Sandwiched between Matthew’s two stories of Jesus feeding the multitude is another popular tale in the gospels. It is the account of Jesus walking on the water. Interestingly enough, in each of the four gospels this walking on the water story is coupled with the feeding of the multitudes. All of the gospel writers will treat these two stories as a pair. That is the first clue to their meaning. It is clear that among the early followers of Jesus these stories were deeply linked. If the feeding of the multitude accounts reflects an updated version of Moses providing manna in the wilderness to the Children of Israel, is it possible that the walking on the water story is an updated version of Moses splitting the Red Sea? I think that this is highly probable and it is exactly this connection, which opens the story of Jesus walking on the water to its original Jewish meaning. It is a narrative that was never meant to be read literally.
These two Jesus stories correspond then to the two great events in Moses’ life. Earlier in this Matthew series we saw how the baptism of Jesus was made to re-enact Moses’ Red Sea experience. We then noted that the account of Jesus’ forty days of being tempted in the wilderness was paralleled with Moses’ forty years in the wilderness, indeed the crises Moses faced were almost identical with the temptations that Jesus faced. In the folklore of the Jewish people, the power of Moses over water was clearly and regularly established. Jesus, if he was to fulfill the messianic image of being the “New Moses,” needed to have a similar story in which power over water was attributed to him.
The ability to walk on water served that purpose very well. The close connection of Jesus feeding the multitudes and walking on water with Moses sending “mamma” in the wilderness and splitting the “Red Sea” screams at us to open our eyes to their original Jewish meaning. For Matthew, neither the feeding of the multitude nor Jesus walking on the water was meant to be read as a miracle story. They were Moses stories. Only later Gentiles, unaware of their Jewish meaning, would ever have thought of either one as a supernatural act that had actually taken place in real history. Jesus refused, time after time, to provide a “sign” to his critics. Indeed that kind of activity was overtly rejected in Matthew’s temptation narrative. Being the messiah does not mean putting God to the test with daring acts of supernatural power, like hurling ones self off the pinnacle of the Temple.
The walking on the water story is itself memorable. Like few biblical tales, it has insinuated itself into the life of our culture. Even those who never go to church will know this story. There are thousands of golf jokes that turn on Jesus’ or God’s ability to walk on water. Most clergy have heard them all!
My favorite walking on the water story comes, however, not out of golf, but out of baseball. It involves people deep in the history of the New York Yankees, a team to which I am more than just a little bit devoted. This story happened some time ago when the owner of the Yankees, George Steinbrenner, was still alive and at the height of his power. The Yankees had acquired from the Kansas City Royals in a trade a promising outfielder named Lou Piniella. Arriving in the Bronx to join his new team, Piniella appeared with long hair and a heavy beard. When he was told that it was Yankee policy for players to have their hair short and to restrict facial hair to a neat moustache, Piniella objected. He was then told that he would have to speak to Mr. Steinbrenner about that, since only the owner could exempt a player from this team policy. So a time was set for this long-haired, bearded Piniella to talk with Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner. It would be their first meeting.
“I don’t see why I have to cut my hair and shave my beard just to play for the Yankees,” Piniella told the owner. Then, trying to strengthen his case, Piniella added, “Jesus Christ, the greatest person who ever lived, had long hair and a beard.” George Steinbrenner invited his balky left-fielder to go with him outside Yankee Stadium to where the East River was flowing lazily through New York City. Then Mr. Steinbrenner spoke and said, “Lou, Jesus Christ could walk on water. Now if you can walk on the top of this river, then you can keep your hair and your beard!” Piniella went to the barber for a shave and a haircut and then he went on to become a crucial part of Yankee success for years, finally finishing his career as one of baseball’s finest managers in New York, Cincinnati, Seattle, Tamps Bay and Chicago.
While the story of Jesus walking on the water has become part of our cultural landscape, is there any reason to believe that it ever happened? I do not think so. Those like Matthew, who were familiar with the Jewish Scriptures and with the Jewish story-telling tradition, recognized this narrative for what it was, an interpretive Moses story. Moses had power over water. He could split the Red Sea. To portray Jesus as walking on the water would assert that Jesus also had power over water. That was the purpose of this narrative. To be more specific, the story of Jesus walking on the water was a Red Sea story magnified and repeated about Jesus.
