Extract of Herbert Boeckl’s fresco “Saint Peter’s rescue from the Lake Galilee” inside the cathedral of Maria Sall, Carinthia, Austria
Matthew 14: 22-33
Parallels Mark 6: 45-52; John 6: 16-21
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This is the story within Matthew that initiated some of my questions about the way that Matthew’s gospel had been translated and interpreted. This well known story with Matthew’s unique addition of Peter coming to Jesus upon the water is a common image on stained glass windows and paintings in churches, and while it is often an image of hope: of Jesus who rescues those sinking in the stormy waters. Yet, it also is often paired with a condemnation of Peter who doubts in the face of the strong wind. I never anticipated my discomfort with the traditional translation of ‘you of little faith’ in this scene becoming this project which became a much larger examination of the gospel as a whole and its history of interpretation, but often one question leads to many others.
Normally when Matthew takes a story present in Mark (assuming Mark as the first of the gospels written) he shortens it to quickly move us to the instruction by Jesus, which comprises many of the additions in Matthew’s gospel, but here Matthew adds and entire scene of Peter getting out of the boat and coming to Jesus. One of the things to pay attention to when there are parallel narrations of an event is the places where an author introduces new or unique elements because they often give critical insights into what the gospel writer wants to express about who Jesus is and the nature of following him. Matthew has structurally placed this narrative in roughly the middle of the gospel and almost doubled the length that Mark (and John) dedicate to this story. It is also worth remembering that this is the second time Jesus has done the incredible upon the sea and there are unique aspects in both stories in Matthew’s careful narration that invite us to hear this story and the story of Jesus calming the storm in Matthew 8: 23-27 together.
Jesus compels the disciples to get into the boat, presumably a boat owned by one of the disciples, and after the feeding of the 5,000 remains to dismiss the crowds. The Greek enagkasen is more forceful than the NRSV’s translation of ‘made’, Jesus compels or forces the disciples to embark on the boat and sends them on their own into the waters to travel to the other side while he dismisses the crowds. Jesus goes up a mountain to be alone in prayer, but in this time the situation of those on the boat changes. The disciples in Matthew 8: 23-27 felt alone in the midst of the storm while Jesus slept, but now they are isolated from Jesus as the wind become hostile towards them and the boat is tormented under the waves. The wind and waves become, in the narration, active entities working against the disciples on the sea and from evening until the fourth watch of night, traditionally 3 am-6 am, the disciples struggle on their own against the elements. I think it is helpful to notice in this narration that there is a significant time of struggle for the disciples and it takes time for Jesus to move from the mountain where he is praying to the shore and across the many stadia (great distance in the NRSV) that the disciples are out upon the sea.
In Mark’s narration of this story Jesus intends to pass the disciples by, which may be an allusion to God passing by Moses to reveal who he is, but Matthew removes this highlighting the destination of Jesus being these ones on the boat. There are plenty of hints that Matthew shares with Mark, and some unique to Matthew, that point to the identity of Jesus, but Matthew has the boat squarely in Jesus direction of movement as the disciple see him approaching. In the midst of struggling against the wind and waves for hours and seeing what they perceive is a phantom or a ghost (Greek phantasma) their response is to cry out in fear. Jesus’ response to ‘be of good courage, I am, fear not’ is crafted to again alert the reader that more is happening than meets the eye. The initial command to ‘be of good courage’ or ‘take heart’ is a normal response to the cry of fear, but the next two statements are theologically rich. I am (NRSV it is I) is the same language that John’s gospel uses in all the I am sayings (I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the way, the truth, and the life, etc.) and Jesus declaration that ‘I am’ in John 18: 6 causes the soldiers step back and fall to the ground when arresting Jesus. The phrase ‘I am’ recalls the name of God in Exodus 3:14 and while it can simply be the first person pronoun with the being verb in normal speech, in scriptures this frequently causes the hearer to ask about the person’s relationship to the LORD the God of Israel. In addition, this linked with the command ‘Fear not’ or as it is commonly rendered ‘do not be afraid’ is also commonly associated with a divine message either from an angel or directly from God. As we wondered in Matthew 8, ‘what sort of man is this?’ we are now again directed to wonder about the identity of the one approaching his disciples upon the water. The wind and the waves are unable to prevent this one who proclaims ‘I am, fear not’ from approaching.
