Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Superfluous Miracle?

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 14:22-33, the well known story of Jesus “walking on water.” To be honest, 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 struggle with that perception because it would seem to be pretty clear by now that Jesus is unlike everyone else. More troubling to me is the idea that Jesus just did some great performance in order to prove to people that he was capable of miracles. That seems to be an unworthy raison d'être for miracles, to me. 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. 

After looking at this text verse-by-verse, I will re-visit this question that I have regarding the meaning and purpose of this particular miracle.

22 Καὶ εὐθέως ἠνάγκασεν τοὺς μαθητὰς ἐμβῆναι εἰς τὸ πλοῖον καὶ προάγειν 
αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ πέραν, ἕως οὗ ἀπολύσῃ τοὺς ὄχλους. 
And immediately he forced the disciples to jump into the boat and to go before him to the other side, until he might dismiss the crowd.
ἠνάγκασεν: AAI 3s, ἀναγκάζω, 1) to necessitate, compel, drive to, constrain 
ἐμβῆναι: AAInf, ἐμβάλλω, 1) to throw in, cast into 
προάγειν: PAInf, προάγω, 1) to lead forward, lead forth  
ἀπολύσῃ: AASubj 3s, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer)
1. The language in this verse is curious and forceful.
a. Jesus “forced” (ἠνάγκασεν, see definition) the disciples.
b. He forced them to “jump in” the boat (ἐμβῆναι means “to throw in”, but since this is active and does not have an object, I am using “to jump in”).
c. One expects a ἵνα, “in order that he might dismiss the crowd,” but instead there is an ἕως, “until he might dismiss the crowd.”  I wonder if this is a longer and more difficult process than meets the eye. It is my contention (see last week’s post) that the crowd may well have gathered with violent intentions, following the senseless execution of John the Baptizer.
2. What might be the point here? If the crowd had intentions of responding to Herod’s act of killing John with violence, maybe Jesus needs to separate the disciples – especially that hotheaded Simon Peter and those “Sons of Thunder” James and John – in order to disperse the crowd. Or, maybe someone just has to get the departure going.
3. An interpretive question: Does the disciples’ quick and forced departure mark the end of the previous story? Does it simply set up the following story? Does it bridge the stories of the feeding of the 5,000+ and the walk on water during a storm?

23 καὶ ἀπολύσας τοὺς ὄχλους ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος κατ' ἰδίαν προσεύξασθαι. 
ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης μόνος ἦν ἐκεῖ. 
And having dismissed the crowd, he went up into the mountain by himself to pray. Yet having become evening he was alone there.
ἀπολύσας: AAPart nsm, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss
ἀνέβη: AAI 3s, ἀναβαίνω, 1) ascend  1a) to go up  
προσεύξασθαι: AMInf, προσεύχομαι, 1) to offer prayers, to pray 
γενομένης: AMPart gsf, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 
1. The phrase “by himself” (κατ' ἰδίαν) is repeated from v.13 when Jesus “withdrew by boat by himself to a solitary place.” 
2. The phrase “having become evening” (ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης) is also repeated from v.15 of the previous story.
3. I wonder what the significance of Jesus’ solitude is to this story. His first solitude was interrupted by the crowd. This one seems to end when it ends. Jesus’ first withdrawal into solitude was prompted by the news of John the Baptizer’s death. Is that still the motive?

24  τὸ δὲ πλοῖον ἤδη σταδίους πολλοὺς ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ἀπεῖχεν, βασανιζόμενον 
ὑπὸ τῶν κυμάτων, ἦν γὰρ ἐναντίος ὁ ἄνεμος. 
Yet the boat now was holding back many stadia from the land, being battered by the waves, for the wind was contrary.
ἀπεῖχεν: IAI 3s, ἀπέχω, 1) have  1a) to hold back, keep off, prevent
βασανιζόμενον: PPPart nsn, βασανίζω, 1) to test (metals) by the touchstone…5) to be harassed, 5a) of those who at sea are struggling with a head wind 
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The most foolish thing to do in a storm at sea, of course, it to try to land the boat and risk being battered by the rocks on the shore rather than the waves.