It comes in Matthew’s gospel between the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000. When the first feeding story was complete, Matthew had Jesus send the disciples in a boat across the lake ahead of him while he dispersed the crowds. Then Matthew says that Jesus “went up the mountain alone to pray.” By this time the boat, carrying the disciples, was “many furlongs from the land” (Matt. 14:24). Their boat, however, had encountered a storm and it was being beaten by the waves. The wind was also against it. So, “in the fourth watch of the night” (that would be between 3:00 and 6:00 am) Matthew says, “Jesus came to them walking on the water” (Matt 14:25). Matthew’s clear message to the church of his day was that Jesus always comes when life’s struggles are the hardest.
The disciples seeing him, however, thought they were seeing a ghost. Is this a hint of their later Easter experience? Possibly. Jesus speaks, identifying himself, telling them not to fear. Then Matthew adds a wrinkle to his story, found nowhere else in any New Testament book. Peter seeks further identification of this ghost-like figure. Peter is always in a struggle to understand Jesus in this gospel. He believes and then he does not believe. He confesses that Jesus is the Christ and then he completely misunderstands what the Christ function is. He pledges his undying loyalty and then when his life is at risk he denies ever knowing Jesus. So Peter in this Matthean episode steps forward to test his senses and his perception. “Lord, if it is you,” he is clearly not convinced, “bid me to come to you on the water.” That would be a good proof of identification. Jesus bids him to come; Peter steps out of the boat and he too walks upon the water! The power of Jesus can be the power of the disciples. That is the message and it was a timely one when Matthew was writing and Jesus’ followers were under the great pressure of persecution.
As soon as Peter saw the waves and felt the wind, however, he became afraid and began to sink. “Lord, save me!” he cried out. Jesus extended his hand to Peter, held him up and said: “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” Then they both got into the boat and at that moment the winds ceased. Matthew added to his text the story’s purpose, namely that those in the boat now “worshiped him” and confessed him to be “the Son of God” (Matt: 14:33).
Once again, just like the feeding stories, this is a parable, not a literal event. No one defies nature and gravity to walk on water or to enable five loaves to feed a multitude. Matthew’s readers knew that. So what he is doing is portraying Jesus as possessing Moses-like power. Moses had the power to split the water so that he could form a path through it on dry land. Jesus’ power was even greater. He could navigate the water by walking on its surface. In this story the message was that the disciples saw God in Jesus in a new and powerful way. They then did what Jews would do only to God: They worshiped him, thus acknowledging him to be part of who God is. Jesus’ divine nature was so apparent, Matthew was suggesting, that the people sought just to be in his presence in a crisis and to see a vision of him coming to them when they were in distress.
Matthew was describing the disciples’ faith in Jesus, not an event that actually happened. Remember, that when we put this story into its literal history, Jesus was yet to be betrayed, to be denied and to be abandoned by the members of the Twelve. Matthew was rather portraying the growing faith of the Christians at the time he was writing some 55 years after the crucifixion. The idea of messiah as a “God presence” was still evolving. As the post-Jesus Christian community endured the storms of life and their times of trial, sometimes their confidence disappeared. Like children stepping out from the security of their parents’ home, they were not sure they could make it without Jesus being physically present. Matthew assures us, however that they will reach the security of the shore.
When they do arrive there, however, they find the Pharisees and the Scribes have descended to a new level of religious trivia. Their chief worry concerned why the disciples were abandoning the religious traditions: they did not wash their hands before eating nor honor their elders. Jesus and his disciples, they charged, were making “void” the literal word of God.
Jesus is then made to call his critics hypocrites. He talks about the difference between external religious forms and internal religious faith. Peter, above all, still doesn’t get it. Nothing seems to work for Peter. Even seeing Moses’ power in Jesus was not sufficient. Those who cling to religious rules for their meaning will never know a change of heart.
The story then moves on to one of the great iconic figures in this gospel’s narrative. She is a Canaanite woman. The boundaries of religion are about to be expanded anew. Stay tuned.