Matthew is the only gospel who includes the story of Peter approaching Jesus on the water, and this is where Peter begins to stand out among the disciples and be a major actor in the narrative. In the coming chapters Peter will become the one out of the twelve who speaks and acts in answer to Jesus questions and will become the one who represents in many ways the community. Peter moves down from the boat and towards Jesus upon the water, but he sees the strong wind which has been against the boat and he begins to sink. The word translated sink (Greek katapontizesthai) can also mean drown, so Peter in this narrative is experiencing true peril in the midst of his fear as he cries out “Lord, save me.” Just as the disciples in Matthew 8 cried out ‘Lord save us’ as they were in the windstorm on the sea, now Peter echoes this rich phrase with resonance between Israel and the people of God (see comments on 8:25) to Jesus as he finds himself overwhelmed by the wind, waves and water. Immediately Jesus responds by extending his hand and taking hold of him.
This is the third of five uses of oligopistos (NRSV ‘you of little faith’) in Matthew’s gospel, a phrase always used in relation to those following Jesus. Rendering this term ‘you of little faith’ while correct adds a negative connotation that doesn’t need to be there (try saying ‘you of little faith’ without it sounding judgmental) and I do believe that ‘little faith one’ is a better translation. Jesus in this narrative has moved directly toward the boat, told the disciples to be of good courage because of his presence, and told Peter to come to him in the midst of the wind and waves. I know I am pushing against the interpretive tradition of this phrase, but I do believe that Jesus is fond of his ‘little faith ones’ and in this particular story of Peter. Instead of castigating Peter for experiencing doubt, perhaps he is reassuring Peter (and ‘little faith ones’ throughout the ages) that he indeed is ‘God with us’ in the midst of the storm. This is reinforced by the use of the word diatazo here which is only used one other time in Matthew’s gospel, on the mountain in Galilee after the resurrection where the disciples doubt is paired with the encouragement “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Like the disciples on the mountain, who even in their doubt worship, so the disciples here worship saying “You are the Son of God.” As I mentioned when discussing the ‘Son of’ titles for Jesus the Son of God title has relationship to the identity of Jesus being the Davidic King, but Matthew also pushes the boundaries of that title to include something greater in relation to the God of Israel. For Matthew, Jesus is one who is worthy of worship by the disciples, like the God of Israel. The wind and the waves which threaten the disciples are stopped by his presence and we are invited beyond the wondering of ‘what sort of man is this’ the disciples voiced when Jesus calmed the storm before to the stance of worship this one who meets his little faith ones in their doubts and trouble and saves them.
 Anna Case-Winters notes that this is the fourth of seven significant texts with the message “do not be afraid” (1:20; 8:26; 10: 31; 14: 27; 17: 7; 28:5; 28:10). Note that all of these except 10:31 are in some manner a theophany (angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph in a dream, the two water narratives, the transfiguration and the resurrection. (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 194)
 Matthew 21: 21 in the NRSV “if you have faith and do not doubt” is the other place doubt occurs in English in the gospel, but the Greek word behind it is different: diakrino
 This is reinforced when you realize that Matthew uses proskuneo (to prostrate, worship) more than Mark and Luke combined and when you look at the thirteen times it is used (The Magi ‘paying homage’ 2:2, 8, 11; the women and disciples at the resurrection worshipping Jesus 28: 9, 17 and the temptation narrative where ultimately instead of worshipping Satan, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 where one is to worship the Lord only. (Hays, 2016, p. 396 n. 52)