Little Faith

Matthew’s favorite apostle is Peter, and Matthew’s favorite description of the apostles’ faith before Jesus’ resurrection is “little faith.” In Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on the water, Peter serves as the exemplar of “little faith.” Whereas Mark at times portrays the apostles as having no faith at all, Matthew upgrades their image somewhat. A little faith is not perfect faith, but it is better than none at all.

Jesus walking on the water should not be regarded as simply a stunt or a magic trick. Rather, it has a deep ancient Near Eastern background. One of the ways in which people in the biblical world imagined the creation was through the image of the highest or most powerful god imposing order on the chaos represented by the wild activity of the sea. A recurrent image for the creation in the Old Testament and other ancient Near Eastern writings was God walking on the sea, thus manifesting his power and control. When Jesus walks on the water, he is doing what God does.

Only Matthew interrupts the narrative of Jesus walking on the water with an account of Peter’s attempt to do so as well. As a kind of test to determine whether it really is Jesus, Peter challenges Jesus to command him to walk on the water. At first Peter succeeds. But then he becomes frightened and flounders. He calls out in prayer, “Lord, save me!” and needs to be rescued. Jesus reprimands him: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Matthew presents Peter as one of the first disciples, names him first on his list of the Twelve, makes him spokesman for Jesus’ followers and relates Jesus’ promise to make Peter the “rock” on which the church will be built. Nevertheless, Matthew does not flinch from showing the weaker side of Peter, as he fails to understand much of Jesus’ teaching, refuses to accept the predictions of the passion and deserts Jesus in the passion narrative.

For Peter to get out of the boat and start walking took faith, courage and hope. But eventually Peter let his fears and self-centeredness get the better of him. Because Peter lacked perfect faith (something he comes to exemplify after Easter), his faith grew weak and so he floundered.

The term “little faith” is probably an appropriate description of most of us. While we may be sincere in our faith and try always to trust in God’s care for us, too often we let our problems and fears get the better of us. We need to learn, as Peter did, that the Lord is still there for us, ready to hear our prayer and stretch out a saving hand.

Today’s selection from Romans 9 begins Paul’s long meditation on the place of Jewish Christians like himself in God’s plan, how non-Jews could become part of God’s people and why not all Israel accepted the Gospel. At the outset Paul lists Israel’s privileges and prerogatives in salvation history and affirms his continuing allegiance to Israel as God’s people.

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