Commentary on Matthew 14:13-33
What do feeding a hungry crowd and walking on the raging sea have to do with each other?
How do these odd little scenes fit into Matthew’s story as it flows from the murder of John the Baptist to the Transfiguration, with stops to consider tradition and faithfulness and threat along the way?
And how does this complex of scenes fit into the story that Matthew is telling? Early in the story, Matthew narrates the Slaughter of the Innocents. Herod was hunting the king of the Jews. Pilate announces the completion of the hunt with his nailed placard: “This is the King of the Jews.” The murder of John fits well in this flow. He is not identified in Matthew’s story as one of the babies of Bethlehem, nor as a relative of Jesus (unlike in Luke). He is killed because he is an observant Jew, not submissive to the dominant power.
What role do feeding and walking play in a story about the attempt to murder Jewish faithfulness? Customary interpretation proposes links with feeding stories in Exodus or in the careers of Elijah and Elisha, and the water-walking scene could be tied to the flight from Egypt and to the entrance into the Land of Promise: both involve crossing a body of water, though neither involves walking on the surface of the water. It might also be useful to link both of these scenes to the origin story presented in Genesis 1. God establishes manageable stability in the midst of dangerous chaos and this stability allows plants yielding food to grow. These are not parallels, but potential thematic linkages.
Older interpretation worried over the miraculous elements of these stories. How could they be understood as events without violating the laws of nature? Too often communities of faith have insisted on the absolute historicity of miracles, regardless of the impact on scientific sense. Interpretation in recent centuries has attempted to divert this energy by reading the feeding (for instance) as a miracle of sharing rather than of magical generation. This yielded much that was helpful for preachers, who after all have an impact on people who could share more than they do. Preachers generally have little impact on magical multiplication of bread or fish.
But such interpretive schemes run into problems. Audiences always notice that such schemes find meaning at the expense of the plain sense of the text. The text counts the bread and the fish and the people, and is overwhelmed. It is expensive to choose an interpretive line that lessens this reaction.
The difficulty remains, however. What do these scenes have to do with the story that Matthew is telling of Jewish faithfulness? The deadly chaos of the walking scene fits well enough into Matthew’s story of enveloping violence. Herod, Pilate, and ultimately Rome are arrayed against the Jewish community that is waiting for the world to be turned right-side-up. Herod, Pilate, and Rome like the world the way it is, and act effectively to hold it that way. Violence rules, and Rome uses its power over life and death to guarantee that this reign continues, despite the Lord’s Prayer and the protests of other faithful Jews.
An interpreter needs to go carefully at this point. Walking on water is read as a demonstration of Jesus’ power over chaos. Before celebrating the victory, however, an interpreter must stop and notice how little good this did for John whose execution is reported (and repeated) in this little complex of scenes. An interpreter ought to ask what comfort Jesus’ water-walking would provide to the families of Bethlehem as they mourned with Rachel for their babies. And interpreters must remember that Rome is going to catch Jesus in the end and crucify him, wringing from him a cry of despair. Christians have become too accustomed to Jesus’ death. We think of it as a victory, as part of a rational economy that brings freedom and forgiveness, and we forget that it was a death by torture, that it was (according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:23) both scandalous and moronic.
We forget that Paul himself was executed by Rome, in Rome, where beheading was understood very much as it is today, as a demonstration of uncontestable power and as a challenge to anyone who would stand in opposition to that power. We forget also that things had become much worse by the time that Matthew’s story was told in the form we now have it. Paul died before the First Jewish Revolt was underway, before the agony of the siege of Jerusalem, before that shock of the destruction of stability and order in the form of the Temple. By the time Matthew’s story was told in this form, Rome had demonstrated repeatedly that it cared not at all for any assertion of order other than its own. Jesus’ little excursion on the surface of chaos, read in this context, sounds little indeed, and ineffectual. This may have occurred also to Peter as he saw the whirlwind and began to sink beneath the waves.
This sub-scene begins with Peter saying to Jesus, ei su ei (“If you are you”) and ends with the disciples saying, alethos theou uios ei This statement is a pre-echo of the words spoken by the centurion in chapter 27, but the differences between the scenes are instructive: in chapter 14 the words are spoken because Peter is alive; in chapter 27 they are spoken because Jesus is dead. In chapter 14 the words are an amazed exultation; in chapter 27 I read them as a taunt intended to demonstrate that Rome alone controls life and death. For an attentive audience, the centurion’s words could be translated as, “Where’s your little water-walker now?”
A friend, Steve Martens, has noted that this is not the first time a character has begun a dialog with Jesus with the words ei su … In chapter 4 Jesus is tested repeatedly. He is given a chance to demonstrate his freedom from danger, his mastery of chaos, and he refuses, even though such demonstrations would have established him (so says the tester) as the son of God. One test even involves bread in the wilderness. In chapter 4, however, we are given to believe that Jesus passes the tests by refusing to demonstrate mastery. In chapter 14 he behaves differently.
Perhaps it matters that in chapter 4 Jesus alone is hungry (because he is fasting), while in chapter 14 the hunger belongs to the large crowd of people, which we are explicitly told includes women and children. Perhaps the difference is that it is Peter (not Jesus) sinking beneath the waves, though this problem could have been solved by not inviting him out of the boat in the first place. The tension between the two ei su scenes is real. No matter how you choose to resolve it, remember that the story as a whole warns against too easy imagining that chaos is easily tamed. In the midst of chaos, perhaps only faithfulness offers any hope.