That Sinking Feeling

Peter is more prominent in Matthew than in any other Gospel. Along with Mt. 16:16-19 (the promise to Peter) and 17:24-27 (the temple tax), today’s Gospel is one of three distinctive Petrine episodes. Throughout these, Peter’s faith is a gift from God that is tested by suffering and doubt, only to be strengthened by Jesus. Like many of Jesus’ most striking acts of power, today’s story is a “sea rescue” narrative (see Mt. 8:23-27 and Jn. 6:16-21), which also reflects the Old Testament motif of God as one who controls the power of the raging sea and the chaos monsters that lurk there (Ps. 42:7-8; 65:7-8; 89:8-9; 107:23-32).

 

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Matthew appends the Petrine incident to his Markan source (Mk. 6:45-52). Jesus appears to the storm-tossed disciples with the words, “Take courage, it is I” (Greek, ego eimi, the divine revelatory formula); “do not be afraid.” With typical bravado, Peter tests Jesus, saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Leaving the boat, Peter immediately sinks, only to cry out, “Save me!” This Jesus does, while rebuking him for his little faith, which then evokes Peter’s confession, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Though Catholics naturally think of Peter as “the first bishop of Rome,” and the pope as “the vicar of Peter,” in Matthew he is a model for all of Christ’s followers. He is called by Christ but suffers from uncertainty and doubt throughout his life, only to fail and deny Jesus during the Passion. Yet at each stage he is rescued or strengthened by Jesus and, in contrast to Mark, is one of the disciples to whom the risen Jesus appears. Far from being a symbol of certainty and unyielding fidelity, Peter in Matthew is a symbol for a pilgrim church that often misunderstands Jesus, struggles with doubt, often with “little faith,” and even abandons Jesus in time of trial. Yet Jesus appears with the words “Fear not,” a message that the present successor to Peter, Pope John Paul II, uttered when elected and that he continues to proclaim.

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