Matthew 14:22-36—Walking on Water
Jesus’ walking on the water in Matthew 14:22-36 is connected to an earlier episode of the gospel in which Jesus calms a storm (8:18-34). The calming of the storm is not concerned with the conditions of the water but of the cosmos. Throughout the bible the sea often stands as a symbol of the powers of evil in combat with God. Yahweh is shown to be in battle with sea monsters while creating and saving the world (Job 26:12-13). Matthew presents Jesus’ action as a cosmic battle with evil. The Greek word translated “windstorm” in 8:24 really means “earthquake.” Matthew is associating this miracle with the shaking of the foundations of the world. Jesus’ calming of the storm symbolizes his cosmic victory over evil which comes about through his resurrection.
Jesus’ relationship to his disciples is emphasized in the story. They follow him into the boat, into the struggle with evil (8:23). Their call to the sleeping Jesus echoes the words in Psalm 44:23, “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!” Their words have become a prayer. Matthew intends that his community see themselves in the boat voicing their fears to the risen Lord. We should place ourselves in the boat as well, so that in our struggle with evil we can hear Jesus’ response: “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”
In Matthew 14:22-36 Jesus walks on the water. As in chapter 8, the sea represents the power of chaos which Jesus combats and will defeat. In Matt 8:23-27 Jesus was asleep in the boat. In this narrative Jesus comes to his disciples across the water. He says, “It is I” (14:27) which reflects the divine name of God from Exod 3:14, “I am he.” Just as God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jesus saves his disciples from harm.
Matthew draws this scene from Mark 6:45-52. But he enlarges the story by adding an episode about Peter. This is the first of a number of incidents concerning Peter which are only found in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew inserts much of this material into Book Four because the church is the central topic of this book and Peter plays a key role in the church.
Peter acts as the representative of what belonging to the church means. He knows that he is called to follow Christ. So when he sees Jesus walking on the water, he asks permission to do the same (verse 28). Yet Peter is not a perfect disciple. When he sees the strength of the storm he doubts and begins to sink. Jesus pulls him up and uses Matthew’s gentle rebuke to failing disciples “You of little faith” (14:31).
Through Peter, Matthew has shown us what it is to be a disciple. We will doubt and will need to be pulled up by Jesus time and again. But we also share in the dignity and power of Jesus. When united to the risen Lord, we too can walk on water.