25 τετάρτῃ δὲ φυλακῇ τῆς νυκτὸς ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς περιπατῶν ἐπὶ τὴν 
θάλασσαν. 
Yet in the fourth watch of the night he came to them walking on the sea.
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
περιπατῶν: PAPart nsm, περιπατέω, 1) to walk 
1. A “behold” or “Shazam!” or something like would be nice here to signify that people (even Jesus) don’t come walking across water every day.
2. A storm at sea is one of the most compelling symbols of chaos for sea-faring folk. It is THE dreaded possibility, where nothing is stable and everything is in flux. Something that might be stable – a rock, etc. – would actually be a threat in a storm because the storm takes away the ability to navigate toward stability. I wonder if the storm here is a symbol for the chaotic moment for the disciples following John’s senseless execution.

26οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ ἰδόντες αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης περιπατοῦντα 
ἐταράχθησαν λέγοντες ὅτι Φάντασμά ἐστιν, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ φόβου ἔκραξαν. 
Then the disciples seeing him on the sea walking were troubled saying, “It is a phantasm,” and they squawked out from the fear.
ἰδόντες: AAPart npm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
περιπατοῦντα: PAPart asm, περιπατέω, 1) to walk
ἐταράχθησαν: API 3p, ταράσσω, 1) to agitate, trouble (a thing, by the movement of its parts to and fro)  1a) to cause one inward commotion,
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἔκραξαν: AAI 3p, κράζω, 1) to croak  1a) of the cry of a raven  1b) hence, to cry out, cry aloud, vociferate
1. I’m using “phantasm” because it is a transliteration of Φάντασμά.
2. A further definition of κράζω implies that it might have started out as onomatopoeia, to mimic the croak of a raven. I think “squawk” is a close English equivalent, implying panic that loses all dignity.

27εὐθὺς δὲ ἐλάλησεν [ὁ Ἰησοῦς] αὐτοῖς λέγων, Θαρσεῖτε, ἐγώ εἰμι: μὴ 
φοβεῖσθε.
Then immediately [Jesus] spoke to them saying, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afeared.”
ἐλάλησεν: AAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Θαρσεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, θαρσέω,  (in NT only in imperative) be of good courage! take courage! cheer up! take heart! feel confidence!
εἰμι: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
φοβεῖσθε: PMImpv 2p, φοβέωto terrify, frighten
1. ἐγώ εἰμι often appears in the “I am” sayings, but ἐγώ can also be the nominative predicate of the verb εἰμι; hence “It is I.” 

28 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ αὐτῷ  Πέτρος εἶπεν, Κύριε, εἰ σὺ εἶ, κέλευσόν με ἐλθεῖν 
πρὸς σὲ ἐπὶ τὰ ὕδατα: 
Then having answered to him, Peter said, “Lord, since it is you, order me to come to you into the water.”
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
κέλευσόν: AAImpv 2p, κελεύω, 1) to command, to order
ἐλθεῖν: AAInf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
1. I had originally noted here that Peter makes Jesus indicative “It is I” conditional with “If it is you.” Now I remember how Paul Achtemeier has said that the ‘εἰ’ followed by an indicative verb (as here, with εἰμί) should be “since,” not “if.” (It occurs to me that if we translate it “since” instead of “if,” then we have just ruined many a good sermon on where Peter went wrong in this story. Sorry.)
2. The verb “to order” (κελεύω) is repeated from v.19 in the previous story, when Jesus ordered the crowd to sit before the feeding of the 5,000+.
3. There is a bit of irony that Peter uses an imperative verb to command Jesus to command him.
4. What in THE world would compel someone in a boat in a storm in the sea to say to Jesus at this point, “Command me to come to you”? 

29  δὲ εἶπεν, Ἐλθέ. καὶ καταβὰς ἀπὸ τοῦ πλοίου [ὁ] Πέτρος περιεπάτησεν 
ἐπὶ τὰ ὕδατα καὶ ἦλθεν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν. 
Then he said, “Come.” And having climbed from the boat Peter walked on the water and came to Jesus.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἐλθέ: AAImpv 2s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
καταβὰς: AAPart nsm, καταβαίνω, 1) to go down, come down, descend  1a) the place from which one has come down from 
περιεπάτησεν: AAI 3s, περιπατέω, 1) to walk 
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
1. I think in the description of this story we ought not to have Peter sinking too quickly in the water. He did what Jesus commanded him and walked to Jesus. On water. Not many of us who would criticize Peter have even gotten that far.

