Proper 14, Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 10, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Genesis 37:1-4Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45bRomans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33

By Russell Pregeant

The “little faith” of the disciples is thematic in Matthew. In this gospel, Jesus uses the adjective oligopistos(of little faith) four times (6:30, 8:26, 14:31, and 16:8) and the noun oligopistia (littleness of faith) once (17:20), always in relation to the disciples. Clearly, however, littleness of faith does not mean utter lack of faith; the disciples waver back and forth throughout the gospel. And the specific nature of the inadequacy varies from passage to passage. In 6:30, the problem is worry over material welfare; in 8:26, it is fear in the face of physical danger; in 16:8 it is lack of understanding (see v. 9); in 17:20 it is lack of confidence in God’s power in the face of a demon. In the present passage (14:31), it is again lack of confidence in divine power, this time combined with fear, as Peter loses heart in his attempt to join Jesus in walking on the water. And it is precisely that element of losing heart that distinguishes this passage from the others. For Peter is initially able to walk this miraculous kind of walk but allows doubt to overcome him when the going gets rough.

Fear is present throughout the story. The disciples are at first terrified when they see Jesus, in the night, walking on the sea; they think he is a ghost. We can thus hear echoes of that sense of mysteriumtremendum et fascinans (the awesome and terrifying mystery), which Rudolf Otto identified in The Idea of the Holy as a widespread component in religious experience. It is a sense of the utter otherness and ineffability of the divine, an unsettling combination of repulsion, fear, and fascination in the face of ultimate mystery. The fear and repulsion are here expressed by the perception of Jesus as a ghost, but they are balanced by his comforting words: “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.” The disciples by now know Jesus and trust him, even if their faith remains incomplete. Thus, for him to say “It is I” is to bring the fearful awesomeness of the scene under control by relating it to what is familiar. This is the Jesus with whom they have walked and shared bread, who has offered compassion to the suffering and (in the preceding story) fed the hungry, even though he has also spoken words of judgment.

Peter’s fear, however, seems to be of another sort—a more mundane tremulousness in the face of physical danger. Here again, as in the preceding story of the feeding of the five thousand, it is doubt—doubt about what human beings can do by making use of the divine power to which they have access—that undermines the accomplishment of a task. In the feeding account, it is a ministry to the hungering that is momentarily delayed, but here it is something that Peter himself has desired that is subverted. It was he who asked to join Jesus on the water. He did so, however, in full knowledge that he needed Jesus’ help in order to accomplish the feat, as we can see in the fact that he asks Jesus to command him to do it. And yet, in the face of the wind, he loses heart and begins to sink. Although he has clearly earned the title of “little faith,” he has confidence enough in Jesus to ask again for help: “Lord, save me.” We might thus suspect that his lack of faith was less in Jesus’ ability to perform mighty deeds unilaterally than in the process of divine-human cooperation. We should not think of this as a simple lack of confidence in himself, however, but as an unwillingness to trust what he could do when empowered by Jesus.

To read the passage this latter way is to challenge the tendency in our culture to overemphasize the power of the individual will—a bit of idolatry that we might call the “you can be anything you want to be” or “believe in yourself” illusion. As important as it is to teach children to dream big dreams and make use of their capacities, it is equally important both to avoid creating unrealistic expectations and to dispel the illusion of self-sufficiency. I have no doubt that I might have accomplished more in some areas of life if I had worked harder at them, but I am equally certain that no amount of effort on my part would have made me a star player in the National Basketball Association, a competent theoretical physicist, or a great jazz musician, however much I might have desired the latter (but I’d like to think that a world-class Cajun/Creole chef wouldn’t have been so far out of reach)! Process-relational thought is particularly suited, in my estimation, to walk the tightrope of self-sufficiency v. sheer dependency by fostering a sense of interdependence. We are not what we are as a result of simple self-creation, nor are we the helpless products of genes, social conditioning, or divine fiat. We are all parts of larger wholes that contribute to our self-development but leave room for our individual decisions and actions. Social systems, from the immediate circle of families to whole societies, both open us to possibilities and limit our options. And in the end, we—like all entities in the universe—a parts of the universal whole from which our being and our power to act derive. The self-made individual is an illusion, but no more so than the passive cog in a deterministic machine. Those who attribute everything to God or society or genes and those who claim self-sufficiency are equally wrong.

