Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1KGS 19:9A, 11-13A; PS 85:9, 10-14; ROM 9:1-5; MT 14:22-33
This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important and influential documents of the Second Vatican Council. Entitled Dei Verbum, "The Word of God," it dealt with the Catholic understanding of divine revelation found in our Scriptures and in the tradition of the Church. A fundamental assertion of this document was that God's "revelation" did not consist first and foremost in a series of doctrinal propositions but was essentially a relationship between God and human beings. The God worshipped by Christians was not a cold and distant sovereign but a God who created the world and all its beauty, a God who created human beings in God's own image, and, above all, a God who desired to be in loving communion with his sons and daughters.
That startling perception of the mystery of God is evident in the Scripture readings for this Sunday. They capture the mystery of God as both totally transcendent and infinitely tender. The first reading from the Book of Kings sets the tone. The fiery prophet Elijah is on the run from Ahab and Jezebel, the corrupt and murderous king and queen of the northern kingdom of Israel. Elijah had repeatedly confronted them with their wrongdoings and they were determined to destroy him. So Elijah flees south to the Sinai Peninsula, to Mt. Horeb, the very mountain where the Bible says that Moses received the Ten Commandments.
In this haunting story, God seeks out his troubled prophet and tells him that the divine presence will pass by the mouth of the cave where Elijah is hiding. A series of terrifying events then follows - a strong and heavy wind, an earthquake, a raging fire - the very type of signs that had surrounded Moses when he encountered God and received the Ten Commandments. But this time God is not revealed in these signs of overwhelming power but in a "tiny whispering sound." Then Elijah knew that God was with him and he leaves his cave and hides his face with his cloak as a sign of reverence.
This same abiding and loving presence of God, even in the midst of fear and chaos, is affirmed again in the mysterious story of Jesus' walking on the water. Matthew's Gospel follows closely the account found in Mark but adds some unique features. This story takes place right after the feeding of the multitudes that we heard last Sunday. While Jesus is on the mountain praying, the disciples are caught in a raging wind storm on the Sea of Galilee. In the midst of the night, Jesus comes to them walking on the water!
Here the Gospel story echoes several such passages in the Old Testament that speak of God treading upon the crests of the sea. The Bible often presents the sea as the abode of demons, as a frightful and unpredictable force that endangers human beings. God's walking on the water demonstrates his power over all of the forces of nature. And the same is now being asserted about Jesus in whom the divine presence is manifest. Jesus not only walks on the sea but he addresses his disciples using the divine name, "I am," and ultimately he will quell the fierce winds.
But this story is not primarily about asserting the mysterious divine power of Jesus but of demonstrating his tender and protective love for his disciples. He tells them not to fear and when Peter, always impetuous, asks to come to Jesus, Jesus invites him to do so. Although Peter is - through Jesus' grace - able to walk on the water, he succumbs to fear and begins to sink - only to have Jesus stretch out his hand and grab hold of Peter to save him.
This vignette about Peter is found only in Matthew's version of the story and is clearly meant to drive home the message of the Gospel for the reader: Jesus is present to his disciples even in the midst of storm, and the disciples should trust in Jesus' love for them and not succumb to fear. Jesus even speaks tenderly about the weakness of his disciples - they are of a "little faith," a characterization Matthew's Gospel uses several times to describe the weak and faltering faith of Jesus' disciples. The story ends dramatically - when Jesus gets into the boat and the wind is calmed, the disciples offer Jesus full homage: "Truly, you are the Son of God."
At first glance, the second reading from Paul's letter to the Romans might seem totally unrelated to the other readings and their insistence on God's protective love of his people. This section from chapter 9 of Romans is one of the most startling and poignant passages in all of Paul's letters. Here and throughout chapters 9-11 Paul wrestles with one of the most painful experiences of his life, namely that, while many Gentiles had embraced the Gospel, most of his own fellow Jews had not done so and, in many cases, had actively opposed Paul's mission.
Paul's deep and abiding love for his people and his Jewish heritage is clearly seen here - the apostle goes so far as to be willing to be "cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people!" A truly remarkable, almost unfathomable, statement by one who so ardently loved Christ. Paradoxically, Paul's dilemma is fueled by the same conviction that we have identified in the other readings for this Sunday. Paul is fully aware of God's love for the Jews, his people, and he cites a list of the special prerogatives that abiding love had lavished on Israel, climaxing in the fact that Jesus himself was a Jew.
So, how could it be, Paul laments, that the Gentiles believed in the Gospel while the Jews did not? Paul does not fully solve his dilemma but he is convinced of two fundamental truths - the first is that God's promises to his people are not in vain, a principle Paul will clearly state in Romans 11:29 - "For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable."
Secondly, Paul trusts in God's abiding love even when he cannot fathom its mysterious logic: "Oh the depth of the riches, and wisdom and knowledge of God," Paul will exclaim in Romans 11:33, "How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!"
It is precisely such biblical accounts as we hear this Sunday, that led the bishops and theologians of the Second Vatican Council to declare that the most fundamental reality of our Christian faith is God's mysterious, yet infinitely tender, love for us and God's invitation to us to respond in turn.
Fr. Donald Senior, CP
Professor of New Testament Studies
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