Healed of the Crowd

Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But 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.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

     You can listen to this post here. (18 minutes)

When is a “nature miracle” something else?

On the surface, this miracle story is making an obvious point. Jesus is Lord even of the sea. He can walk over the place where evil and chaos lie.

The point is profound. At the beginning of the creation narratives of Jesus’ people, “2the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:2.)

The starting point for God’s work here is disorder, we might even use the stronger term chaos. In fact, the Hebrew word translated here "formless" is translated in other places as "chaos" (Isa 24:10, 34:11, both passages referring to judgment; cf. 4 Ezra 5:8) (Dennis Bratcher, quoted here.) …  In the New Testament, this imagery is reflected when the storms occur as Jesus is crossing the Sea of Galilee. For the readers of the time the message was obvious: chaos is challenging Jesus, who as 'Son of God' shows that he too has mastery over chaos. In the culture of the time, the chosen son had all the authority of his father. (Andrew Prior)

When the dry land is created “we see the power of God over the chaos. The waters are placed within boundaries.” (Andrew Prior)

Despite this, the fear of water remains. Israel knows too well that there is something chaotic in creation. Water is a key metaphor for this, and for suffering and death, and significantly, for betrayal. We see in in Psalm 69

1 Save me, O God,
   for the waters have come up to my neck. 
2 I sink in deep mire,
   where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
   and the flood sweeps over me. …

4 More in number than the hairs of my head
   are those who hate me without cause; (cf John 15:25)
many are those who would destroy me,
   my enemies who accuse me falsely.
What I did not steal
   must I now restore? …

With your faithful help 14rescue me
   from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
   and from the deep waters. 
15 Do not let the flood sweep over me,
   or the deep swallow me up,
   or the Pit close its mouth over me. 

Matthew adds to Mark’s story of the night on the lake (in Mark 6) by having Peter get out of the boat, at Jesus’ command, and begin the impossible. For a few moments, he too, walks on the water.  It’s a vivid image of living the impossible until we look at the power of the wind and sink into our fears. Yet even then, Jesus saves us.

But Mark D Davis says

I have often thought that this was the most useless “miracle” in all of the gospels. With no obvious upside – like a healing or exorcism or feeding the masses – the miracle here simply seems to be a demonstration that Jesus is “the son of God” and has the ability to do things that others have too much doubt to do. … I am not saying that every miracle needs to serve a utilitarian purpose that is evident to me in order for me to find meaning in it. But, I do not sense – from the general direction of the gospel – that miracles are meant to be simple demonstrative proof of Jesus’ sonship of God. 

There is some force to this argument. The miracles are not about brute power. There is something more subtle going on. If we do not look for this, we will be like those in John's Gospel who came not because they saw signs, but only because they ate their fill of the loaves. (John 6:26)

There is a change of tone between Matthew and the earlier telling of this story in Mark. In Mark Chapter 6, when John is murdered, it says,

29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. 30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat… 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.

In Mark, John the Baptist's murder is almost unremarked, almost incidental, and immediately forgotten. His disciples do not even come to Jesus with the news. But in Matthew we are told,

12His [John’s] disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. 13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

Do you see that in Matthew— the paragraph heading which divides the text in so many Bibles is not in the original— do you see that in Matthew the crowds follow Jesus, at this time, because of the murder of John?

At the end of the feeding of five thousand men, (Mark doesn't even mention the women and children) Mark 6 says

45 Immediately he ordered his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

Both Mark and Matthew use the word ἠνάγκασεν: ἀναγκάζω, 1) to necessitate, compel, drive, to constrain. He made (NRSV) them get into the boat may understate Jesus’ actions.   But in Matthew 14, the verses have changed.

22 Immediately he ordered the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

Matthew hardens the tone. The crowds need to be dealt with, dispersed, rather than farewelled.

The story on the lake is vastly different between the two gospels. There are no battering waves in Mark.

48When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. (Mark 6)

There is no sense that he intends to pass them by in Matthew. And in Mark, Peter does not get out of the boat.

Why the difference?

I think Matthew is thinking about crowds. There are 49 crowds in the English translation of Matthew which we call the NRSV. They are not merely testament to Jesus’ popularity. They are the place of pain: Matthew 9:36 says, "he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." The association between crowds and need and healing is astonishing. Before we get to Chapter 14 we have, Matthew 4:18-5:3, 8:13-23, 9:6-8, 9:18-30, 9:32-33, 9:35-36, 12:15, 12:23.

In Matthew, the crowds are a symbol of human impoverishment and pain. And of ignorance (note Matthew 5:1, when Jesus saw the crowds, and what follows.)