At the end of the story, the disciples worship Jesus and proclaim him Son of God, thus anticipating Peter’s definitive declaration in 16:16-20. This preliminary confession of faith by the disciples is presumably a response to all that they have seen Jesus do so far, but now brought to a head by the dramatic events in this passage: the walking on the water, the rescue of Peter, and the sudden cessation of the wind as Jesus and Peter get into the boat. It is, moreover, a clear advance over the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ miraculous powers when he (in this case explicitly) calmed the winds and the sea in 8:23-27: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” The disciples have thus come to a much clearer understanding of Jesus’ identity, and that is a step forward in their faith development. But, just as in 8:26, Jesus still makes the charge of “little faith” and will continue to do so. Although they have made progress in one dimension of their faith, they are lacking in others; and one of those dimensions appears to be a failure to believe what Jesus can do through them.

If the gospel lesson illustrates what can happen when people lack faith in what God can do through them (that is, in cooperation with them), the story in Genesis 37 depicts the consequences of an overblown sense of one’s importance on the one hand and jealousy on the other. Unfortunately, the lectionary selection leaves out vv. 5-11, which give us needed insight into Joseph’s character and the reasons behind his brothers’ treacherous actions. In these verses, we see him as arrogant and self-centered. Not only do his dreams reveal an inflated sense of self-importance, but his need to reveal them to his brothers and his father show a monumental lack of sensitivity. No one is guiltless in the story, however. Jacob rightly rebukes Joseph for his arrogance, but he had clearly spoiled the boy by making his favoritism painfully clear. And the brothers, although understandably miffed, deal with their hurt in an astonishingly violent way. All the characters, in one way or another, allow their individual feelings to subvert a sense of family solidarity.

If we bring this insight back to the gospel story, we might find an added nuance in Peter’s failure. Part of the problem might have been that he was thinking too individualistically. The desire to walk on the water with Jesus was, after all, Peter’s idea—not Jesus’! And the request was only for himself, not his fellow disciples. Why did he want to do this? To prove his own faith as a matter of pride? Simply to have a “joy ride”—that is, to get in on the bandwagon of deeds of power? To see such motives at work would not necessarily be contradictory to the notion that he lacked confidence in what God could do through him. For in both cases the problem is a failure to accept one’s essential relatedness. The truth is that when we deny our relatedness, whether to God or our fellow creatures, we end up losing our individuality as well. Without access to the power that comes from outside us, our limited power is cut off from its sources. Conversely, when we deny the degree of power that we do in fact have, by thinking that others or God must do all the work, we also lose those connections: the power available to us has nowhere to, no channel through which to work cooperatively.

In the epistle lesson, Paul uses a quotation from the Hebrew Bible to make clear that the path to salvation is near at hand, not one that must be sought out with great difficulty. By the latter, he means seeking righteousness by obeying the statutes of the Jewish Law; and by the former, he means seeking righteousness through faith in Christ. He has laid out his understanding of all this earlier in chapters 1-8; now he is restating his view in a different context, in which he is wrestling with the problems raised by majority Israel’s failure to accept Jesus as the Messiah. In 9:30-33, he notes, paradoxically, that the Gentiles—“who did not strive for righteousness” nevertheless attained it through faith, or faithfulness, whereas (majority) Israel, although seeking righteousness through the law “did not succeed in fulfilling the law.” This does not mean, however, that Jews did not in fact obey the law’s statutes. Verse 32 gives the real reason: “they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works.” It is difficult to follow the details of Paul’s logic here, but Luke Johnson’s suggestion seems likely. On his reading, the point is that “at the critical moment of being offered Jesus as messiah, many of [Paul’s] fellow Jews failed to respond in faith.”1 In fact, Paul goes on at this point to identify (majority) Israel’s mistake as the “stumbling” over a stone, by which he seems to mean that they failed to accept Jesus as Messiah. As John Cobb and David Lull comment, “Since they did not recognize Jesus as the one through whom God revealed that faithfulness was the way to righteousness and that God redeemed those who were faithful, they had no basis for ceasing to seek righteousness from works of the law instead of from faithfulness.”2 But this does not mean that the law was in itself something bad. Paul had already proclaimed it holy, just and good (7:12). The point is rather than the law itself actually points to Christ as the path to righteousness. This is especially evident in 10:3 if we understand the Greek telos (translated in the NRSV as “end”) not merely as termination but as including the sense of “goal,” which is one of its possible meanings.

