|Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro|
Aug 11, 2002
Nineteenth Sunday Ordinary Time 2002
1 kgs 19: 9a, 11-13a, Rom 9: 1-5, Mt 14: 22-33
This weekís readings highlight three men of faith in crisis. Each is forced to stretch himself beyond his perceived limits to fulfill his calling in the Lord. 1 King 19:9,11-13 "there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face": The first man of faith in crisis is Elijah, no small character in salvation history. Elijah was the first great prophet of the Northern Kingdom. His prophetic ministry set him at odds with King Ahabís wife, Jezebel, a follower of the Cannanite god, Baal. Scriptures record that Elijah never really died but was taken up to heaven by a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:9-12). By the first century, it was believed that Elijah would have to return before the Messiah would come. And it was Elijah who stood by Jesusí side along with Moses at the Transfiguration.
In this weekís text, we find Elijah at the lowest point of his prophetic career. By all accounts, he should have been enjoying his greatest victory against the prophets of Baal. In a scene reminiscent of a modern day "Battle of the Bands", Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest, which pitted their god, Baal, against the true God of Israel (1 Kings 18). The chapter begins with Elijah coming out of hiding in the midst of a three-year drought. Elijah predicted the drought because of Israelís unfaithfulness to God, splitting their loyalties between God and Baal. He summoned King Ahab to call all the people of Israel to Mt. Carmel. Two altars were set up, one for the God of Israel and one for the Cannanite god, Baal. Sacrifices were prepared and placed on each altar. Then 450 prophets of Baal spent the whole morning calling on Baal to send fire down from the skies and consume their sacrifice to no avail. By noon the prophets of Baal had to give up Ð their god was not working that day.
Then Elijah had his altar and sacrifice drenched with water three times. Elijah looked up to heaven and called on God to consume his sacrifice. It took Elijah just one request and God sent fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. The people of Israel went crazy. They seized all 450 prophets of Baal and killed them all. Elijah invited King Ahab to eat of the sacrificed offerings and soon after the rains returned to the land. A complete victory for Elijah, or so it seemed.
That very night Queen Jezebel turned King Ahab against Elijah. The next day Elijah was running for his life, a broken and defeated man. Lesson: She who sleeps with the king has the last word.
Rejected, depressed and on the run, Elijah wanted to end his life. A dayís journey into the desert, Elijah collapses under a broom tree. An angel of the Lord arrives, feeds him, and points him in the direction of Mt. Horeb; his work was not yet finished. Mt Horeb is the mountain where Moses received the Law from God. A forty-dayís walking journey, when Elijah reaches Mt. Horeb, he takes shelter in a cave on the mountainside. The Word of the Lord asks Elijah why he was there. Elijah tells God that the Israelites have forsaken him. They have ignored his covenant, torn down his altars, and killed all his prophets, except for him, Godís "most zealous" of prophets. And now he, Elijah, Godís most zealous prophet, was running for his life.
We now pick up on this weekís text. Godís word tells Elijah to "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by". Elijah did as the Lord commanded. Elijah experienced a rock-crushing wind, a ground-shaking earthquake and an all-consuming fire. And in none of these did Elijah sense the Lord passing by. Then Elijah heard a tiny whispering sound, and "he hid his face in his cloak". The surprise; not in the wind or the earthquake or in the fire; the traditional and expected ways in which God has made his presence known, but in a tiny whispering sound did God reveal himself to Elijah.
Right after revealing himself to Elijah God gives Elijah a new set of working orders (1 King 19:15-18) Anoint two new kings and anoint his successor Elisha. And God tells Elijah he will take care of the rest. Lesson for all "want to be" prophets and disciples of the Lord: Donít get too wrapped up in your own self-importance. No one is indispensable in Godís plan. Remember itís Godís plan to get done, not our own. No matter how bleak it gets, God never asks us to do more than our small part. We are to be faithful and trust that God will take care of the rest. And always, always, always be open to surprises! Note on violence: The violence of God in 1 kings 18 is an example of our flawed image of God found in both the Old and New Testaments. Jack Nelsion-Palemeyr in his book CHRIST AGAINST CHRISTIANITY would call this the human pathology towards violence that we project on to the divine. Romans 9:15 "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people". The second man of Faith in crisis in this weekís readings is St. Paul. Of all the writers in the New Testament, Paul is the guy I would most want to meet. Next to Jesus, his life, writings and legacy have had more influence on Christianity than any other human being. His letters make up close to half of the New Testament. They are the earliest of the New Testament writings, the closest to the historical Jesus.
