MATTHEW THE METICULOUS
August 13, 2023
There is a post-ascension scene in one episode of The Chosen that shows the apostle John preparing to write his gospel by making notes and quizzing his disciple colleagues for their memories of their time with Jesus. He’s been asking them to tell when they first saw Jesus. When he puts that question to Mathew, the former tax collector says, “It was the fourth morning of the third week of the month of Adar, sometime during the second hour.”
John responds, “It doesn’t have to be precise.” Why wouldn’t it need to be precise?” Mathew says, and then, apparently returning to his answer – or perhaps, even to the gospel account he is writing – Matthew adds, “Mine will be precise.”
Our Gospel reading for today — about Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee – is a case in point. It’s clear that Matthew has Mark’s record of this same incident before him as he writes, because there is similar vocabulary in both accounts. But apparently, for those who know about the town locations in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, Mark’s account has what might be a geography error regarding where the boat was headed. The upshot is that when meticulous Matthew wrote his version, he corrected that error.
Here’s the incident. Right before the walking on water story is the feeding of the 5,000, which took place near Bethsaida, on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. Afterward, Jesus sent the disciples ahead by boat to the other side of the lake. When they eventually land, they are nearby Capernaum, on the west shore of the lake.
But Mark says that after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus sent the disciples to the other side, to Bethsaida (Mk. 6:45) — that is, where they actually were.
As further evidence of Matthew’s precision, the account of the feeding of the 5,000, found in all four gospels? It is only precise Matthew who adds the “besides women and children” to the number being fed.
Mark and John also narrate the walking-on-water story, but it’s Matthew who adds the part about Peter getting out of the boat and attempting to walk to Jesus, and Jesus saving Peter when he starts to sink. In adding this to his account, Matthew moves it from a “Wow! Jesus can walk on water” amazement, to a story about faith and trust. And only Matthew includes the statement that the waves were battering the boat. That’s a clue that there is a deeper story behind the surface one.
One of the most common symbols for the early church was a boat or a ship on the water – and often pictured not on calm water but on rough seas. In fact, the word “nave,” which architecturally refers to the main portion of a church sanctuary, comes from the Latin word navis, which means ship. As people facing persecution because they were part of the church, Matthew’s readers understood that their ship—the church—was being battered quite severely. In fact, the original Greek reads that the boat was “being tortured” by the waves.
After Jesus and Peter get into the boat and the wind ceases, Matthew says that the disciples worshiped Jesus, and said to Him, “Truly You are the Son of God.” That reaction, however, is quite different from Mark’s and John’s reports. In Mark, far from declaring Jesus’ divine identity and worshiping Him, the disciples are described as being astounded and having their hearts “hardened,” which probably meant their understanding of the meaning of what they had just witnessed – Jesus walking on water – was blocked. John’s version merely says that they reached the land toward which they had been aiming.
As we read the gospels overall, it’s uncertain that the disciples recognized Jesus’ identity as the Messiah this early, so it’s possible that Matthew, in reporting the disciples worshiping Jesus as the Son of God, was drawing something that happened later back into this earlier incident. It is as if meticulous Matthew, with 20/20 clarity of hindsight, is saying to his readers, “that Jesus is the Son of God is what we SHOULD have realized after seeing Him walk on water, and so that’s how I am narrating the story now.”
In so doing, he turns the incident from simply a slice of Jesus’ biography into a story meant to encourage persecuted Christians to cling to Jesus as Lord despite the hardships they are facing. That doesn’t make Matthew a bad historian; it makes him a good preacher, for his purpose in writing was not to be a biographer of Jesus, or a historian of Christianity, but an evangelist for Jesus and the Gospel.
Since Matthew has given us a fuller account, let’s look at these two who walked on water early that morning. Here were the disciples, out to sea in more ways than one, with the wind blowing against them and the waves battering the boat. At this point, Matthew says nothing about their being afraid. In fact, some of them at least were seasoned fishermen, and being out on rough water in strong wind was par for the course. As long as they stayed in the boat and worked together with the sails and the rudder and the oars, they had a reasonable chance of coming through the storm without too much damage.