Against this background, in this Sunday’s lesson Paul draws upon Deuteronomy 30:12-14 to draw out the contrast between righteousness based on the law and righteousness based on faith, or faithfulness. In doing so, however, he changes the passage. In the Septuagint, it reads as follows:

For this commandment, which I command to you this day, is not excessive, neither is it far from you. It is not above in the heavens, as if one were to say “Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it to us, so that, when we hear it, we may do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, as if one were to say, “Who will cross over the sea for us, and bring it to us, so that we may do it?” The word is very near you—in your mouth, and in your heart, and in your hand—that you may do it.3

In his paraphrase, Paul substitutes “Messiah” for “commandments” and “having faith” with “doing but them.” As reinterpreted, the passage now serves to make these points:

The risen Jesus was not externally “up there, in heaven,” but internally “in the mouth and heart” of those who made the confession. In the same way, the descent “into the abyss” alluded to Jesus’ entrance into the state and realm of “the dead” (or “corpses”). Jesus was no longer “down there.” He had been raised from that state, and place, to “heaven” but also into the proclamation of faith and into the mouths and hearts of those who made the confession.4

With these points made, Paul can then assert that it is precisely this confession of faith that leads to salvation. And this enables him to say that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” since it is not the law but faith/faithfulness that leads to righteousness before God.

Two cautions are important for preaching on this aspect of Romans. First, it is all too easy to fall unwittingly into anti-Judaism when contrasting law and faith/faithfulness as paths to salvation or when dealing with Paul’s treatment of majority Israel’s non-recognition of Jesus as Messiah. Second, it is important to understand that faith, for Paul, is not mere belief. His language about believing with the heart and confessing with the mouth in this passage needs to be interpreted in light of his wider usage of faith-language. Not only does he understand faith as a total self-giving that is inseparable from its expression in love, so that “faithfulness” is often the better translation, but there are strong indications that at least in many cases Paul means participation in Jesus’ own faithfulness.

Process thought, I believe, can be helpful at two points in preaching based on these aspects of Paul’s thought. The notion of participating in someone else’s righteousness does not fit well with the typical modern understanding of individuals as self-contained entities, but it can be rendered more intelligible from a relational point of view that sees all entities in the universe as participating in the whole, or God, and hence in each other as well. There is thus mutual influence among all entities, and it has been suggested by process-oriented biblical scholars that Jesus’ faithfulness creates a kind of “force field” of influence into which those who follow him can enter. The second point has to do with Paul’s revision of the passage from Deuteronomy to make his theological point. The fact that Paul is comfortable in making this kind of a move—which he does on a number of occasions, and which is quite in keeping with ancient hermeneutical practice!—give us important insight into the nature of religious tradition. It is inherently creative, always undergoing changes in light of new situations. In fact, the Christian identification of Jesus as Messiah would not have been possible without such creativity, since it involved substantial innovations over against Jewish expectations at the time. Thus, given the difficulties in accepting Paul’s tortured attempts to make sense of God’s dealings with Israel in Romans 9-11, one might want to call on Paul’s own precedent here and propose rather different solutions to the problem of majority Israel’s non-acceptance of Jesus as Messiah. We can appreciate Paul’s broad intentions, in other words, without accepting the fine points of his solution!

Psalm 105 connects to the reading from Genesis through the mention of Joseph (verses 16-22) in a recitation of God’s mighty deeds on behalf of Israel. It could thus be used in conjunction with the Genesis text to help make the point that God can accomplish important things through imperfect instruments. The psalm’s emphasis on God’s faithfulness to the chosen people could also serve to support Paul’s broader point in Romans 9-11, in answer to 11:1—that God has not in fact abandoned them!

1 Luke T. Johnson, Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 156.

2 John B. Cobb, Jr., and David J. Lull, Romans (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 140.

3 Translation from Cobb and Lull, 142.

4 Cobb and Lull, 144.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, and Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew’s Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).