As he reveals in his writings as recorded in the book of Acts, Paul lived an epic life. Born a Jew with Roman citizenship, he became a Phariseeís Pharisee, surpassing all others in his knowledge and zeal for the Law. No arm-chair academic, his was a pro-active life both in the flesh (the Law) and in the Spirit (the Lord). He is first introduced to us in the book of Acts. He is part of the mob who stoned Steven, the first martyr of the Faith. The text says immediately after the stoning Paul led a house-to-house search in Jerusalem arresting and throwing in jail many other followers of the Faith. He then sought and acquired authority from the High Priest to travel to Damascus and hunt down and arrest followers of Jesus in that city.
It was on his way to Damascus that Paul was struck down and made blind by the Resurrected Lord. That very day, he was converted from being the Faithís greatest persecutor to the Faiths greatest proclaimer. Knocked down in a flash of divine light, it took years to assimilate its full import. Yet, once established in the knowledge and Spirit of his call, Paul became the most unlikely Apostle to the Gentile world. He led a missionary career unmatched by any of his contemporaries, including the "superapostles" (2 Cor 11:5). There is much to admire about Paul. He "walked his talk". He was an activist preacher, a risk-taker for the Faith. Paul helped start many communities of Faith. He knew his share of hardship and persecution: jailed, whipped, stoned, beat up, shipwrecked, run out of town, tried and convicted for his missionary activities many times over. He knew betrayal. He had a problem with authorities. He was not afraid to speak the truth to anyone, be they judge or priest, enemies of the Faith, or even the likes of St. Peter, when it was called for (Gal 2:11-14). I have found his courtroom strategies most helpful in my limited experience of trials.
He is best known for his writings, the letters wrote to the communities he helped found. In his written words, Paul reveals himself to have a great mind and knowledge of both Judaism and of the Gentile world in which he preached. A freethinker and theological innovator, he laid out, from scratch, some of the most enduring explanations of the Faith ever made that continue to shape the mind of Christians to this day!
Still, Paul had his limits, and he could misread the times. He was just plain wrong on his timing regarding JesusÕ Second Coming. And because he believed that Jesusí return was imminent, he saw no need for a systems analysis or systemic change and resistance to unjust socio-economic and political structures, what Paul calls the ÒPowers and PrincipalitiesÓ. If read correctly, Paulís writings are radical in his message of love and forgiveness. In his own way, Paulís teachings dismantle the ways of the world one heart, one loving and kind act at a time - a functioning anarchist for Jesus. Yet, for all his persuasive arguments and heroic witness, he never saw accomplished the one thing dearest to his heart, the conversion of his own people, his former friends and mentors. To his former Jewish friends and family, Paul had not only changed his thinking, he had lost his mind! To them he turned his back on the very people and tradition that gave him his life. The ironic twist in Paulís calling is that his mission to the Gentile world was made possible because of the failure of his own Jewish brothers and sisters to embrace Jesus.
Despite all the hardships and persecutions Paul experienced at the hands of his former Jewish friends and comrades, Paul never turned his back on them. To the very end, he held out hope for their embracing Jesus as the fulfillment of their Jewish tradition.
In this weekís second reading from Paulís letter to the Romans, Paul reveals the depth of his pain for his own people. Paulís letter to the Romans is the one letter that Paul writes to a community he has yet to visit. It is his most developed and systematic theological letter addressing many of the key themes from his entire preaching career. It is also his last letter because he wrote it as a prisoner en route to Rome to stand trial, a trial that would lead to his own martyrdom.
In chapters 9-11, Paul explains why the Jewish people did not embrace the Faith. In this weekís text Paul reveals just how far he would go, if he could bring his people to Faith in Jesus, "For I would wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers and sister"(Rm 9:3). Lesson: We followers of Jesus donít get to pick the mission and task that Jesus wants us to fulfill for his Kingdom. It picks us. Matthew 14:22-23 Jesus said, "Come". Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water towards Jesus: This weekís Gospel is one of six Gospel accounts of Jesus and the disciples in trouble in a boat. In each account, the disciples are in a boat on Lake Galilee in the midst of a storm, in trouble of sinking, fearing for their lives. In three accounts (Mk 4, Matt 8, and Lk 8), Jesus is asleep in the boat with them. The disciples wake Jesus up right before they believe they are about to go under and Jesus commands the storm to cease. In the three other accounts (Mk 6, Matt 14, & Jn 6), Jesus is not in the boat with the disciples at the time of the storm but is spotted walking on water towards them. In two of these accounts (Mk & Matt), Jesus gets into the boat and the storm ends. In the last account from John, the disciples are rowing the boat against the wind when they see Jesus walking on the water towards them. The disciples are frightened by what they see. Jesus speaks to them. They want to let Jesus in the boat but discover they have already reached the shore.
Just like the six recorded accounts of Jesusí mass feedings, these six accounts of Jesus and his disciples in trouble in a boat point to a remembered event that goes all the way back to the earliest communities of Faith. That it is found in all four Gospels is a strong indication that it is an event that was part of the Jesus story from the very beginning.