30 βλέπων δὲ τὸν ἄνεμον [ἰσχυρὸν] ἐφοβήθη, καὶ ἀρξάμενος 
καταποντίζεσθαι ἔκραξεν λέγων, Κύριε, σῶσόν με. 
Yet seeing the [forceful] wind he was afeared, and having begun to sink he squawked saying, “Lord, save me.”
βλέπων: PAPart nsm, βλέπω, 1) to see, discern, of the bodily eye
ἐφοβήθη: API 3s, φοβέωto terrify, frighten
ἀρξάμενος: AMPart nsm, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule
καταποντίζεσθαι: PPInf, καταποντίζω 1. to throw into the sea, passive to be plunged or drowned therein. 2. to sink down in the sea.
ἔκραξεν: AAI 3s, κράζω, 1) to croak  1a) of the cry of a raven  1b) hence, to cry out, cry aloud, vociferate
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
σῶσόν: AAImpv 2s, σῴζω, 1) to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction

31 εὐθέως δὲ  Ἰησοῦς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα ἐπελάβετο αὐτοῦ καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, 
Ὀλιγόπιστε, εἰς τί ἐδίστασας; 
Yet immediately Jesus having stretched out his hand grabbed and says to him, “You of little faith, why did you waver?”
ἐκτείνας: AAPart nsm, ἐκτείνω, 1) to stretch out, stretch forth, 1a) over, towards, against one
ἐπελάβετο: AMI 3s, ἐπιλαμβάνομαι, 1) to take in addition, to lay hold of, take possession of, overtake, attain, attain to; in NT only in middle to hold one's self on by, lay hold of, with or without violence.
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐδίστασας: AAI 2s, διστάζω, 1) to doubt, waiver 
1. The phrase, “having stretched out the hand laid hold of him” is awkward. One decision a translator needs to make is what to do with the αὐτοῦ.
a. Is it possessive and does it refer to Jesus’ hand? If so, it could read “Having stretched out his [Jesus’] hand grabbed and says to him …”  
b. Or, does it refer to Peter as the object of the preposition “ἐπελάβετο”? (There are other occasions when ἐπελάβετο takes the genitive as its object.) In that case, it could read, “having stretched forth the hand, laid hold of him and says to him,” as Young’s Literal Translation does.
2. The verb “waver” (δι-στάζω) literally means ‘to stand in two ways.’ I love the parallel between this question and a question posed by Elijah in I Kings 18:21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

32 καὶ ἀναβάντων αὐτῶν εἰς τὸ πλοῖον ἐκόπασεν  ἄνεμος. 
And they having climbed up into the boat, the wind ceased.
ἀναβάντων: AAPart gpm, ἀναβαίνω, 1) ascend  1a) to go up 
ἐκόπασεν: AAI 3s, κοπάζω, 1) to grow weary or tired 2) to cease from violence, cease raging
1. The entry of Jesus and Peter into the boat and the cessation of the wind are presented in this verse as two sequential events. What does not happen is Jesus turning to the wind and saying, “Peace, be still!” or anything additionally demonstrative or verbal beyond his already having walked on the water. Yet, the sequence of the two events might be what causes the disciples’ reaction in the next verse, or else they are reacting to Jesus having walked to them on the water, which at first they had interpreted as a scary phantasm.

33 οἱ δὲ ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ λέγοντες, Ἀληθῶς θεοῦ υἱὸς εἶ. 
Then the ones in the boat bowed to him saying, “Truly you are a son of God.”
προσεκύνησαν: AAI 3p, προσκυνέω, 1) to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence  … 3) in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. For comparison’s sake, the Centurion at the cross says, Ἀληθῶς θεοῦ υἱὸς ἦν οὗτος, “truly this one was a son of God,” a very similar expression to what the disciples say, but in the past tense (27:54) and using the third person.
2. In neither expression is the definite article “the son of God” used. It is indefinite, “a son of God” or one could simply make it “God’s son.”  

The story ends with those in the boat claiming that Jesus is truly a son of God, reinforcing the notion that the purpose of this miracle (if indeed a miracle needs to show a purpose to the likes of me) is to demonstrate Jesus’ sonship of God.

