Readings for 19th Sunday in ordinary time: I KGS 19: 9A, 11-13A; PS 85: 9-14; ROM 9: 1-5; MT 14: 22-23 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/081014.cfm
In today’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water – or rather, of Peter’s refusal to follow Jesus’ example of walking on the waves.
The account is relevant to the man in the Vatican who believes he is Peter’s successor. Israel’s month-long siege of Gaza invited Pope Francis to “walk on water” – to follow the example of Jesus in confronting demons. However uncharacteristic timidity left the pope sinking below the waves, out of sight and ear shot, cowering before Monsters like Obama and Netanyahu.
Let me explain. First off, consider today’s Gospel reading.
The story goes that following Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 (last week’s Gospel episode), Jesus forces the apostles to get into their boat and row to the other side. [The text says, “Jesus made (emphasis added) the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.” Perhaps these experienced fishermen (as opposed to the land lubber, Jesus) saw a storm was coming and were reluctant to set sail despite Jesus’ urgings.]
In any case, a storm does come up and the apostles fear they are about to drown. You can imagine them in helpless tears.
Then they see a figure walking on the water in the midst of high threatening waves. At first they think it’s a ghost. Then they realize that it’s Jesus. He’s walking on the raging waters.
Peter, the impetuous leader of the apostles, doubts what he sees. So he says, “Prove to me that it’s you, Jesus; let me walk on the waves just as you’re doing.” Jesus says, “Join me then over here.” So Peter gets out of the boat and, like Jesus actually walks on water for a few steps.
Then, despite the evidence, he begins to doubt. And as he does so, he starts sinking below the water line. “Save me, Lord,” he cries out again. Jesus stretches out his hand and saves Peter. Then he asks, “Where’s your faith, man? Why is it so weak? Why did you doubt?”
Of course, this whole story (like last week’s “Loaves and Fishes”) is one of the dramatic parables Matthew composed. If we get caught up in wondering whether we’re expected to believe that someone actually walked on water, we’ll miss the point of this powerful metaphor. It’s about Jesus’ followers doing the unexpected and irrational in the midst of life-threatening crisis.
You see, Matthew’s Jewish audience shared the belief du jour that the sea was inhabited by dangerous monsters – Leviathan being the most fearful. And fearlessly walking on water was a poetic way of expressing what Matthew’s community believed about Jesus, viz. that he embodied the courage and power to do the completely unexpected in the midst of crisis and subdue the most threatening forces imaginable – even the most lethal of all, the Roman Empire.
Jesus’ invitation to Peter communicates the truth that all of us have the power to confront monsters if we’ll just find the courage to leave safety concerns behind even in the most threatening conditions, to confront life’s monsters, and join Jesus in the midst of its upheavals.
Problem is we easily lose faith and courage. As a result, we’re overcome by life’s surging waves and by the monsters lurking underneath them.
And that brings me back to Pope Francis and his ambiguous response to the slaughter that took place in Gaza over the last month.
We expected more. Over the course of his still-young papacy, Francis has demonstrated wonderful courage attempting to join Jesus on the world’s dangerous waves.
• He’s adopted a comparatively simple lifestyle.
• He’s condemned neo-liberalism and growing income inequality.
• His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” implicitly endorsed the liberation theology his two immediate predecessors had tried to kill.
• More specifically, he adopted liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as the leitmotif of his papacy.
• In that spirit, his famous “Who am I to judge” gave hope to the LGBTQ community.
• He helped head off President Obama’s plans to bomb Syria.
That last precedent led me to expect more in the context of Gaza. I was in St. Peter’s Square for Francis’ hours-long vigil for peace. There the Pope did as much or more to head off U.S.’ insane plans to bomb Syria as did Russia’s President Putin. Along with Putin, Francis was the hero who subverted the monstrous plans of Obama and his State Department.
But there was no peace vigil for the Gazans. Instead two weeks ago the Pope broke down in tears as he delivered his Sunday remarks from the balcony over St. Peter’s Square. He said:
“Never war, never war! I am thinking, above all, of children who are deprived of the hope of a worthwhile life, a future. Dead children, wounded children, mutilated children, orphaned children, children whose toys are things left over from war, children who don’t know how to smile.” This was the moment when the tears came. “Please stop,” said Francis. “I ask you with all my heart, it’s time to stop. Stop, please!”
The words were powerful; the tears were powerful. But unlike the prayer vigil before a potential Syrian fiasco, they remained largely unreported. Nevertheless, for those with ears to hear, the Pope was lamenting Israel’s killing of Palestine’s innocent. (No Jewish children were killed during the Gaza massacre.) However, to overcome the Media’s deafening pro-Israel tilt, the Pope needed to be stronger and more specific.
Yes, his papacy has daringly left the safe harbor and courageously sailed into the storm. Yes, Francis clearly sees Jesus as his role model demanding courage in the face of today’s unprecedented winds and waves. Indeed Francis has gotten out of the boat to trample underfoot the beasts and monsters roiling the seas all around us. But in the case of Gaza, instead of walking confidently on the waters, he sunk in apparent timidity before the threatening monsters, Obama and Netanyahu.
But what more could he have done? What sort of miracle did I expect?
Well, he could have given courage to all of us who are far less daring than he; he could have performed a miracle more stupendous than actually “walking on water” by:
• Owning the fact that as the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, with far more power than Jesus had, he was truly able to end Gaza’s slaughter.
• Announcing plans to travel to Gaza in the midst of Israel’s monstrous campaign.
• Before leaving, specifically naming Israel’s assault on civilians as sinful.
• Identifying the U.S. as equally culpable with Israel for crimes against humanity.
• Actually traveling to Gaza in a white papal helicopter (even in defiance of Israel’s predictable prohibitions) and landing in the midst of Gaza’s devastation.
• Celebrating Mass in Gaza on a pile of rubble and refusing to leave till the Israelis stopped their slaughter.
• If the slaughter continued, traveling to the key sites of bombing and shelling.
“Impossible!” you say? Such an act would offend Israel and upset Israel-Vatican relations. Ditto for the U.S.
Hmm. Is the pope a politician or a prophetic religious leader? Please use your imagination and spin out what would have happened if the pope walked on water as just outlined. What do you think?
In any case, those much less courageous than Francis need his example so the rest of us might venture forth to walk on water in our own far less powerful ways.
Yes, in today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us all to do the impossible. Why are we doubting? Where is our faith?