Sometimes, we need a helping hand. Will God be there to give it?
All four gospels tell of the miracle of Jesus feeding over 5,000 people from five small loaves of bread and two fish. But each gospel gives us different details of what happened after.
In Matthew’s version, Jesus puts the disciples into a boat and sends them on their way, while he goes off to pray. The Twelve find themselves in rough waters in the dead of night, pummeled by the wind and waves. Jesus is nowhere in sight.
Shortly before dawn, he comes to them — walking on the surface of the water. They’ve never seen anything like it, and they default to the only explanation they know: it must be a ghost. They’re terrified, and scream like… well, like Galilean fishermen in a bad storm seeing a ghost.
Without hesitation, Jesus reassures them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matt 14:27, NRSV).
It’s me. Matthew’s words could be translated as “I Am” — words often used in the New Testament to refer to the holy and unutterable name of God. Might there have been an echo of the divine presence in what Jesus said?
Peter’s response is classic: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (vs. 28). Jesus humors the request. Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking on the water toward his master. All is well — until he loses his focus on Jesus, starts worrying about the wind and waves, and sinks like a stone. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Jesus later names him “The Rock” (Matt 16:18).
Not surprisingly, Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” (Matt 14:30). Then we read this:
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.” (vs. 31-33)
Thinking forward to the events in Gethsemane and afterward, it’s easy to see this episode as yet one more instance of Peter’s impetuousness and failure. We forget the part where he actually walked on the water and remember only that he couldn’t keep it up. And in that vein, we might read Jesus’ words as a scolding: Oh, Peter, you messed up again. Faith is such a simple thing. Why can’t you get it right?
But is that the right reading? Or are we letting Peter be the stand-in for our own sense of shame and insecurity with God?
Here’s another way to read it.
Matthew tells us that when the disciples screamed in fear, Jesus reassured them immediately (Matt 14:27). He didn’t stand there bobbing on the water, waiting for them to calm down. He heard their fear and spoke to them on the spot. And when Peter cried for help, Jesus didn’t roll his eyes or let Peter flounder a while for his own good. He reached out immediately and caught him by the hand (vs. 31).
Yes, Jesus said that Peter’s faith was small. Yes, Jesus asked him why he doubted. But there is nothing here that demands that we take Jesus’ attitude toward Peter as one of impatience or exasperation.
Yes, Peter still has much to learn. But Jesus saves him first. Immediately. Without reservation.
I suppose that the Jesus who walked serenely on stormy seas could have stood back at a distance and levitated Peter out of the water. But he didn’t. He reached down to a friend and made contact, skin to skin, and pulled him out.
“Why did you doubt?” Perhaps Jesus was saying, You were almost there, bud. A little bit further, and you would’ve had it.
There’s correction there, but also encouragement. He’s not criticizing Peter for being one big ball of nothing but doubt; he’s asking what happened to the faith he had.
When we’re sinking, when we need God to rescue us, let’s not imagine him as waiting for us to get our act together before he responds. This God hears our fear and anxiety and encourages us not to be afraid, reminds us that he is near. This God asks us to hold onto the faith we already have.
But more than that, he reaches out his hand, a hand attached to a strong right arm.