I wonder if something else is afoot. Maybe this story is about the disciples. Certainly that is the case for Mark’s version (c.6), where the story shows the disciples failure (once again). For Mark, Peter does not assert himself, but all of them are frightened by Jesus and they do not conclude with claiming Jesus as a son of God. Rather, the narrator concludes, “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

Since Matthew receives this story from Mark, but lacks Mark’s ongoing harsh criticism of the disciples’ utter failures, perhaps Matthew is refocusing this story as part of the aftermath of John’s execution. While Mark and Matthew follow the same pattern – John’s execution; the feeding of the 5,000+; Jesus walking on the water – Mark interrupts that pattern by bracketing John’s execution with the disciples’ missionary journey. After hearing about John’s death, the disciples report about their journey, then Jesus invites them to go to the deserted place. For Mark, the immediate context of the feeding story, then, is not John’s death, but the disciples’ journey.

Matthew changes this context. It seems to me that the whole of c.14 is played out in the shadow of John’s death. John’s death is why Jesus goes to the deserted place; John’s death is why the crowd goes also; John’s death is why Jesus is gut-wrenched that they are like sheep without a shepherd; John’s death is why Jesus forcefully makes the disciples leave until he can disperse the crowd.

I want to offer my interpretation of Matthew’s way of telling the story – which is plenty speculative, but tries to account for Matthew’s sequence of events as well as the curious comment that Jesus forces his disciples to get into the boat. From v.22 above, the definitions for ἀναγκάζω, can be “to necessitate, compel, drive to, constrain.” The KJV and YLT go with “constrained,” while the ESV, NIV and NRSV seem to soften the verb with “made.” As I suggest briefly in my comment on v.22, I wonder if the disciples might be the most ardent of Jesus’ followers. They are not simply showing up when Jesus feeds, heals, etc. like the crowds. Rather, they have left their livelihood behind to follow him. John’s death – a meaningless, purposeless, maddeningly egregious execution by Herod – is one of those events that could trigger the suppressed anger of a crowd and cause an eruption. Could Jesus’ decision to withdraw to a lonely place (v.13 and again in v.23) have been times for him to consider the implications of John’s death on his own actions? (Remember, we are still not yet at the place in the story where Jesus discloses his impending death to the disciples – an announcement to which Simon Peter reacts strongly).

In response to John’s death, Jesus does not rally the crowd, does not entice them to gather the pitchforks and torches, does not publicly denounce Herod, or any of the above. He invites the disciples to participate in feeding a dispirited and hungry crowd. When they are all fed and satisfied, Jesus forces the disciples to go away. Now, he comes to them in a very unusual manner, which has the effect of demonstrating the disciples’ fear and Peter’s lack of faith.

I wonder if the storm and their inability to land the ship is a metaphor for the disciples’ inability to navigate the waters of the Roman Empire. Jesus is not deterred by the winds and is able to navigate the waters unusually well. He even responds to Peter’s command by commanding Peter to join him, but Peter ultimately is unable to do so. His bravado was initially great, but his faith is ultimately too small. Hmm…


22 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into these translations. They are really helpful and give me a lot to think about!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really great insightful stuff, and very good questions about the text! Thanks1

    ReplyDelete
  3. Lara and Kevin,
    Thanks for your gracious and encouraging comments! (I start to wonder about the value of this blog sometimes when the crickets are chirping). Any input you have to offer would always be welcomed!
    Thanks again,
    Mark

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have to echo their appreciation. As one who has not (yet) studied Greek, I find your translations and comments very helpful and frequently thought-provoking. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  5. As always - thank you for your exegesis, your hunches & your pastoral approach to the text. Best wishes this Sunday on your installation at St.Mark's!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you for your powerful insights.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I discovered your blog through Text Week. I am in a lectionary class and really appreciate your comments and insights. I put LBALI on my favorites list, but found that it didn't update automatically. Do I need to subscribe or sign up for that to happen? Not a tech expert obviously!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Bex,
    Hmm... I'm not sure. Since I am not an end user, I don't have much familiarity with that stuff either. I think if you hit the 'join this site' button on my sidebar (under the mug), you should get each post sent to your email. I think. Please let me know if that works.
    Meanwhile, welcome! And thanks for the note.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Mark,
    I do appreciate your careful text notes and thoughtful reflections. I am reading these posts in 2017 and wonder how you are hearing them differently in these days?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Dr. Kay. While these posts were originally published in 2014, I update them whenever the lection comes around again. This year, I'm doing an off-lectionary series, so I'm having to limit the amount of time that I devote to the texts until I get back on the lectionary in Sept. I am checking some things and revising as I feel is necessary, but basically limiting myself to one morning for doing so for now.
      Thanks for asking. I especially try to re-visit my comments based on feedback that I get from folks like you.

