resistance? What ghosts are you living in terror of? Where do you find Jesus in the middle passage?