ColumnsSunday’s Word

Peter joins Jesus walking on the water

August 9, 2020


1 Kgs 19:9, 11-13

Elijah on the Sacred Mountain

Ps 85:9-14

Let us see your kindness

Rom 9:1-5

Paul mourns his people

Mt 14:22-33

Peter joins Jesus walking on the water


The story of Peter attempting to walk on water is unique to Matthew. But it has a context. That context takes us to other Gospels, as well as related stories in Matthew’s own Gospel.

Mark, the first of the four to write a Gospel, has two accounts of a storm on the lake. In the first (Mark 4:35-41), Jesus is with the disciples in the boat. But he is asleep. The all-consuming problem is to survive the storm, and this involves waking Jesus, who surprisingly can still the storm.

The second storm story in Mark takes place when Jesus is not present among them (Mark 6:45-52). But in the midst of the gale, Jesus is seen walking toward them on the water. But they do not recognize him. This story is more complex in that they have two problems — the storm itself, and the “ghost” walking toward them on the water. This time Jesus identifies himself and then stills the storm.

In both stories, the early church seemed to find a lesson about the post-resurrection church, which seemed to be traveling onward after Jesus was gone. But the stories assert that this is not the case. Jesus, now risen and returned to his Father, still remains with them, and only need by called upon when they are in need.

The second of these is the background to Matthew’s story featured today. Except for the part about Peter, it is for all practical purposes identical with the second of Mark’s stories. Mark’s Gospel is consider­ed to have been on Matthew’s desk, as one of the sources he drew upon. And this story certainly seems to fill the bill. Except for the part about Peter.

What might Matthew be doing here, with his version expanded to include Peter? First of all, he is borrowing the meaning it already has, in Mark’s account. That is, the Christian community is like a boat on a stormy lake, but the risen Christ is still present for appeal in times of need.

But Matthew also has a special interest in Peter. Already, in the call of the Twelve Apostles, he gives Peter emphasis — “Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother…” (10:2). But he also gives Peter special attention in three other places. Along with the present story, in Matthew 14, we have the giving of the keys to Peter (Matt 16:13-20). And then there is the matter of the temple tax, and the fish (Matt 17:24-27). These also provide context for the Gospel story.

In today’s episode, Peter asks to join Jesus on the water. His partial success in doing so is identified as a matter of faltering faith: “Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” The issue is trust. Faith here does not refer to fidelity of teaching the truth, and doctrinal fidelity, but rather courage in the face of difficulty. The storm represents the current crisis facing the community. Not to worry, Jesus will be present to supply the required courage.

One could say that Peter here represents the temptations of discipleship, and represents every Christian in the storm. However, Matthew seems to be thinking of Peter in his special role, as leader. It is as Apostle, more than disciple, that he struggles.

This is seen in the other vignettes featuring him. The granting of the keys has many points of similarity, including the proclamation of faith (14:33; 16:16). But here too Peter struggles. “He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me” (16:23). And in the story of the tax, Jesus consults with Peter on the proper course of action, indicating that Peter is to be making such decisions.

For reflection: Much is going on here. But one aspect concerns the ongoing guidance of the church.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.