One obvious meaning from the story is that Jesus had divine authority over the forces of nature. It is hard for us to appreciate the problem the early Church had in convincing people of the divine nature equally shared in Jesusí humanity. It is not that the idea of a human being having claims to divine lineage was unfamiliar to them. The pagan religionsí many mythologies spoke of divine beings conceived with human mothers - half gods, half humans. Traces of this ancient mythology are with us today in the weekly TV shows of Hercules and Zena the Princess Warrior. And of course in the first century during the Roman Empire, the Caesars all claimed to have divine natures, Sons of God each one of them. And they had all the worldÕs power and wealth to back up the claim.
So the issue of a human being also having a divine nature was not a problem. The stumbling block in believing that Jesus was a Son of God, a human being with divine claims was that he did not have any real worldly power or wealth backing him up. In fact, Jesusí claimed greatest triumph was by worldly standards his most ugly and repulsive moment, his death on a cross. Itís not that he was born of humble and insignificant circumstances, but that he ended up in no better state. To any "would-be" believer in Jesusí divine favor in the first century, the fact that Jesus died poor, powerless, defeated, alone on a cross - a conquered victim of the Roman Empire, was way beyond belief.
The accounts of Jesusí walking on water and calming the storms are remembered in the Gospels to show that Jesus was truly Godís Son with authority over the forces of nature, who could walk on water and halt a storm, just like Caesar.
The six accounts serve another purpose also. Since the earliest times, commentators have seen these episodes as parables in action of the Church. The disciples and the boat are like the church. The threatening storms are the troubled times that come to the Church in human history. The waters of the sea represent evil and death that surround the Church on all sides at all times. The sleeping Jesus or the absent Jesus represents the Church unconnected to its source of life and protection. It is only after the disciples wake Jesus up or spot him walking on the water that they are reconnected with their true source of power and survive the storms and troubled times. The six stories serve as an allegory of the Church through history.
It is only in this weekís account from Matthew that we have the report of Peter getting out of the boat and attempting to walk on the water. Peter is the third man of Faith in crisis in this weekís readings. Peter, the first Pope, made it to Rome late in his apostolic career. He arrived in Rome just in time to suffer martyrdom for the Faith in the first major persecution in the imperial city. Tradition has it that he requested from his executioner to be crucified upside down for he did not deem himself worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.
This account of Peter attempting to walk on water is both flattering and embarrassing for our first Pope. It is flattering because while the rest of the disciples were back in the boat frightened for their lives he was willing to take a risk in faith to follow Jesus. None of the other disciples trusted that the Jesus they saw walking on the water was real. They all preferred to stay in the boat, though sinking, at least it was familiar to them. Besides, even if it was Jesus walking on the water - what in heavenís name possessed Peter to think he could do the same? To Peterís credit, he was willing to get out of the boat, take the needed risk and join Jesus on the water. Letís be clear about this. The safest place to be on the water is in a boat. Human beings cannot walk on water. To get out of a boat, even a sinking boat in the midst of a storm and expect to walk on water is beyond our human experiences. For it to happen, the normal rules of the physical world must be suspended. Anyone attempting to do this would either be crazy or have great faith or both. Letís be clear about this, too. To believe that Jesus, a poor Jewish peasant from Galilee, who preached unlimited forgiveness and unconditional love, who sought justice and made peace through active non-violent resistance to unjust and violent human systems and structures, whoís greatest victory and moment of glory was his death on a cross.
To believe that this Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world and to believe that anyone who wants to be his follower must live their lives in the same manner and under the same discipline of love, forgiveness, justice- seeking and nonviolent peacemaking - well, itís all just as unbelievable as Peter wanting to walk on water. You either have to be crazy or have great faith, or both.
The story is embarrassing for Peter because as soon as he got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus, he realized just where he was and what he was doing. All his human instincts kicked in, and he became frightened. He began to sink. Peter did not have enough faith to do what he set out to do. It was only after he reconnected to Jesus, begging Jesus to save him that Jesus stretched out his hand and saved Peter.
This account of Peterís failed attempt of walking on water is a personal parable of Peterís whole life with the Lord. Throughout the Gospel accounts, Peter is saying the wrong thing, asking the dumb question, making claims and promises he canít keep, even to the point of denying Jesus when Jesus needed him the most. Yet, to Peterís credit, he never quit. His failures and mistakes were his opportunities to avail himself to Jesusí love and forgiveness. For Peter, it was enough reason to keep on keeping on in the Lord. Lesson: Peterís personal parable is also a parable for any one of us "want to be" disciples and followers of Jesus. Just like Peter, we donít have to have enough faith to be able to walk on water. We just need to be crazy enough and have enough faith to get out of the sinking boat, and trust that God will take care of the rest. And if we find ourselves sinking, we should not hesitate to cry out to the Lord to save us, all the while looking for his outstretched hand.