What does scare them – and it scares the wits out of them – is seeing someone walking toward them on the water, and their first thought is that they are seeing a ghost! But then, Jesus speaks to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” All three of the gospel writers who record this incident agree on this point. What Jesus said is translated into English as “It is I.” In the Greek, however, what Jesus said is, “ego eimi,” which is “I am.” So what He said was, “Take heart, ego eimi; do not be afraid.”
This is powerful language. Really important stuff. “I Am” is the name God used for Himself when Moses asked God how to identify God, who was telling Pharaoh to let the people go. God said “I AM who I AM. Tell them I AM has sent you.” The name of God is a verb form — meaning, literally, “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” Imperious. Portentous. Powerful.
So Jesus said, “Take heart; I AM. Do not be afraid.” In quoting what Jesus said to the disciples, all three gospel writers were putting forward something about Jesus’ divinity. Only in Matthew’s version, however, do the disciples seem to pick up on it, worshiping Him as the Son of God.
But there is the other water-walker, Peter. It is not Jesus who introduces the idea of Peter’s walking on water. Rather, it is Peter himself, who says, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to you on the water.” In response, Jesus says, “Come,” giving Peter permission, but not pushing him to try it. That’s an important difference, for while there is some faith involved in Peter’s attempt to treat water like solid ground, there is also a good bit of skepticism. Peter is saying, in effect, “If it is really You, Jesus, make me able to walk on water. Prove that You truly are Jesus.” In other words, if Peter’s faith were stronger, he’d have stayed in the boat and believed that it was Jesus who was coming to him.
O. Wesley Allen, Jr. tells of a visit he made to the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. He says, “At one point early in the tour, you get to walk into an old, restored bus from Montgomery, Alabama. Holding onto the cold, metal rail and climbing up those rubber-padded steps at the front of the bus, I was filled with pride and shame at the same time. Being there seemed an appropriate way to honor those African Americans who boycotted the bus system over 70 years ago in my home state, but I also remembered how people with my skin color treated those people of their skin color back in those days.
“Anyway, I sat there in that ordinary, smelly ol’ bus and noticed a button you can push. There are buttons all over the museum that start recordings about this or that. So, I pushed this one and waited to hear a narration about Rosa Parks and the boycott start up. But instead, a voice from the front of the bus somewhat politely (well, only somewhat) told me to move to the back of the bus to make room for others who were getting on. A second later the voice was louder, angrier, full of disrespect and hatred, ordering me to get to the back. Another second later the voice was shouting, calling me names, and threatening that if I did not move now, the police would be called and cart my sorry carcass off to jail.
“And sitting there in that museum bus, with nothing but a tape recorder yelling at me and a memory of those who found strength in God to say, “No more!” to suffering, injustice, and oppression, I understood the difference between ‘doing justice’ and ‘making justice happen.’ And at that very moment, I also remembered what that uncomfortable seat felt like – it felt just a little bit like what a church pew is supposed to feel like.”
So, if you and I want to discover any message for ourselves in Matthew’s gospel story, it isn’t: “If we have enough faith, we will be able to do things as miraculous as Jesus did.” No. Instead, it is believing that, despite the battering our own lives take and how much deep water we find ourselves in, Christ comes to us, where we live, in what’s happening to us, as we live and are part of the worshiping community.
Don’t we sometimes feel as if we are living in a storm, where navigation is risky and trouble comes in waves? In such times, the last thing we may expect is to see Jesus coming toward us. Even if we sense what might be His presence, we may, like Peter, want to ask Him—if it really is Him—to let us miraculously walk away from our problems.
We seldom get that kind of solution, however. Matthew the meticulous might tell us it’s better to ask Christ to join us in our shaky crafts, on the stormy seas of life. If we trust Him to sail with us and show us how to deal with the waves that batter our ship, He’ll help us land safely on heaven’s shore.