The impoverishment and need of teaching also includes the blindness referred to in Chapter 13, which required the use of parables. Crowds are a place of unconsciousness.

They are also a place of danger. The crowd orders the blind men to be silent. (Matt 20) The authorities are afraid of the crowds. (21:36, 46) (Herod, back in Chapter 14, is afraid of his guests!) A large crowd comes to arrest Jesus. (26:47, 55) Crowds are manipulated, (27:20) and turn into mobs. (27:24)

Crowds are “peter-ish," impetuous, unthinking.

In John’s telling of the Feeding, it says, “15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15) Is this behind Matthew’s telling of the story, as the crowd comes in anger at the murder of John by the powers that be? Especially since Jesus shows them another form of Kingdom to that of Herod and Rome, and all the others: “In Chapter 13, we've just been hearing about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like! The message is of the Feeding is plain: this Kingdom is better than Herod's kingdom. Herod's kingdom is a travesty of what a kingdom can be.”

I’m not about to suggest that Matthew had read Rene Girard! But he is clearly aware of the nature and danger of crowds. I once saw a meeting turn into a mob in a second; I was the spark, even though I had spoken truth. "The crowd” is an amplification of all our human failings and violence; on that day, people's individual frustrations and angers flared up, greater than their sum, like a match dropped in petrol.

So the crowds in Matthew are not a sign of popularity, or of significance, as though he were winning in the polls of public opinion. The crowds are a recognition that Jesus is confronting something at the core of us. A recognition that we are not simply individuals, but are individuals in the grip of something raw and dangerous. Something as controlling as family, (of which he warns us in Chapter 10, and away from which he calls us in 12:46-50) and yet more dangerous and powerful again.

In Matthew 14, Jesus controls the crowds. He orders them to sit, (14:19) he dismisses them—twice, (14:22,23) and orders the disciples (a different Greek word for order). He controls the crowds and he controls the waves and the wind.

The crowd is the place of lurking chaos within us, just as the sea is the place of lurking chaos in the creation. Christ completes creation, according to Paul in Romans 8.

9For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 

There is something profound here. As humanity is freed of the crowd and its violence, creation can be fulfilled. (For more on this see James Alison, Raising Abel pp49-56).

When Peter gets out of the boat, he is not walking on water. He is walking over, traversing and transcending, our hatred and fear of the other. He is walking on the lesson of the Feeding of the crowd; the lesson that we can transcend the violence that we have built ourselves upon. The creation is being made new.

And soon after this, Jesus himself meets a Canaanite woman and feeds her, and then feeds the Gentiles. Even more boundaries are dissolved, and we have the second feeding, this time of Gentile folk. (Matthew 15:21-28, 32-39)

Is this true? Or are we simply reading Girard into the text? Paul Nuechterlein, who alerted me to all this, says

Girard’s anthropology helps us to see that the common mythological image of turbulent waters is a cover-up for the human chaos of mimetic rivalry that exists before the order of human culture created through scapegoating violence. It is a chaos that comes about due to the swirl of desires created by keeping our eyes fixed upon one another.

Jesus comes walking right over that swirl of desires with the loving desire from God that can help us rise above the effects of that chaos. Peter can sustain that same protection in the midst of chaos only for the few moments that he keeps his eyes trained on Jesus. As soon as he looks back to the swirling waters and takes notice, he begins to sink again.

Girard attempts to describe what is, in language of our time. Matthew tries to describe what is, in the language of his time. The exegetical question is not whether Matthew was a "Girardian," but if he would recognise what Girard is describing.

Long before using Girardian insights as an interpretive tool, there was a person with whom I had a tortured relationship. I did not need Girard to see how violence in both our lives was polluting and skewing everything. One day, after one more slight, something changed. I not only saw the dynamic leading to what I normally felt as insult— that was simple, obvious, and had been clear for a long time— but somehow I walked straight past it. It was like walking on water. For a few hours, no matter what waves rolled in, I was untouched, full of compassion and understanding, healed of the violence in us both, and full of heavenly delight. I'm not sure that actually walking on water would have been any more amazing! And then it was gone. I could not remember how, why, or what had empowered me. I sank like a stone into my former self and way of being.  And mourned.

But I have not forgotten. I have seen there is a new way of being, a new creation.

Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

It may be helpful to read this post after reading
Magic Jesus and the Real Feast, and
Where Lies the Miracle?

Also on One Man's Web
Daring to walk on water (2011)
Sink or Float (2014)
Risk Rescue and Life (2014)
Walking above the Flood (2017)

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.


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