      Delete
  10. Thank you for these translations, I don't read greek so it gives me great insight into the actual words used. I often wonder if Jesus walked on the water just because he could and it was the easiest way to get to the boat rather than swimming? Maybe it wasn't a deliberate miracle but he was walking and didn't think about it, like Wile E Coyote and cliff edges?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmm... that would be a little out of character for Jesus, as well as for Matthew, and would seem to make no connection to the haste with which Jesus urged the disciples to get into the boat in the first place. I'm not quite resonating with your suggestion, Wendy, except that I want to now that you've brought Wile E. Coyote into the conversation!

      Delete
  11. I'm really struck by your comment "The verb “waver” (δι-στάζω) literally means ‘to stand in two ways.’" It begs the question, What "ways" was Peter standing (or sinking) in? It seems Jesus wasn't necessarily challenging Peter's lack of faith but the things that Peter himself was conflicted with in that moment of instability he found himself in. For churches...do we fight or flight? Do we cling to survival or risk to thrive? On a random note....as a scuba diver and can say that the waves themselves are not dangerous...it's the getting out of the boat and getting back on in the midst of waves that usually causes the most risk.
    Thanks....Nicole Richardson

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Nicole,
    I think I've heard too many sermons that try to make the point of Peter's dilemma whether or not he could walk on water. Like you, I think the point has to be something larger than whether Peter can do magic like Jesus. And, in keeping with my comments along the way last week and this week, I think Jesus was not walking on water to show his magical powers either. I think it all has to do with whether they could "weather the storm" of the Empire, which just killed the greatest prophet ever.
    I think it is a marvelous quest to explore how this story touches churches today, because I think we are just as tempted to give in or give up to the Empire as the early disciples were.
    Thanks for your note,
    MD

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Defining what the "empire" is today is a challenge. Take two average members in the pew and one will get two different answers. This passage is followed up with a story of Pharisees challenging Jesus' authority and understanding of what it means to uphold tradition (granted tradition of men, but still). Empire can be political as well as religious institution. OUCH!

      Delete
  13. Check out Suzanne Guthrie's Edge of Adventure (http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/) in which she likens Jesus' "rebuke" of Peter to the response of a parent to a child who has just fallen while learning to ride a bicycle: don't doubt yourself--you had it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know! I loved that. Great site... Edge of the Enclosure.

      Delete
  14. I so appreciate your work. Thank you. I love your comment "What in THE world..." about Peter's desire to get out of the boat! But, one result of the request is that it is very clear that this is NOT an apparition or ghost, but Someone very solid, in fact, so solid, he can even support someone else while standing on water!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Chad,
      Yes, it is probably a great thing for Peter that the response to his, "Lord, save me!" was not, "I can't. Unlike this water, I'm a figment of your imagination."
      Sometimes I want even enough faith to get myself into deep trouble.

      Delete
  15. Dear Mark,
    Thanks for all the heavy lifting with your blog each week (even in your time away ;) ). I use your work almost every week for my sermon prep. When those crickets start chirping hear the words from our gospel this week, "Why did you doubt, O ye..." "You HAVE this!" I especially love how poignant your comments are about Jesus not inciting violence to meet the violence that just occurred in light of the news this week. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Wendy. It's good to know that we're on this journey together. That is what helps silence the crickets for me many weeks.

      Delete
  16. One commentator focused on Jesus putting the disciples together as a sign for Matthew of how the church is to weather the storm of the empire...not with spiritual gifts but in humble community...Peter's action of stepping out alone often seen as an act of faith may actually been cutting himself off from the larger community and be the cause of him wavering. Not a traditional approach. Either way we are in the midst of a storm...trust in the God of sea and sky seems to be the key.

    ReplyDelete

If you want to leave a comment using only your name, please click the name/url option. I don't believe you have to sign in or anything like that by using that option. You may also use the 'anonymous' option if you want. Just be nice.

Blog Archive